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Super-Hero Movies and Civilian Casualties


One of the most common responses to Age of Ultron, which I enjoyed a lot although not without reservations, is that the movie’s insistent emphasis on the Avengers preventing civilian casualties is something of a “take that” to Man of Steel.

Indeed, I thought that was one of the better elements of the film, so I was a bit surprised to read this article in the Washington Post, which argued that:

At a certain point during the critics’ screening of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”—I believe it was when Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) decided that it was more important to grab three people out of a collapsing tenement than focus on the world-ending event only he had the technical know-how to stop—I wrote “Oh, [expletive deleted] the civilians, get on with it” in my notebook…

I get the sense that what makes some people uncomfortable about “Man of Steel” is that it more closely reflects the way war is fought today than a movie like “Age of Ultron.”

To begin with, I don’t buy Sonny Bunch’s defense of Man of Steel. To begin with, given that Superman is a character whose best stories are about saving people, the movie makes “Clark Kent using his powers to save people” almost entirely confined to the beginning and end of the movie, suggests that saving people wasn’t a high priority of the film. The big critique of Superman’s fight in Metropolis – which would have civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands, because it’s not true to life to assume that “any sane civilian has fled the city in terror” – isn’t just that we don’t see Superman try to protect civilians (notably, the scene of Perry White trying to save a journalist trapped in the rubble doesn’t end with Superman lifting the rubble long enough to be photographed saving the day), it’s that he doesn’t seem to be concerned about the issue until he’s brought face to face with it, long after he’s been throwing Zod through skyscrapers inhabited by hundreds if not thousands of squishy humans, not to mention that Superman consciously decided to commit genocide on the Kryptonian race on the grounds that “Krypton had its chance!”

But I also find it strange that Bunch didn’t expect the Avengers to do this. After all, as “Moviebob” Bob Chipman has pointed out, the first Avengers film was chockablock with sequences that are all about trying to protect casualties – whether it’s Iron Man going on a suicide mission to shove a nuke through a wormhole so that it doesn’t vaporize Manhattan, Bruce Banner’s anguish and dread of the thought of what “the other guy” might do to bystanders, or Captain America literally shielding German civilians from Loki’s wrath, or Captain America coming up with tactical plans designed primarily to contain the damage to the city, or Captain America engaging with first responders to make sure that civilians get evacuated from the combat zone, or Captain America throwing himself on a grenade (again) to save people – and all of this is crucial to why audiences responded to these characters.

And I think this gets to what I find so frustrating about Bunch’s implied argument that “gritty and realistic” is a better way for superhero movies to go. Yes, it’s probably true that Man of Steel is a more realistic depiction of urban combat than Age of Ultron – but superhero movies, should be better than just depicting reality, because they’re superhero movies and not military action movies. What makes a superhero different from a private detective or a gunslinger or a war hero is that they’re allowed to be larger-than-life both in terms of their abilities, but also in terms of their moral characters, and of embodying certain ideals. I’m not necessarily on board with Grant Morrison’s “superheroes are modern gods” thing, but as readers of this blog know, I really do think Captain America is supposed to represent America at its best. Likewise, Daredevil’s supposed to be the lone man without fear standing up against the Man in defense of Hell’s Kitchen, and Superman’s supposed to be about Truth, Justice and the American Way.

So yeah, the Avengers’ insistence on saving every last civilian in Sokovia – even at risk of their own lives – isn’t the way that wars are fought. That’s the point. It’s the way that wars should be fought.

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