Does ‘Man of Steel’ Exploit Disasters Like 9/11?

CRIX ON PIX: Variety reviewers sift through the wreckage of Zack Snyder's Superman reboot and other post-9/11 blockbusters.

Man of Steel

SPOILER ALERT: This discussion reveals key plot details from “Man of Steel.”

JUSTIN CHANG: Several weeks ago, writing about “Iron Man 3” in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis noted that the film, with its bombastic explosions and references to terrorism, underscored “just how thoroughly Sept. 11 and its aftermath have been colonized by the movies.” A similar thought occurred to me repeatedly during the last hour or so of Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” which, as our colleague Scott Foundas pointed out in his review, strongly resembles the likes of “The Avengers” and “Transformers” in its cinematic shock-and-awe. I’d say Snyder goes even further than those movies in the way he channels the specific terror and chaos of 9/11; you see it in those brief scenes of small planes hitting skyscrapers, and in the lingering shots of ash-covered Metropolitans being pulled, traumatized but hopeful, from the rubble.

As I noted about two years ago, when we were reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, any contemporary American blockbuster offering up a spectacle of mass destruction is a 9/11 movie. Whether casually evocative or deliberately allusive, such imagery cannot help but bear the psychic residue of our greatest national catastrophe. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Given that “Man of Steel” was produced by Christopher Nolan, I had hoped that it might have some of the integrity of his “Dark Knight” trilogy, which I find commendably grave and serious-minded in the way it dramatizes the impact of violence in the modern city.

Alas, no: The best that can be said of “Man of Steel’s” noisy but oddly inconsequential third act is that it feels less like annihilation porn than like a basic failure of imagination. It’s a failure that seeps into the rest of the picture as well, particularly the jerky flashback structure devised by screenwriter David S. Goyer as a means of fleshing out Clark/Kal-El’s early years; the key formative moments are conceived along such rotely traumatic lines, they don’t feel like revelations so much as setpieces. Watching them, you don’t get the sense that Snyder cares much for the human factor when it comes to his characters, whether it’s Superman or all those screaming, fleeing city-dwellers.

PETER DEBRUGE: I went back for a second viewing of “Man of Steel” this weekend, this time at the drive-in — not because I love the film, mind you, but because I was so bored by it the first time around that I actually dozed off several times, and I wanted to fill in the story gaps I thought I might have missed. Turns out, Zack Snyder actually made the movie that way.

Your 9/11 comment intrigues me, since I was also jarred by the way Snyder chose to depict destruction. There’s a sequence in which he cycles through a series of street-level closeups, showing the faces of random Metropolis citizens (whom we all read as New Yorkers, obviously) moments before a huge space laser starts destroying skyscrapers. In the montage that follows, Snyder observes as those same characters flee from the clouds of dust and rubble billowing down city streets. From the expressions on the extras’ faces to the ground-level view of such a cataclysm, these images directly reference/rip off the footage captured — and endlessly repeated on-air — by news crews following the collapse of the World Trade Center.

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That said, I’m not so sure Hollywood is making a conscious connection (“The Dark Knight Rises” being an obvious — and personally upsetting — exception). If anything, 9/11 seems to have been a real-world hiccup for Hollywood, temporarily interrupting studios’ insatiable appetite for destruction. Studios were on a roll before the World Trade Center disaster, harnessing the power of CG to blow stuff up real good in spectacle-driven movies like “Twister,” “Titanic” and “Armageddon.” Remember, audiences thrilled at the sight of the White House being destroyed in “Independence Day,” and now, a dozen years later, studios have evidently lifted the sensitivity ban, destroying the Oval Office again in both “Olympus Has Fallen” and the upcoming “White House Down.”

On a similar note, “Man of Steel” features a ridiculous scene in which Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) rushes back into a whirling CG twister, sacrificing himself to rescue the family dog. It’s designed as a pivotal moment in Clark’s life, in which his cry of agony represents both the loss of his adoptive father and the fact that he had to suppress the superpowers that would have allowed him to save dad.

I hate this scene and imagine that many are deeply traumatized by its appearance in a film so soon after the devastating Oklahoma tornado. Some filmmakers are quite savvy about what you referred to as our “psychic residue” — consider the way both Clint Eastwood and J.A. Bayona dealt with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in their films “Hereafter” and “The Impossible,” respectively. They presented such powerful story moments anticipating the way we bring our own emotional reactions to everything from shared traumas (like 9/11 or May’s Moore tornado) to personal tragedies (many moviegoers have lost parents, so scenes like this play on our psychic residue as well). Others, such as Snyder, simply peddle mass destruction as the ultimate form of entertainment, reveling in how much more bang they can get for their CG buck these days.

CHANG: To your list of Eastwood and Bayona, I would add David Fincher for the exquisite way he handled Hurricane Katrina in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — a beautifully understated gesture that transmuted a wondrous tall tale into something hauntingly immediate and specific. (Topicality need not always be heavy-handed.) Bringing the discussion back around to comicbook movies, I’d also single out Bryan Singer, less for 2006’s “Superman Returns” than for his terrific “X-Men” movies, in which he chose to evoke the Holocaust and was criticized in some quarters for doing so. Tasteless? Exploitative? Only if you dwell under the illusion that our global catastrophes haven’t irrevocably shaped our collective fantasies, or that genre cinema exists in an ahistorical vacuum devoid of racism, fascism and homophobia, to name a few issues that Singer was clearly and quite meaningfully addressing.

Peter, you wrote that you found “The Dark Knight Rises” personally upsetting. We know I’m much more of an admirer of Nolan’s work than you are, and for me, his willingness to touch on some of the fears and anxieties we associate with 9/11 is a credit to him as an artist. I’d say something similar of Steven Spielberg, whose grim, harrowing “War of the Worlds” remains one of the great apocalyptic thrillers of recent years. What I’m saying is that, in the right hands, I don’t mind being terrorized a little by a director who knows what he or she is doing, and that our reactions to this kind of emotional assault can and should be complicated; anger, awe, admiration and indignation are all valid and appropriate responses. Far better for an artist to inspire potent, even painful emotions than to leave you feeling cold and indifferent, which is essentially how I felt at the end of “Man of Steel.”

SEE ALSO: “Man of Steel” – Film Review

I’d like to draw a meaningful critical distinction between what Nolan did with his Batman trilogy and what Snyder fails to do here. The devastation in “The Dark Knight Rises” is cataclysmic but human-scaled; at no point are we invited to take an unseemly thrill in the siege of Gotham City (which is as much a surrogate Manhattan as Metropolis is). Nolan doesn’t deluge us with theater-rattling explosions and collapsing buildings; he doesn’t pitch the chaos at a level where all moral and dramatic meaning is effectively obliterated in favor of spectacle for its own sake. I get that there are aspects of his 9/11-style scenario that feel brazen and problematic, but there’s realism and soulfulness in it, too — qualities that are underscored by his refusal of CG excess in favor of old-school physical effects, actual mid-air stunts, etc. This is big-scale epic filmmaking in touch with its humanity as well as the spirit of classic Hollywood. The big-bang finish of “Man of Steel,” by contrast, seems very much part of the empty, business-as-usual paradigm in superhero cinema.

DEBRUGE: “The Dark Knight Rises” left me with a very different impression, and I think the fact that Nolan chose Bane’s terror attack on the football game as one of the sequences to shoot in theater-rattling Imax 3D (I admit to not devouring all the behind-the-scenes extras on that film, but it sure looked like a case of CG excess to me) demonstrates that he was selling the spectacle of devastation right alongside whatever commentary he may have been offering on our collective post-9/11 fears and anxieties. I found that sequence to be in very poor taste for the way it reveled in destruction and mass loss of life, for the way it used the device of a child singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a form of dramatic irony — foreplay, even — as giddy audiences anticipated the explosions in store.

Is Nolan a better filmmaker than Snyder? Absolutely. But I sense his fingerprints all over “Man of Steel,” which suffers from that same unearned self-importance as the recent Batman trilogy, that near-terminal lack of levity and the transparent strategy of over-compensating via sound effects and Hans Zimmer-orchestrated bombast what the films lack in substance. It doesn’t help that Superman ranks among the most vanilla of the major superheroes. Between his near invincibility and goody-goody personality, he simply doesn’t embody those qualities that make other comicbook characters (most of whom are fallible humans saddled with extraordinary responsibility) so relatable. There are many levels on which I reject Snyder’s approach to “Man of Steel,” but the most fundamental is the way he fails to foster identification with the character. His Superman is a god — more tortured than most, probably owing to Nolan’s influence, but ultimately an iconic figure who descends from above and must decide whether to reveal his true identity to mankind.

The strategy to humanizing a mass tragedy, whether it’s a natural disaster or a supernatural alien force attempting to alter earth’s atmosphere by positioning twin beams on opposite poles, is to relate the experience from the perspective of individuals on the ground. It’s not enough to insert shots of anonymous Metropolis citizens the way Snyder does (reminding me, more than anything, of those pseudo-Rockwellian shots of average folks watching Japanese Zeros fly over in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor”). One must give audiences a vicarious experience, allow us to feel what those characters are going through — something that “War of the Worlds” and all those successful examples we mentioned do so well, framing the stories through an individual’s eyes. That’s how we know “Man of Steel” isn’t seriously engaged with the consequences of its own destruction.

Have you seen “Man of Steel”? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.