When the World Trade towers fell on September 11, 2001, there was one refrain I heard over and over again, a common response that was both automatic and indicting: “It looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie.” More specifically, the explosions and citywide carnage resembled Armageddon, the Bay-directed action vehicle that had come out four summers prior and contained scenes of epic metropolitan mayhem that were still something of a cinematic novelty at the time. We pray that nothing on the scale of 9/11 will ever happen again, but if something actually did, we’d now have a sickening number of summer movies to compare it to. This weekend’s Man of Steel is only the latest film this year to exploit familiar 9/11 imagery in ways that are far more extreme and blatant than anything we’ve seen on the big screen before, as though Hollywood feels the need to out-9/11 itself. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.
(Mild spoilers will follow for some of this summer's movies, though nearly all the scenes referred to are gleefully touted in their trailers.)
A few weeks ago, Star Trek Into Darkness gave us the partial destruction of San Francisco, a third-act set piece that must have claimed tens of thousands of lives ... and yet that cataclysmic act is barely acknowledged afterward, serving only to clear the decks for a chase scene. Next week, you’ll get World War Z, which sets its act-one Philadelphia takedown in the early morning — like the World Trade Center attack — and finds Brad Pitt and his family running for their lives through some narrow, crowded city streets, outracing thousands of panicked citizens who are all trying to escape the attacks happening in the metropolitan core.
But neither movie’s carnage can match that of Man of Steel, which stages its climactic mayhem in the Manhattan-like Metropolis and has the most overt visual references to 9/11. Before Superman and the similarly powerful General Zod even begin their brawl, Zod has already used his alien ships to lay waste to a staggeringly large, skyscraper-dense section of Metropolis. Since Superman and Lois Lane are elsewhere, the audience stand-ins in this sequence are Lois’s editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his underling Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller), a character so minor that her name is uttered only once during the the last 30 minutes of the movie. Together, the two evacuate the Daily Planet and dodge gigantic (and presumably populated) buildings as they crumble to the ground with eerie familiarity, an uneasy attempt to milk 9/11 imagery for excitement and suspense. As towers fall in the foreground and background, sending great plumes of smoke through the crowded corridors of Metropolis, citizens race toward us in low-angle shots that are blatantly familiar. Later, Jenny’s trapped underneath a pile of rubble and decimated girders that recall Ground Zero, and both she and Perry are all but covered in ash, the sort of disastrous detail added to these kinds of movies for verisimilitude after 2001.
Later, when Superman joins the fray, the movie turns into an orgy of gratuitous building-battering as Zod and Superman punch each other through several giant high-rises. It recalls a similar Metropolis fight between those two characters in 1980’s Superman II, only there, when Superman knocks a baddie into a building — an act that sends the skyscraper's spire tumbling towards a crowd of people on the ground — Superman actually halts the fight to grab that spire before it lands, a quaint moment that still reminds us that the lives of innocent citizens are at stake. In Man of Steel, however, the superhero seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It's a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.
Such knowing, referential obliteration probably began with the apocalyptic terror of 2005’s War of the Worlds, in which Steven Spielberg at least had the decency to use the entire movie as an allegory for our feelings of post-9/11 dread and hopelessness. Since then, though, the weighty underpinnings to those scenes in War of the Worlds have fallen away as city-wrecking summer movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon seek only to up the ante from the destruction featured in whichever summer spectacular came out the year before. In last year’s The Avengers, the splintering of New York City was cause for lighthearted super-banter. Only one bittersweet nod to our post-9/11 outlook remains: Action heroes used to prevent disasters, but now, they can only avenge them.
Yet 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.
It’s not until the very end of Man of Steel’s third-act battle, where the stakes grow smaller and much more intimate, that Superman truly seems to become emotional about the lives in danger, and that’s a moment that blockbuster filmmakers could learn a lot from: There’s no need to robotically kill faceless millions when a single character in jeopardy will always prove more galvanizing. Instead of trying to top the mayhem in Man of Steel next year — instead of continuing to mine one of the worst days in American history for a series of wowser trailer moments — can we give the pummeled buildings a break and find creative new obstacles for our heroes to overcome? Please, let’s have a summer-movie spectacle we don’t have to wince at.