• Michael T. Christensen

Zach Snyder Still Doesn't Understand What He Did Wrong in "Man of Steel"

This article originally appeared on March 23, 2016. Based on what we're hearing about the Snyder Cut of Justice League, I don't think Zach Snyder has learned anything since then.

Much has been written about Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, specifically the climax. We don’t need to re-tread this territory… or, at least, I didn’t think we did. But apparently Zack Snyder, in the past three years, has learned nothing.

First, this excerpt from a recent interview:

Snyder was mystified when someone told him that they couldn’t think of a movie in recent memory that’s had as much collateral damage as “Man of Steel.” “I went, really? And I said, well, what about [‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’]?” the director says. “In ‘Star Wars’ they destroy five planets with billions of people on them. That’s gotta be one of the highest death toll movies in history, the new ‘Star Wars’ movie, if you just do the math.” [via Wall Street Journal]

A couple of things – first, he gives this anecdote as if this is a conversation he had with someone, or at the very least something he has been thinking about actively since “Star Wars” came out, which means this was a recent story in 2016. This isn’t his reaction in the aftermath of Man of Steel and its critical reception – he’s reacting to the fact that Star Wars didn’t get called out for what he perceives as the same thing, mass destruction.

However, it’s also clear that he still entirely misses the point of why people are upset. 1) Detail, Depiction, and 9/11 Imagery

It can’t be denied that Snyder is right about one thing – the death toll in The Force Awakens is astronomical. As he points out, “they destroy five planets with billions of people on them.” But we don’t see the streets in chaos. We don’t see people falling to their deaths, or being engulfed in ash. We barely see anything more than we did when Alderaan was destroyed – the most detail we see is one balcony full of people, staring up in horror at what is about to happen, and then we cut away. We don’t watch people die.

The Force Awakens also doesn’t force us (no pun intended) to re-live a real-life disaster. We’ve never seen a planet explode. We have seen buildings get destroyed, and people falling to their deaths by the dozens, and ash filling the streets. The level of mass destruction in films is skyrocketing, but few played on our memories of disaster in the same way as Man of Steel. On that level, they simply aren’t the same thing. 2) Context

Snyder’s statement reads, “In ‘Star Wars,' they destroy five planets with billions of people on them.” Of course, by “they,” he means J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan. He means the creative team behind The Force Awakens. But he’s also missing something crucial – in the film, the “they” who destroy five planets are the First Order. And they are the villains of the film. And the scene plays in the film as a failure – the heroes have been delivered a crushing blow, and the destruction of the Republic acts as an “All is Lost” moment. Contrast that with the devastation at the end of “Man of Steel,” where the destruction is given no emotional context for our hero – he only begins to consider human casualties at the end, when he can actually see a family in the line of fire. Before that point, it’s “out of sight, out of mind” for the citizens of the city.

The criticism of “Man of Steel” climax doesn’t simply boil down to the disaster porn, because that same accusation has been leveled at The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Avengers: Age of Ultron, among others. But Man of Steel got the worst of it because the hero was directly complicit in the destruction. Superman’s fight with Zod takes him across the city (or more accurately through the city), and our hero makes no effort to take the battle out of the densely-populated Metropolis. Heck, when the fight begins, they are in the smoking crater that used to be part of Metropolis – had they fight stayed there, additional death might have been avoided. But the fight quickly moved out of the ruined area of the city, and into the remaining city proper, and quickly spread the devastation.

(A side note – Avengers: Age of Ultron focuses every major action scene around protecting civilians. The filmmakers realized that we wouldn’t be nervous that Iron Man or Captain America might be killed, because we know they’re going to be in the next couple of movies. But we know that they might fail to protect citizens, and that’s what gives those fights the stakes they have. The finale revolves around an effort to evacuate citizens to safety, and in the Hulkbuster fight in Johannesburg, it takes Iron Man less than two minutes to decide to get the Hulk out of town, and Tony Stark’s origin story was literally all about making bombs. If Tony freaking Stark values life more than Clark “salt of the earth” Kent, that’s not a good sign for your Superman franchise.) 3) Superman vs. Star Wars

The last thing Zack Snyder seems not to have considered is the inherent differences between the properties of “Superman” and “Star Wars.” While both are big-budget multi-film franchises about humble farm boys who have superpowers thanks to their space-jerk dads, they can’t be painted with the same brush.

Superman is a superhero. By that definition, his job is to protect people. This is something he fails to do in “Man of Steel.” When he fights Zod in Metropolis, as well as in Smallville, he makes no conscious effort to protect civilians from becoming casualties in his fight. And this failure flies in the face of the tradition of Superman. Because that is his job – he protects people. Even setting aside the murder of Zod (which is an issue, but not the issue on the table), Superman lets billions of people die. When Superman forgets to save people (which is literally his entire deal), that is a failure on the part of the filmmakers.

“Star Wars” is about a war. It’s in the name of the film. When the First Order attacks the Republic, it’s an act of war. Actually, it isn’t even that; the First Order isn’t a governmental body, they’re a group of extremists who are making a strike to destabilize a government and cause chaos in the populace. The destruction of those five planets is an act of terrorism. But even then, we all know it’s not the only planet “Star Wars” has destroyed. The destruction of the Republic (by way of a super-big laser-gun-planet) is absolutely in keeping with the tradition of “Star Wars.” After all, Alderaan is also a densely-populated planet, specifically described as “peaceful,” with “no weapons.” They are as defenseless as the victims in Metropolis. And yet they are killed – but it is a conscious decision on the part of the villains, and it is addressed in the text. Perhaps it could have been further explored (Leia certainly never seems to comment on it again in the films), but it is addressed as a tragic event.

That’s what Snyder is missing. He discusses the destruction of the Republic as being in the same category as the collateral damage in “Man of Steel,” but there’s a big difference. Because the Republic’s destruction isn’t collateral, it’s the intended action. The villains’ goal is to kill billions, and because of the heroes’ failure to stop them, the villains succeed. Meanwhile, the goal of Zod is simply to kill Superman, and Superman’s goal is simply to stop Zod. They are fighting for the sake of fighting. And the thousands who are killed off-screen as Zod and Superman slam each other into skyscrapers are barely considered until the end of the climax.

And, by the way, you know who else got to blow up a planet in their movie? Zack Snyder. His movie opens with the destruction of Krypton. Did he forget the death toll for his film is also in the tens of billions? Yes; of course he did. Because we forgive the destruction of Krypton, and take it as part of the text. We expect Krypton to be destroyed, because that’s part of Superman’s story.

(Snyder also tried to start a Twitter war with Star Wars in 2014, and tagged this photo “#SuperJedi.” So, not only has he been picking a one-way fight with the Force Awakens for two years, but the fact that he gave Superman a red lightsaber and called him a Jedi speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of at least one of those franchises.)

Having a higher death toll isn’t what separates the events in the Force Awakens and Man of Steel. The difference is their depiction, their context in the story, and the nature of the franchises themselves. And yet Zack Snyder, by sharing this anecdote, seems to imply that he is being unfairly called out for a sin perpetuating modern blockbusters. But that’s simply not the case. We live in an internet age where every movie, every scene, and apparently every little off-hand remark in an interview to promote a new film, is picked apart and measured. But the treatment of Snyder’s Man of Steel has been far from unfair – quite the contrary. He’s getting the worst of it because he delivered the most egregious example. Because the climax of his film played on our national tragedy; because the context of the death toll was not considered; and because the moment betrayed what that character means to so many people.

If, after several years of articles and opinion pieces, Zack Snyder still can’t acknowledge the reason people object to that ending, then I feel safe saying he is not the best person to helm Superman or Superman-related stories. “Superman” does not look like a job for Zack Snyder.

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