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