Bad guys in movies used to come to sticky ends, in a bloody hammering of bullets or falling off tall buildings. Now, they disintegrate in an accelerating loss of pixels, becoming blue grey smoke and then nothing. It happens to the expendable characters who meet aliens or wizards too – a death ray and they’re vaporised.
At the end of Captain America (stop reading if you intend to see it and still expect supervillains to survive Hollywood) the Nazi who’s worse than the Nazis is erased by the Viking powers he’s misused. His image starts to flake away – still causing him the excruciating pain that is the just end of an evildoer – until there’s just a space where he used to be. It’s the same in Harry Potter, Dr Who and any number of other fantasy scenarios.
Of course, this couldn’t happen without the latest generation of CGI special effects. But you have to desire something to imagine it. Why does Hollywood want, and think we want, this form of unreal end, this depixelation?
Does it expresses a diminishing confidence in our biological integrity? Science is busily unpicking not just the human genome but with it ideas of what it is to be human. Not many of us understand cloning, biopiracy or nanotechnology. They just make the Borg and the Cybermen seem less of a fantasy than they did.
Biology is disintegrating and with it what we thought we were. Not even celluloid now, we’re digital images whose unstable identities can be reorganised into another form or spin forever like Philip Pullman’s dust. Plus, there are no inconvenient bodies to dispose of. Shakespeare’s tragedies end with the survivors ankle-deep in corpses. We just want to move on. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Pixel to pixel.