This post contains MINOR SPOILERS for "Iron Man 3," "Star Trek Into Darkness," and "Man of Steel." If you want to avoid any particular section, just look for that title and skip that paragraph.
A viewer should walk out of a movie like "Man of Steel" feeling elated or, at the very least, entertained. This is a big summer blockbuster -- maybe the big summer blockbuster of 2013 -- and it's designed to dazzle us and excite us and thrill us with action, adventure, and spectacle. Even as I admired the craft that went into creating such a handsome, well-executed film, I felt none of those things from the end of the latest reinterpretation of Superman. I was less dazzled than dazed; less excited than alarmed; less thrilled than troubled by the surprising violence and destruction of "Man of Steel"'s lengthy climax.
The movie ends -- and I don't think this is a spoiler -- with a big battle in Metropolis between Superman and the forces of General Zod, a mad Kryptonian warlord. As these super-beings pummel each other, they slam into and through countless skyscrapers, toppling dozens of buildings, and wreaking even more havoc. When the dust settles, there is literally a giant, hollowed-out crater where probably five square blocks of Metropolis used to be. But beyond a few shots of crowds running from dust clouds, there's almost no acknowledgement on the part of director Zack Snyder or even on the part of Superman, the superhero who's supposedly all about saving people, that every time one of these buildings falls, hundreds more innocent bystanders die.
Walking out of "Man of Steel" I found that I loved Henry Cavill as Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Michael Shannon as Zod, and kind of disliked the movie they were in -- particularly that final hour, which is mostly a Kryptonian demolition derby. I know blockbusters are predicated on a more-is-more aesthetic, but this was just too much. Too super (man).
At Vulture, Kyle Buchanan has written an outstanding article about "Man of Steel" linking its "orgy of gratuitous building-battering" to a trend in recent blockbusters that evoke (or perhaps exploit) the imagery of 9/11. In doing so, he explains exactly why "Man of Steel" left me feeling so defeated:
"With the removal of mortality from the equation, the mayhem is just deadening; all bombast, little consequence. Zod's villainous compatriot Faora warns Superman, 'For every one of them you save, we will kill a million more:' 'A million' is such a large number -- and one so easily attained in expensive CGI-laden blockbusters these days -- that it's meaningless. A special-effects department can conjure up a million people as easily as they can one. That's why it's actually surprising in 'Fast & Furious 6' when, after the villain begins to run over innocent bystanders in his tank, Vin Diesel barks to his crew, 'Take their attention away from the people!' Characters in blockbusters these days rarely ever comment on the titanic amounts of destruction they (and we) are witnessing. We've seen buildings smashed onscreen since Godzilla trampled on Tokyo in 1954 (and I have no doubt we will again when the 'Godzilla' reboot is released next year), but now there's a coldly pornographic attention to detail that implies that the only lessons imparted by 9/11 were technical ones. It's as if more time and effort were spent on simulating a toppled skyscraper than in telling you why you should care about the people trapped in it."
Buchanan also refers to a similar scene in "Star Trek Into Darkness" where a spaceship crashes into San Francisco, obliterating Alcatraz in the blink of an eye, and knocking down who knows how many other buildings -- not to mention killing untold thousands -- before it finally comes to a stop. The key word here is untold. All of this carnage is mostly the flashy backdrop for a foot chase between the heroes and villains. They barely even notice the mass casualties all around them as they chase after one guy they want to capture in order to save a single wounded person on their ship. The Enterprise's crew succeeds, of course, but at what cost? It's hard to say because the movie barely addresses the devastation it has wrought for cheap, violent thrills (thrills it even advertised on the poster seen above; "Come watch this guy blow the shit out of these buildings!"). I guess the needs of the many really don't outweigh the needs of the few.
I left "Iron Man 3" with a similar feeling of unease. While Tony Stark, James Rhodes, and Pepper Potts are fighting the Mandarin in the big final battle, the Mandarin's forces are duking it out with dozens of Tony Stark's remote-controlled suits. Much of the early portions of "Iron Man 3" are about Tony Stark investigating a mystery; bombs that leave no shrapnel or evidence. Eventually, he realizes that the Mandarin is outfitting former U.S. combat soldiers with "Extremis" technology that turns them into human bombs. The "bombers" themselves are victims; test subjects who've been mutated against their will by the Mandarin's mad scientists. Stark even goes out of his way to tell the widow of one of the bombers that he wasn't a bad guy, and that the deaths he caused weren't his fault.
Clearly, these bombers weren't murderers -- and as we see at the end of the film, Tony Stark has the technology to turn them back into normal human beings. But what happens during the big climax? He tells his A.I. to target and destroy the Extremis enhanced thugs; and not just to target them, but to take them out "with extreme prejudice." Not "Try to keep the casualties to a minimum," not "These guys are still human somewhere deep down inside, let's save as many as we can." "Target with extreme prejudice." And as the primary protagonists and antagonists duke it out in the foreground, the background is filled with laser blasts and explosions -- presumably of Iron Man suits terminating these poor Extremis guys.
The night before Buchanan's piece was published I was talking privately with a colleague who'd also seen "Man of Steel." We were comparing our reactions and I told him how uncomfortable the end of the film made me. He suggested that its oblivious attitude to collateral damage might have something to do with its rating. "It's PG-13," he noted. "I don't think we actually saw that many people die on screen; just thousands upon thousands upon thousands of implied deaths."
He's absolutely correct. But isn't the callous disregard for human life -- and the thoughtless use of wholesale (implied) death and destruction for entertainment -- just as disturbing as the actual consequences of violence and mayhem? Just because you didn't literally show me the people trapped in those collapsing structures doesn't mean they're not there. This is a very strange and very problematic quirk of the MPAA ratings system. Kill thousands of people, but do it off-screen. Level half a city, but show none of the dead bodies almost certainly buried beneath that half a city. Then you get a PG-13.
What would have happened if Iron Man had paused to consider the deaths he'd caused (or if these Extremis guys actually left behind some human remains)? What if Spock stopped his chase to assist someone injured by debris, and they were bleeding or had lost a limb? Or if Superman had pulled a dead victim from the wreckage of one of those skyscrapers? Would those scenes warrant R ratings? And if so, do the peculiarities of the PG-13 actually make these heroes less heroic? If they stop and help, they see things that keep kids out of movies. So instead they fly on, unconcerned for the bloodshed.
It's almost like they're not allowed to care. For a character like Superman, who wears a symbol on his chest that supposedly represents hope, that's kind of a problem. The only thing I walked out of "Man of Steel" hopeful for was a sequel where Metropolis doesn't get completely eradicated.