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Why do movies have to smash up entire cities now?By Ed Williamson

03/03/2016Movies

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London Has Fallen, out this week, promises to give the capital a proper seeing-to. The promotional pictures are full of recognisable landmarks blown to smithereens: the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, Nelson’s Column. As Gerard Butler tries to keep the President safe, a moody terrorist type communicating with Vice President Morgan Freeman on a big screen tells us: “Just imagine every major city descending into chaos.” But we don’t have to. We see it a couple of times every summer.

There was a time when even big tent pole pictures like Christopher Reeve’s definitive take on Superman would content themselves with a light dusting of debris after a fight with super villains in downtown Metropolis, or disaster movies like The Towering Inferno localised the action within one building or a few city blocks. This was before ridiculous budgets and wide use of CGI, sure, but more crucially, it was before 9/11. That day, everyone on Earth saw a real-life disaster worse than anything they’d seen on film, from every possible angle, and had the images scorched into their consciousness forever. It recalibrated public perceptions of what a disaster looked like, and now every superhero or disaster movie has no way of expressing a true sense of gravity or threat without an unholy smash-up.

Now every superhero or disaster movie has no way of expressing a true sense of gravity or threat without an unholy smash-up

Hitting us where it hurts.  By destroying our giant clock.

Hitting us where it hurts. By destroying our giant clock.

Take Avengers Assemble, which lays waste to New York City as the Avengers fend off the Chitauri. Earth is at stake, but the Big Apple has to take one for the team. In Man of Steel, Superman’s climactic fight with General Zod destroys vast swathes of Metropolis. The Transformers franchise smashed up Los Angeles, the Pyramids of Egypt and Hong Kong. The unseen human cost, which the films never encourage the viewer to imagine but one has to, if the actions of heroism are to be considered on their merits, is incalculable. 

Earth is at stake, but the Big Apple has to take one for the team.

The hole in the sky that gave Tony Stark post-traumatic stress, and caused a 200% rise in taxes for New Yorkers to rebuild the infrastructure of the city

The hole in the sky that gave Tony Stark post-traumatic stress, and caused a 200% rise in taxes for New Yorkers to rebuild the infrastructure of the city

Good writing and an eye towards the integrity of a franchise go some way towards repairing this. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we don’t just pick up at the next film with a newly-rebuilt First Avenue and say no more about it: Iron Man 3’s Tony Stark suffers post-traumatic stress disorder after the battle of New York, and Matt Murdock in the Daredevil TV series begins fighting the organised crime that has sprung up because of the conditions in Hell’s Kitchen caused by “the incident”. The trailers for this month’s upcoming Man of Steel sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice suggest that the destruction of Metropolis is Bruce Wayne’s catalyst for considering Superman an enemy of humanity. 

They’re toddlers at the controls of bulldozers

“I JUST cleaned this place up.  Harrumph”

“I JUST cleaned this place up. Harrumph”

In a way, too, the scale of the damage is realistic, once you’ve accepted the premise of super beings and bought into the universes. A fight between Superman and Zod, both of them unused to their powers on Earth and not knowing how to deploy or control them properly, would likely produce the sort of outcome you see in Man of Steel. They’re toddlers at the controls of bulldozers. Decepticons and Chitauri don’t care whether they’re knocking down buildings and killing thousands in the process. Of course it’s going to end up like this. You can accuse these films of an overreliance on spectacle, but arguably there is a narrative integrity to them, consistent with their worlds’ internal logic.

A film like London Has Fallen, without supernatural elements, plays more on public ideas and fears of potential terrorist threat to make its point, and ironically has fewer onuses on it to be realistic than one about flying aliens fighting each other. Its storytelling logic arises from what we imagine could happen, whether it’s likely to on such an exaggerated scale in real life or not, rather than having to establish a fantasy world but then stay within its parameters. In a world of enormous heightened security in all its major cities, making the chance of a comparable attack very remote, it looks a bit daft, frankly, whereas Dawn of Justice looks deadly serious. If you want realism, stick with the guys in the capes.

London Has fallen is released in UK cinemas on Friday 4th March.

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