Post #37: MAN OF STEEL and 9/11
I don't think I can handle this:
A cloudy day in Metropolis.
--Spin Doctors, “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”, Pocket Full of Kryptonite (1991)
Last month was both the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on NYC as well as the release of the book Epic Heroes on Screen, which includes a chapter by yours truly on the engagement of films about ancient Greece with 9/11.
I began to think about the how Man of Steel comments on 9/11 when I noticed the similarities between how it and Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans treated the issue of the hybrid identities of their protagonists. In a course I was teaching on ancient Greece in film in the spring semester of 2015, I juxtaposed Leterrier’s Perseus with Snyder’s Superman. Perseus’ dual identities stem from his Olympian father Zeus and his mortal mother Danaë. Through most of the film he rejects the gifts that the gods give him--a sword and the flying horse Pegasus--until he’s confronted by his disfigured grandfather Calibos. Calibos has fatally wounded Perseus’ companion Io, who encourages Perseus to use the gods’ gifts against Calibos, whose strength comes from the god Hades. “You’re not just part man, part god; you’re the best of both,” Io declares. I juxtaposed this moment with a scene aboard the Kryptonian scout ship in Man of Steel, in which a projection of Superman’s father Jor-El tells his son that “You're as much a child of Earth now as you are of Krypton. You can embody the best of both worlds” (and later: “you could be the bridge between two peoples”) (see figure 2). A Muslim-American student remarked that she identified with this sentiment in a post-9/11 world, as an evocation of her dual identities.
This scene indicates to me that Man of Steel is engaging closely with 9/11 and its context. In the climax of the film, the city of Matropolis is destroyed, and the imagery explicitly recalls the images coming out of New York City on 9/11. Some condemned this: for instance, Dana Stevens of Slate criticized how the film “casually ransack[s] 9/11 for readymade disaster imagery.” But Man of Steel doesn’t use 9/11 imagery “casually”--rather, it engages with the trauma of that day to work through it.
Snyder’s version opens with Superman’s parents, Jor-El and Lara, on the distant planet of Krypton sending their infant son, whom they have named Kal-El, to Earth via spaceship. Kal arrives at our planet safely, and is taken in and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent in Kansas. On the advice of his human stepfather, Kal, now called Clark, hides his alien heritage. When the US government discovers a Kryptonian scout ship hidden beneath arctic ice, Clark investigates and activates it.
Kal believes himself to be the only survivor of Krypton, but his accidental activation of a distress beacon on the scout ship gets the attention of a group of Kryptonian soldiers. At the beginning of the film they had attempted to overthrow Krypton’s government, but were caught, tried, found guilty, and sentenced “to three hundred cycles of somatic reconditioning” aboard a ship in the Phantom Zone. The destruction of Krypton released them from limbo, and they commandeered their prisoner ship.
Whereas Kal feels a connection to Earth, having been raised by human parents and having fallen in love with a human, the Kryptonian soldiers, led by General Zod, do not. They want to terraform Earth to make it into a planet that will be hospitable to Kryptonians, which will have the unfortunate side-effect of killing off all human life (see figure 3). This ideological conflict between Superman and the Kryptonians comes to a head in the final scene, in which they nearly level the city of Metropolis.
The Kryptonians’ world engine begins terraforming Earth by destroying Metropolis. It sends shockwaves through the city, throwing chunks of concrete into the air and flattening cars. Several scenes of destruction recall various episodes on the day of the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11 (see figures 2 and 3).
Critics like Stevens criticized this imagery as manipulative, as purposely designed to push the emotional buttons of the American audience and thus artificially raise the stakes. 9/11 is almost universally perceived in black-and-white terms: American heroes were attacked by terrorist villains.Man of Steel’s 9/11 imagery thus compels the audience to identify Zod and his fellow soldiers as villains. Making the Kryptonians antagonists with disturbing parallels with real-world terrorists at least gives them a compelling motivation--unlike the antagonist of Justice League (Snyder 2017), Steppenwolf, whose cardboard motivation makes his character an unconvincing figure of evil.
To understand how Man of Steel engages with the trauma of 9/11, not to exploit it but to explore it, it’s instructive to compare Snyder’s film with the drama of ancient Greece. Tragedies like Sophocles’ Ajaxand Euripides’ TrojanWomenpresented audiences with the traumas that war inflicted. At first glance, the two plays just mentioned were far removed from the audience’s daily life in fifth century BCE Athens, set as they were in the distant past of myth--in the case of Ajax and Trojan Women, the Trojan War (see figure 4) And yet they still hit ancient audiences hard. The content of these tragedies dealt with the effects of war on people--the suicide of a Greek warrior over loss of face in Ajax and the brutal treatment of women in the wake of the destruction of their city in Trojan Women. Too, the performers and audiences of these plays were especially engaged with the material because they were (or were soon to become) veterans of war themselves. Athenians were no strangers to war, which was a near-constant annual enterprise, especially during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). The near-constant state of war that Athens found itself in meant that the city-state needed a near-constant supply of soldiers. As scholar John J. Winkler has argued, a portion of the audience and the performers consisted of young adult men undergoing military training. Another portion were adult citizen males who had undergone this training in their youths and had served in conflict. Their veteran identity was an important part of the plays were interpreted, according to psychiatrist Jonathan Shay (http://www.didaskalia.net/issues/vol2no2/shay.html). Shay contends that “the process of healing from combat trauma lies fundamentally in communalizing it”—in other words, re-performing and re-presenting traumatic events in art that is consumed by the broader community—not just vets—allows that trauma to be understood.
Like these Greek plays, Man of Steel transmutes real-world trauma into its fictional narrative. This engagement extends from the destruction of Metropolis paralleling 9/11 visually to the climactic final confrontation between Superman and Zod. After Superman has destroyed the World Engine, Zod laments, “I exist only to protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born. And every action I take, no matter how violent or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people. And now I have no people. My soul--that is what you have taken from me.” Gone is the Kryptonian’s flimsy motivation in Richard Donner’s 1980 film SupermanII, in which Zod and his compatriots seek revenge on Kal-El because he’s the son of the man who helped imprison them in the Phantom Zone. Snyder’s Zod is motivated by ideology, by a deep-rooted (if misplaced) sense of identity given to him by his culture--much like the motivation of al Quaeda to attack the United States. Some have criticized Superman’s behavior in the subsequent fight, in which Kal and Zod nearly level the parts of Metropolis not destroyed by the World Engine and Kal kills Zod. Zod leaves him little choice: Superman is the only one who can match Zod’s power. Kal gets Zod in a headlock and entreats him to submit, but Zod will not relent, using his heat vision to threaten human bystanders:
ZOD: If you love these people so much, you can mourn for them.
KAL: Don't do this! Stop! Stop!
Kal realizes that the only way he can stop Zod from destroying humanity is to end his life, and so he breaks his neck. He is not triumphant over his enemy’s body--instead he mourns, collapsing to his knees with the weight of what he’s done (see header image). This turn of events was much lamented in some circles as a betrayal of one version of Superman--the one who would never kill an enemy. But the world has changed, and Superman must change with it. The world after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 is no longer one in which it’s plausible for Superman save a cat from a tree or reverse time to save a victim of an earthquake (as in Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman).
Man of Steel purposefully evokes 9/11, not to manipulate its audience, but to have them engage with the trauma of that event. It is not content to use 9/11 to pigeon-hole Kal-El as “hero” and the Kryptonians as “terrorists”, but rather complicates the situation, showing Zod’s motivations to be comprehensible (even though misguided) and Superman’s methods in stopping him to make sense (even though in the end their repercussions are significant--as the 9/11 sequence in 2016’sBatman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice shows). In this way, Man of Steelallows its audience to ponder 9/11 from the vantagepoint of their present, giving them a renewed perspective on their nation’s trauma.