28 Jun 2013 10:11 am

What a Symphony of Destruction Means for Superhero Films

"Man of Steel" has taken a lot of heat over the past couple of weeks, making it perhaps one of the most polarizing superhero flicks of recent memories. But one of the most consistent charges levied against "Man of Steel" comes from the climatic brawl between Superman and General Zod throughout Metropolis. The titanic battle all but devastates a large portion of the city, begging the question from both "Chronicle" writer Max Landis (warning - foul language) and "Thor" writer Zach Stentz - are today's superheroes saving cities or destroying them?

Now, it's important to note this discussion applies exclusively to superhero films. Landis himself mentions it's different when watching a disaster film - like "Independence Day" or "2012" - where the focus is on an external force (natural or supernatural) causing property damage on a massive scale. But superheroes are supposed to save the city. Yet cities get shredded in movies like "Man of Steel" and even "Avengers", leading to a particularly confusing message, especially in a post-9/11 world.

First off, we have to understand this is a trope. It's a common element used by writers again and again, going back thousands of years - to the days of Troy and Atlantis. Like most tropes, it is not inherently good or bad - it's all a matter of how the trope is used. As with Troy and Atlantis, the key is consequences. What happened to those cities was a matter of choices and consequences - in this case angering the gods. But aside from being a hero, Superman doesn't make any choice which leads directly the rumble in Metropolis, yet he is a party of the hurricane-force battle which happens next. And afterward, there's no sense of consequence, no view of the demolished city or tally of the human cost.

A lot has been made that the upcoming "Agents of SHIELD" doesn't have any superheroes in it, viewed by some critics as a weakness. But what gives me hope is that "Agents of SHIELD" is set after the climatic events of "Avengers". This has the potential to give a much-needed epilogue to "Avengers", as very-human characters working in the intelligence community have to deal with a world of super-soldiers and Norse gods. And the main character - the very-human Phil Coulson - has to deal directly with the choices he made during the events of the film.

I'm not sure if "Agents of SHIELD" will live up to this promise, but if "Man of Steel" wants to stop taking heat, it should esteem to follow this path. How will the citizens react to Superman after he's totaled their city? Will they still treat him as the familiar model of Truth, Justice and the American Way when his fight to save Earth ravaged both Metropolis and the main street of Smallville? And perhaps most promising, just who is going to step up to repair all the damage Superman and Zod caused? (I have my suspicions - his initials are LL, and he owns a lot of real estate in Metropolis).

The most dire of consequences for "Man of Steel" is absolutely none at all. Look at the "Transformers" films. Like "Man of Steel", cities find themselves the literal stomping grounds, this time for warring factions of alien robots. Consequences from film to film are few and far between. Heck, the second movie operated under the assumption the American public was in the dark about the existence of the Transformers, despite the giant robots fighting in broad daylight in the middle of a city during the climax of the first film!

Ultimately, it all comes down to a manner of choices. Like Max Landis says, Superman will always make the right choice . . . which is ultimately why his participation in a fight which reduces Metropolis to a near-post-apocalyptic wasteland rings false in the end. What consequences Superman will face in the sequel are ultimately the kind which will help the Man of Steel to bend - not break.

(That's it for this rant. Stay tuned for news on Blue Yonder very soon!)

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