Before we leave behind Man of Steel forever in the annals of history’s timely entertainments, I would like to address a particular strain of criticism I encountered in regards to this film. Perhaps you encountered it, too: the notion that Man of Steel utilizes imagery reminiscent of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The idea goes like this. When the city of Metropolis falls into peril and buildings start falling down (don’t tell me that’s a spoiler), the representation of these falling buildings and the struggles to survive by people in office buildings evoked in some audience members memories of 9/11/2001. I didn’t notice this phenomenon in my viewing, but for others it proved a prominent distraction. Some critics reported this experience along with some mild queasiness about a Superman movie calling on such a darkly powerful reference. Some went so far as to call this aesthetic element exploitative and disrespectful.
While I like that these critics took a super hero movie so seriously as to take offense, I’m disappointed that the conversation stopped with the idea that disturbing imagery is bad. Should Man of Steel not have depicted collapsing buildings as it did? What should it have done? Would we mind less if the city’s bridges had been destroyed as in The Dark Knight Rises? And should we not mind as a film’s characters face terrifying, life-threatening circumstances? Consider that the filmmakers try with all the tools at their disposal to engage the audience in the concerns of the characters. If a filmmaker knows that an aesthetic reference will instill feelings of helplessness and terror, why not employ that reference?
As I implied with that sentence about The Dark Knight Rises, our relationship with onscreen violence is highly contextual. Once, a Swiss teacher of mine told me that she didn’t understand Americans’ appetite for destruction in movies. She supposed that Americans had not had a war on their soil for over a century, so exploding buildings seemed novel and fantastic, unlike in Europe, where ruins and family histories serve as grim reminders of true devastation. She made that remark around the release of Independence Day, a movie that ecstatically (and un-controversially) detonated the White House. Judging from the three films this year in which terrorists lay siege to the White House, we still don’t mind reenactment of a national scar dating to the War of 1812, but cascading towers hits too close to home.
I can understand this distinction, but can’t be satisfied with it. Even if our personal horrors will shake us the most, we should have an awareness about the greater dimensions of tragedy in the human experience. That is to say, if Man of Steel’s September 11th imagery gives us pause, maybe we should also reflect on the tsunami imagery of Pacific Rim. We should question the Nazi imagery of Star Wars. We should definitely take note of the role of genocide in the story of Kung Fu Panda 2. We must expand our circle of empathy beyond our shores.
Until we do, we allow ourselves an excess of callousness, munching on popcorn to the tune of someone else’s nightmares.