Whats going on in American cinema? Where does this apparent need to one-up 9/11 come from?
Superman doesnt save many lives in his new film,Man of Steel,but he does save his own soul,and in todays cinematic superhero universe,thats whats important. After all,like Batman and Iron Man and all the other profitably rebooted comic-book saviours,Superman has psychological wounds that need tending. Clark Kent,to use the name he files his taxes under,is handsome as handsome can be,but nonetheless,he is an interplanetary alien; he has acceptance issues. As a teen,he failed to save his Earthly fathers life,and now hes found out that his home planet went KABOOM! Its a lot for a guy to process,so dont be demanding. Holler Save me,Superman! if you must,but know this: hes probably not coming. Youre on your own.
In the first 20 minutes of Man of Steel,Supermans mother gives birth on the planet Krypton,which is literally caving in on itself. The little tyke is dubbed Kal-El (his father is Jor-El) and promptly placed,naked as a jay bird,inside a space ship bound for Earth. Make a better world than ours,Kal-El, his mother whispers as she watches the ship take her son away. Her wish is one any mother,from any universe,can identify with,but at films end,one cant help but wonder: Does Kal-El/ Clark Kent/ Superman actually make Earth a better place? Or does he fail rather miserably?
Consider the ratio of lives saved versus lives lost. In the first third of the film,young Clark (Dylan Sprayberry) saves his grade-school classmates after a bus accident. Later,wandering the world in search of himself,an older,sadder (yet hunkier) Clark (Henry Cavill) saves a dozen oil rig workers from certain incineration. Not long after,he encounters the ghost of his dead father (Russell Crowe),who gives him the lowdown on his Kryptonian history,his moral duties,and most importantly,sends him out wearing a gorgeous superhero suit,which comes with a red cape that flaps quite magnificently in the wind. He looks like a Hero alright,but sadly,the filmmakers promptly lose interest in the saving-imperilled-humans part of Supermans mission statement.
We are told,by reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that Superman has been saving people left and right,but we dont actually see those rescues. If this Superman does something as quaint as gliding down from the sky and handing a little girl her lost kitten (as Christopher Reeve does in the 1978 Superman),director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are way too cool to show it.
Instead,they send their man to war with Jor-Els nemesis,General Zod (Michael Shannon),whos come from deep space to kidnap (or kill) Superman and use his DNA to recreate Krypton. Zod and his henchmen (and fierce henchgirl) confront Clark in his hometown,the lovely Smallville,Kansas. Here is the quintessential American town,built on a foundation of church,family,and love of country. This is Superman central. And it gets blown to smithereens by Zod,who hurls an unprepared Superman through storefront after storefront. The US army does its part to wipe out the town too,sending rockets down Main Street,and later crashing a fighter jet into the town square. Crash! Boom!
As the battle began,Superman dutifully ordered Smallvilles citizens to hide in the towns shops,but since those very same stores are left in tatters,one has to assume there are casualties beneath the rubble. Lots of them. Without so much as a regretful backward glance at the crater that was his home,Superman flies off to the city of Metropolis for Round Two,a sequence that goes on for 40 mind-numbingly destructive minutes.
Building by building,block by block,the duelling Superman and Zod,aided by Zods space gun,send skyscrapers tumbling. They fall straight down,as if someone had pulled out the bottom domino,and sometimes they fall over on their side,in one solid mass. Wheee! The people of Metropolis run for their lives,as giant dust clouds chase them down narrow city blocks. Sound familiar? Later,Zods space-gun spaceship cuts half a dozen buildings in two as it whirls to the ground.
Whats going on in American cinema? Where does this apparent need,however unconscious,to one-up 9/11 come from? And why do we keep watching? In the latest Star Trek film,director J.J. Abrams grand climax doesnt take place in deep space. It occurs in San Francisco,whose beautiful buildings are sliced and diced. Casualties? Shhh. Youre not supposed to ask. This is entertainment!
At the end of Man of Steel,after Superman (finally) triumphs over Zod,Snyder shows the decimated skyline of Metropolis,but hes clearly not worried about collateral damage. Hes out of time,and Superman still needs to kiss the girl. And besides,innocents never die on Supermans watch,do they?
Wilson lives in Los Angeles and writes on film for L.A. Weekly and The Village Voice