Mass movie casualties are nothing new certainly, disaster flicks have been killing scores of anonymous people for decades, but the ever-upping ante has made it increasingly difficult to enjoy these blockbuster spectacles. In discussing the recurring 9/11 imagery in action films, Vulture's Kyle Buchanan brought up a broader worry that has been rattling around in my head for a while: There's an awful lot of senseless death in blockbuster movies these days, with little acknowledgement of all the human collateral damage after things have settled.
(Warning: This post contains spoilers about Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness.)
Buchanan's well-taken point is that summer blockbusters, particularly those involving superheroes and/or giant robots, are far too willing to invoke the memory of 9/11 with huge city-destroying set pieces. Buchanan is right that these ever-escalating 9/11 pastiches are "lazy" "cheap" and "deadening." The big final battle in the lugubrious new Superman movie manages to be both a cynical reference to the horrors of 2001 and completely devoid of substance or meaning. The 9/11 allusions are now so commonplace that they've become more boring than they are upsetting. This is an ugly trend that should, as Buchanan argues, be put to a stop.
But it's not just the specific reminders of the tragedy and fear of that one day. There's also a generality and an ease to the violence that is increasingly troubling. The Metropolis attack in Man of Steel, which involves an alien machine utterly decimating tens of city blocks, would presumably have killed tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people. But there is barely any moment of pause, really no time is spent on reflection, let alone horror. Instead Lois and Clark kiss and then, oops, we're back to one final building-crashing fight. There's a casual carelessness toward these virtual lives that's a bit startling, even though we've seen so much of it of late.
Was Star Trek: Into Darkness's partial annihilation of San Francisco, with an aircraft hurtling into a building no less, really necessary? Must all those people have been blown up at the Chinese Theater in Iron Man 3? It's almost as if filmmakers don't trust audiences to appreciate the gravity of a situation unless there's a heap of implied carnage to illustrate it. But even then that "carnage" is only sort of glancingly addressed, as if a building could be destroyed and presumably thousands of lives lost, but the minute the camera looks away, everything's fine. This strange technique, or maybe lack of technique, lessens the larger impact of the movie while still subjecting us to moments of brutal destruction. I know it would be a bummer to show 10,000 funerals in a summertime movie, but then maybe don't kill 10,000 people while people are trying to have a good time?
It's possible this is partly a problem of developed personal sensitivity. 14-year-old me didn't flinch much at the sight of a huge wave swallowing Manhattan in Deep Impact — though the scene was scary, it was thrilling, too. I watched it on TV again recently and found myself thinking "Those poor people..." as a bunch of fleeing New Yorkers were swallowed up by the wave. Truth is, I can't even watch the slasher movies I used to love as a kid anymore — what was supposed to be a fun, sorta nostalgic trip to see Scream 4 ended in me shaking my head and thinking "Those poor kids, their poor parents." Something changed with age, when senseless death started to, I don't know, make too much sense.
But clearly if other people have felt compelled to write about the unsettling escalation of movie mass destruction, there's a bigger issue in play. All of our perception has been altered by the flood of images, and for many New Yorkers actual experiences, on and after September 11, and it's unfortunate, if not terribly surprising, that filmmakers have chosen to poke at that sensitivity rather than carefully address it. But I don't think this is just post-9/11 caginess at work here. While that sensitivity is still in play, despite the dulling effects of 12 years, there's also the daily availability and immediacy of video and images of all sorts of catastrophes, both natural and man-made, to consider. With the stakes of the actual world so high and so visible, it's possible that filmmakers feel they need to compete. Or maybe they're desensitized themselves, finding nothing all that extraordinary about mass annihilation, exposed as we are to a constant onslaught of real-life horrors.
Of course, as Buchanan points out, the scale of popcorn movie death has also ballooned because, well, we can do it now. Computers make it easy to wipe out whole cities. (Not just cities, too. Metropolis gets its 9/11 moment in Man of Steel, but we also see small-town America laid to waste, conjuring up images of Joplin and Moore.) But because it's relatively easy, does that mean we should? From a moral/ethical standpoint? Probably not. But also in the more selfish and immediate narrative sense it's been harmful to the movies. What does anything mean when everything can so quickly and easily be destroyed? Pretty soon it won't be enough to wreck one town or city; the villain will have to blow up the whole world. And then where will we be?