In Man of Steel, Metropolis sure takes a pounding. Building after building after building gets a super-person thrown through it. Many collapse. Superman fought the same villain — General Zod (and cohort) — in Superman 2 (1981), including a battle in Times Square, but the worst property damage there was a smashed neon Coke billboard.
Plenty of blockbusters these days feature destroyed buildings and malevolent alien invaders. Here’s why: 9/11.
Movies that are blatantly about the Sept 11th attacks (25th Hour, World Trade Center, United 93) flopped, or only made a modest profit. Same with movies about conflicts in the Middle East (Jarhead, The Kingdom, Rendition, Syriana, The Hurt Locker). Same with movies that present the brokenness of the current system (Fair Game, W., Margin Call, Silver City, Lions for Lambs). The only exception I can think of is Zero Dark Thirty.
Movie audiences don’t seem to want a blatant confrontation with the troubles of the world when they sit down with a tub of popcorn. But give it to them disguised and it draws them right in.
The Avengers (2012) involves a sneak attack (by aliens) on New York City, and again — many, many buildings take a brutal pounding. Star Trek Into Darkness climaxes with a ship being flown into Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco, and many other buildings are levelled as well.
Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down both involve surprise attacks on the White House.
Man of Steel diverts us from the super-person battle to show us the staff of the Daily Planet standing on the street, staring in horror as a skyscraper topples. Editor Perry White tries to free a female staff member — a character we only meet in that scene — caught in the rubble.
Cloverfield (2008) is told from the point of view of a small group of friends trying to stay alive when a giant alien monster attacks Manhattan. They run through the streets and subway tunnels, not knowing what’s happening, why New York has been attacked, or how the government is retaliating.
Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds (2005) similarly centres on a confused and frightened father trying to leave New York and keep his kids alive in the wake of a senseless and sudden alien attack.
TV shows and comics are covering some of this territory too. Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009) starts with a surprise attack by androids indistinguishable from humans. Marvel Comics’ 2008 mini-series and cross-over event Secret Invasion involved a sudden attack from a race of shape-changing aliens. Both play up the fears of a post 9/11 US, where anyone could be a terrorist, or allied with them. And in both stories, the villains are religious fundamentalists.
In DC Comics, Lex Luthor became president in the 2000 election. In the Marvel Universe, Norman Osborn — a seemingly reformed Green Goblin — became America’s top law enforcement agent in 2007, his reign ending when he embarked on an unnecessary pre-emptive war against a non-threat.
There are more examples: Tony Stark becoming Iron Man (2008) in an Afghan cave and soon renouncing his pro-military ways, Batman using privacy invading technology to catch the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), the copious zombie fiction that predicts the imminent decimation of human civilization. There will be more.
As easy as it is to dismiss these works as mere entertainment, their widespread popularity is revealing. They show that the collective shell shock of Sept 11th hasn’t fully dissipated. They point to just how pervasive the sense has become that Rome is burning.