How to Destroy Cities

Heads up, kids. This is going to be spoilery. I’ve been rather flippant with my money spending lately, which is why I have seen both Man of Steel and Pacific Rim at the cinema. Full disclosure: I LOVED PACIFIC RIM. IT WAS SO GOOD AND SO MUCH FUN. On the other hand, I hated Man of Steel. Now, aside from the fact that I saw them almost back-to-back, the films do have something in common that I’ve started to notice in a lot of big budget productions: monumental destruction. Both Man of Steel and Pacific Rim feature the annihilation of entire (heavily populated) cities that the audience is supposed to disregard in favour of… I dunno…plot or something.

GO SEE IT

GO SEE IT

Normally I’m not a fan of that kind of thing. Even in The Avengers (which I loved and saw multiple times), the fact that the final fight scene featured an entire city being flattened and probably a couple of thousand people being wiped out never sat well with me. It’s probably because there’s never any real consequence to these sort of scenes shown in the film. Star Trek: Into Darkness, for example featured a city being totally flattened by a giant spaceship, and then ten seconds spent mourning the death of the people on board. The Avengers featured a gratuitous 20 second montage of people laying wreaths on the wreckage of buildings.

So it is with Man of Steel. I didn’t like the movie for a lot of reasons… many of them based on the fact that we’re apparently supposed to ignore the entire history of Superman and his whole ethos because they wanted to make it less like Superman and more like Batman. (Christopher Nolan is producing…is Superman gritty enough yet? We’ve given him a beard. How ’bout now? We’ve made him choose a life of solitude and deep-sea fishing. IS IT GRITTY YET? IS THERE ANY WAY WE COULD ADD MORE GRIT?)

"Are you finding me gritty enough yet? I grew a beard. How 'bout if this fight takes place at night? Would that make it better? Why don't you like me as much as Batman?

“Are you finding me gritty enough yet? I grew a beard. How ’bout if this fight takes place at night? Would that make it better? Why don’t you like me as much as Batman?

But my main problem lay with the fact everything got flattened. EVERYTHING. First, it was Clark Kent’s home town. Rather than, oh I dunno…taking the fight to space (which he is perfectly capable of doing), he instead tells everyone on the streets of Smallville to “go inside, stay there” so that he can attempt to beat the ever-loving Christ out of a bunch of super-charged, super-angry alien beings. In the process he manages to destroy the entire main street and eventually blow up a gas station, ensuring that anything that didn’t get punched to death caught fire.

Then, since wiping out Smallville isn’t enough to stop General Zod (our villain…I probably should have mentioned that earlier), he continues on with his genius plan to terraform earth so that it becomes a reborn Krypton. The fake science involves plugging two really big things in either side of the earth, getting them to make a dramatic “wump wump wump” noise, something-something-magents and hey-presto! Basically it picks everything up and then drops it, so that that it flattens down and eventually transforms the atmosphere. Superman does pratically nothing to stop this for a really long time. It just kind of happens and the people of Metropolis watch their city crumble before getting pounded into dust themselves.

The only time we’re given any insight into the human impact of the destruction is when we briefly look 3 staff members from the Daily Planet who we don’t really give a fuck about who calmly sit down and wait for death. (Lawrence Fishburne is one of the people, so I think we’re supposed to care, but I couldn’t muster it.) Superman eventually manages to stop the ‘wump wump wump’ machine from doing the thing, but that doesn’t actually stop Zod either. So, amongst the ruins of Metropolis they proceed to have another punching contest to destroy the rest of the city (just in case anything escaped unscathed). Eventually, Superman kills Zod (spoilers) to save four people. No word on why those four people are more important than the tens of thousands of people who were wiped out while the Soops and co. were dicking around elsewhere, but whatever.

And then the movie ends with exactly no acknowledgment of the fact that everyone is dead. It’s not just the fact that Metropolis (clearly a parallel for NYC) is flattened either. As I mentioned before, we’re explicitly shown the machine plugging into either side of the globe… Then it’s never mentioned again. I realise that it’s an America-centric movie, but why even show the fact that Zod’s quest for world domination has global implications if you’re not going to follow through with any of it?

In short, the reason this kind of mass destruction doesn’t work for me, is because we’re only supposed to care about the destruction of the city insofar as it has an impact on the main characters. Superman simultaneously destroys the world and saves it, no one calls him out on the death toll and Metropolis is mysteriously in tact. There are literally no repercussions for Superman making some seriously stupid decisions and thus the audience is supposed to assume that the city was eventually fine and/or that it wasn’t important anway. Considering how directly a lot of these films reference 9/11 imagery in their city-destroying sequences, there’s something inherently disturbing about pushing that sort of chaos to the side in favour of snappy one-liners about drone planes. (Spoiler: they’re not good snappy-oneliners.)

Pacific Rim features similar large scale destruction. It has to – it’s a Godzilla movie. However, Pacific Rim deals with its crumbling cities in a very different way. Unlike your usual disaster film, the action in Pacific Rim takes place in a world that’s become accustomed to being laid low by monsters. Kaiju are coming through a interdimensional portal…and they just keep coming, squishing cities and battling Jaeger robots. An effort is made by humanity to battle to monsters at the source. Several of the fights take place in the middle of the ocean, which is pretty spectacular. As we’re slowly introduced to more of the Jaeger program, it becomes apparent that the main purpose of the program is border patrol – to keep the kaiju away from heavily populated areas and generally just minimise the death toll.

When the city finally becomes the battle ground it’s Hong Kong being destroyed, which is just such a nice step away from a US-centric cinematic vision that it made my soul weirdly happy despite the fact that the Hong Kongwas being flattened in the process. Anyway, as the kaiju hits the coastline an alarm sounds, much like the sort of alarm that rang during air raids in WWII and everyone just very calmly heads underground. Because that’s what this world is. Humans have just kind of adapted to the idea that their home could be wiped out at any minute. They’re not happy about it, but they’ve learned to live with it. At one point a news report flashes up talking about Australians in Sydney rioting over the fact that the Jaeger program was discontinued just days before another kaiju attack. Black markets have sprung up around the sale of kaiju organs. Jaeger pilots are elevated to the status of rockstars and made into collector cards. It’s all just so human. They just kind of get on with life because what else are they going to do?

All throughout the film, it has been subtly implied that people are just soldiering on despite the dramatic heroics happening elsewhere. There’s something really wonderful about that and, more importantly, it means that seeing an entire city being wiped out doesn’t feel meaningless. It feels like, despite the destruction there is potential. And that’s kind of fantastic.

What I’m trying to say is that somewhere, somehow the roles of Man of Steel and Pacific Rim got reverse. Man of Steel is a superhero flick that shows a blatant disregard for human life and wantonly destroys entire cities because it has the budget to do so. To quote a friend of mine, Superman has basically become a pub brawler with super powers. It’s a superhero film that lacks a hero (and a sense of humor). Pacific Rim is a cross between a Western disaster movie and an Eastern monster movie that actually cares about the things it’s wrecking and takes pains to ensure that the audience isn’t going to be distracted from the actual plot by the carnage.

Obviously, this is just a review of the way the these two films treat the scenery. I have a lot of feelings about the characters in Pacific Rim (MAKO MORI! PLEASE MARRY ME!) and also about Idris Elba’s butt in tight pants. In terms of Man of Steel, I have a lot of feelings about Lois Lane (who was pretty great). But they’re stories for another day. Feel free to ask me about my feelings in the comments. I’d love to hear yours.

On another note, I’ve decided to stick to blogging once a week. The blog will now be updated on Fridays only. I figured “quality” over quantity, right? Right? Guys?

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