The distinction is thus expressed simply in terms of sets. Gratituous violence can be seen as a specific subset of explicit violence, one which divorces itself from any significance and embraces superficiality. Such a piece of media is exemplified by a film like Saw, or any other horror film in that vein,in which the appeal is in the violence itself as much as the narrative around it. Such works can be enjoyable, but the violence within them is quite specifically gratituous. By contrast, a film like A Clockwork Orange is violent to the point of being difficult to watch, and follows for a portion of its action an unrepentant and sadistic protagonist. Yet the violence is not gratituous at all; it is all carefully made a part of the story and justified. Indeed, the story relies on establishing Alex’s extreme violent tendencies with specific examples that are all then reversed in its second half.
While the examples used in the above introduction are extremes, the concept of explicit and brutal violence having a purpose beyond simple excitement or horror – and thus not being gratituous – can be applied to more everyday media. The animated series Black Lagoon begins with what looks like action-film gratituous violence, a foul-mouthed heroine and a crew of misfits wreaking havoc with heavy weapons on villainous mercenaries. It could easily be The Expendables or any similar action film. Yet the action shies away from bombastic and gratituous setpieces for the most part; an early scene of a helicopter being downed by a torpedo boat, or the vicious antiheroine Revy going wild with a grenade launcher on pursuing ships, proves not to be typical. Instead, it is these Hollywood-esque setpieces that form catharsis from the mundanity of most of the violence; much of the action simply involves clinical, militaristic killing with uninteresting firearms that has little exciting payoff.
The protagonists are simply so good at the business of killing that there is no excitement in watching it. Instead, to make them relatable, Black Lagoon sets up its antagonists as even worse – racist Neo-Nazi cults, drug dealers and gun-runners. The heroes’ violence is justified because it is being exacted upon people worse than they are. In this way, routine and explicit violence becomes a part of the story itself, not just the release of tension; rather than being a predictable chain-smoking crack shot with an acid tongue, Revy quickly comes across as simply vicious and sadistic. There is little satisfaction is many of Black Lagoon‘s gunfights for this reason; it is a series about a cast of characters well-desensitised to violence for whom it has lost almost all of its lustre, to which a naïve outsider is added who does believe in the Hollywood ideals of the action film. This is the core tension in the series – an exploration (if perhaps a limited one) of the crushing effects of desensitisation to violence on professional killers. In this way it is a little similar to the film Rambo – a story about a soldier who is betrayed by his country and resorts to efficient violence to survive. Rambo questioned the expectations of an audience of an action film and in its own way Black Lagoon asks the same questions. In this way, one can argue that even though it depicts dozens of gunfights, ship boardings, and more – and has the expected wisecracking protagonist with a massive arsenal – Black Lagoon is a much more pessimistic series than it first appears. Rock, the businessman who serves as the exact analogue of the audience, provides the voice of inexperience that makes this point particularly clear; it is a story about his delusions about violence being replaced by methodical fights to survive.
If that is thus explicit but specifically not gratituous violence, the counter-example from anime may well be Dirty Pair. Throughout the series, its protagonists bumble along causing comic mayhem, failing much of the time and succeeding when they do through pure luck. The violence is not brutal or explicit as John Rambo or Revy’s killing sprees, but it is still a constant backdrop to the stories – explosions, gunfights, car chases and more. What it is is almost entirely gratituous in how it contributes to the comedy. As I reached the end of watching the series I found the action less exciting or entertaining than the mysteries and investigations and the simple character interactions simply because it was all consequence-free knockabout stuff. The constant fighting and madness formed a background noise to the series that was almost distinct from its appeal; it was there because it needed to be. A certain amount of this was entertaining, and some of the setpieces still entertained, but the whole effect gradually became like a Call of Duty game – a constant kind of escalation of spectacle intended to simply thrill.
In its own way this was as methodical as Black Lagoon’s execution-like shootouts – yet without the thematic significance behind it of the crushing monotony of pseudorealistic murder, it did not appeal. Black Lagoon takes the routine of killing in self-defence and in limited fashion comments on the nature of being a killer. Dirty Pair, on the other hand, simply assumes that each episode requires a quota of action. This is a product of its genre and time, for sure, but nevertheless it neatly depicts the difference between gratituous violence and that which is simply explicit. Gratituous action works at its best when the media is very short; a single burst of escapism is a form of catharsis which is why video games in this vein appeal. To spin this catharsis out over an entire TV series without going significantly further shows the limitation of the medium.