Man of Steel trigger warnings (spoilers below)on June 28, 2013 at 7:11 pm
I tend to ramble, so if you want something more succinct scroll down and read Robert’s thoughts.
I really urge everyone not to go and see Man of Steel, especially if you are likely to be triggered by strong 9/11 imagery. I feel like a real idiot typing that, because people getting upset at movies reminding them of 9/11 usually really annoys me, but there it is. That’s how much this movie offended and upset me.
It was the fact that it came out of nowhere. One second I’m watching Superman punch General Zod into a satellite or something. But then the next second I’m suddenly watching people trying to run from a dust cloud coming down a street between skyscrapers, trapped as they get engulfed by the debris, while a building collapses downwards behind them. We also see a spaceship crash into a skyscraper and it goes down just like the World Trade Centre tower. I still remember watching the attacks on tv and the footage is burned into my brain permanently. I was inwardly laughing at the movie until this point but I stopped laughing here.
I’m kind of surprised how much this whole thing – in the social-justice-blogger sense of the word – triggered me. I am a British man living in Australia and while I almost lost my uncle – he left the tower an hour or so before the planes hit – there are plenty of people with way more personal stories than me connected to that event. I was so uncomfortable in the cinema and I actually got up and left before the end. My hands were shaking and my head swam a bit, and I really didn’t expect to feel that way. Like I said, I would never have guessed that this kind of thing would have that effect on me, but I guess it’s because it was so unexpected. I can easily imagine that someone with a much closer connection could be triggered far more severely.
Because really, who expects this sort of thing from a fucking Superman movie? I was expecting a dark superhero/sci-fi film and for the most part that’s what I got (the film was really bad but that’s not the problem here). I wasn’t expecting such an abrupt change of tone and subject matter and I don’t think I could have been reasonably expected to. I wrote the other day about not using Zunfa Comics as a platform to talk about depression because I didn’t think it was tonally appropriate and the same thing applies here. People were pissed off by the ending to the film Remember Me but I can at least see what the filmmakers were trying to do. They were trying to make a point about 9/11 and while it was a fundamentally flawed exercise, it at least made sense in the context of what they were attempting. Here it’s been stuffed in for shock value and I don’t think that’s acceptable.
You can do city-destruction action setpieces where you rip buildings to bits and knock skyscrapers down without straying into this territory. The Avengers did it and heck even Transformers 3 did it. It’s not difficult to avoid a very specific set of visual conditions when making a movie where you wreck a building. I remember when Green Lantern was released and people complained that its climax resembled 9/11, and I honestly feel like that was just coincidence. There was a big smoke cloud in a city and while I can see what they were saying, it felt accidental. The problem I have with Man of Steel is how clearly intentional it was. Zack Snyder made a deliberate decision to recreate the footage of the attack in his choice of camera shots and onscreen action. It’s way too similar to be a coincidence and it looks exactly the same.
I’ve watched a lot of graphic movies and I’ve even worked on and made some pretty gruesome films myself. I consider myself hard to manipulate as a cinemagoer because I understand that what happens in movies isn’t real and it’s difficult to trick me into feeling otherwise. But when you recreate – and let’s be honest, that’s what these shots and scenes were, a recreation – a real-life tragedy that happened relatively recently, you’re bringing the memory of reality into things and that’s different. Maybe that’s why it got to me so badly. But that shouldn’t even be important, the important thing is that it was done without context or warning.
I also wasn’t pleased with the way in which Superman killed General Zod but Robert and I agreed that he should talk about that. He wasn’t physically shaken up about the 9/11 images as I was so it made more sense for us to split it up that way. He is also more articulate than me in these kinds of things.
I asked for a refund but it was refused to me, despite leaving before the film’s runtime. The manager who spoke to me was rude and didn’t seem to care that I was in a state of distress. I think that people should be accountable for how they treat other people, so I don’t have a problem saying that it was the manager of Hoyts at Forest Hill in Victoria and her name is Kerry. I’m not giving them my business again and I hope other people don’t either because of my posting this publically. I’m not blaming her for the film’s content but I am blaming her for how she behaved to me. This is not about customer service or my $18, it’s about treating people with common decency.
Like I said I am usually the first to scoff at people who complain about tangential links to 9/11 in movies. But this was direct and intentional and it rattled me far more than I could have guessed. See it if you want to I guess but be warned.
The battles between Superman and the other Kryptonians in Man of Steel are notably marked by destruction. Some of this is unavoidable, obviously, given that god-like beings are fighting. However, in every other Superman movie I can think of, Superman devotes a lot of screen time to protecting people and repairing damage even during fights. As Martin has said, the height of this destruction resembles the events of September 11. This was something that I did not at first notice, but after he pointed it out, I cannot deny it.
Superman can be used for stories tackling tragedy. He was created as a symbol of strength on behalf of the weak. He is an immigrant child who found a place both in his adopted culture and his original one, and feels comfortable switching between them. Despite what many people say, I do not believe he has a secret identity. He has two identities: Clark Kent and Superman. The values he stands for – usually summarised as “Truth, Justice and the American Way” – are universal to humanity (despite the phrasing of the third item). He is a being who is god-like enough to protect humanity and nurture its development, but human-like enough to have frailties and failings, which make him all the more inspirational for his success. He is proof that power does not have to corrupt.
But for all Man of Steel talks about hope and inspiration, it does not understand Superman in the slightest. Here, he is a punching bag, and the imagery of destruction that occurs around him is not a counterpoint to his goodness. It is there to be enjoyed by the audience, like a slasher movie villain’s murders. While enjoying (false) destruction in movies is not immoral, here that destruction is visibly inspired by an actual tragedy. Even the pseudo-fascist references in General Zod’s character serve a point for the story (“People should be free”), but the mayhem he causes is shot so lovingly, I often lost sight of any of the characters in all the smoke and broken glass. (I suspect Zack Snyder had a similar problem.)
This, however, was not what made me walk out. What I left on was the scene in which Superman fights a powered-up Zod. Superman ends up with Zod in a chokehold, desperately holding him back from murdering a family with his heat-vision. In the end, Superman can’t subdue Zod for long enough, and snaps Zod’s neck.
That is beyond ‘Superman doesn’t kill’. It is a message of “Superman must kill Zod to protect the people of Earth”. The ultimate solutions are “murder” and “sacrificing your ideals”, following the common Zack Snyder theme of “The only way you can help other people is to give up what you want most in the world”. (I would be interested to see how many martyr-complexes this has inspired.) The killing is justified as the in-story reason why Superman doesn’t kill. But you don’t need to kill somebody to know killing is bad (I hope), and implying that Superman has to kill to learn that killing is bad is a terrible perversion of what Superman is. Handled properly, a “Superman has to kill” plot could make for an interesting dilemma, but this is the first movie in a series. If you’re going to bring your hero low, you need to build him up first. We could not have the perilous ending of The Empire Strikes Back without the high success of A New Hope, to reference one of many examples.
In Man of Steel, Superman is no longer humanity’s friend and protector. He does not become a journalist, fighting for justice as an ordinary human (at least in the parts of the movie I saw). He is humanity’s guard dog.