A brilliant use of negative space

battle of new york

It was the moment MCU lovers the world over had been waiting for. As Steve Rogers valiantly stood up for his pal (soldier-turned-brainwashed-assassin-turned-weirdly-coiffed-loveable-rogue Bucky Barnes), Team Cap and Team Iron Man faced off. It was like the Sharks and the Jets all over again, but with a distinct lack of finger snapping or Leonard Bernstein.

The whole thing happened in an isolated airfield, which is convenient for two reasons. Firstly, it helped me coin the Don King-esque “banger near the hanger” to describe the epic face-off (sure, it’s not perfect… but you try coming up with a fight term that rhymes with fuselage). Secondly, and more importantly, it helped fit into the MCUs ethos of the responsible portrayal of destruction™… whereby any fictional fights between fictional people occur in isolated locations to limit the extent of equally fictional collateral damage.

For those with incredibly short attention spans, or those who’ve just tried to repress any memories of the whole sorry saga, the issue first reared its head after Zack Snyder’s divisive take on Krypton’s last son, Man of Steel.

In the MoS finale, Superman and General Zod (a Kryptonian just as super as Superman, just less mopey and more capable of chewing scenery with a single bite) went mano-a-mano in the heart of downtown Metropolis. And while the event ended semi-happily (humanity wasn’t completely wiped out by the psychotic Zod, which – on balance – was probably a good thing. Although if Zod won, I guess we wouldn’t have got Dawn of Justice, so there’s that), large swathes of Metropolis were also destroyed in the process… inflicting significant casualties on the good folk of one of the DCCU’s largest cities.

Metropolis destruction

Comic book fans were outraged.

“The real Superman would’ve taken the fight elsewhere to limit any collateral damage, and this just shows how Snyder and Goyer don’t understand the character,” they shrieked.

This argument, no doubt, was based on their own knowledge of Superman comics and their own experience battling superhumans who are intent on wiping out humanity in the midst of heavily populated areas*.

The impacts were felt far and wide. When doing the rounds for Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon went to great pains to highlight his film took these issues into consideration and offered a much more responsible portrayal of superheroes responding to villains intent on destroying the world in ways that involve set-pieces set in crowded areas.

Finally, someone was thinking of the fictional innocent bystanders!

Whedon’s own track record on the issue of responsible portrayal of destruction™ is somewhat interesting, given the massive scope of the New York-based finale of the first Avengers.

In that flick, Whedon doesn’t so much embrace the idea of responsible portrayal of destruction™ as much as he sidesteps it. While things blow up, cars are overturned and people are thrown through buildings, there is virtually no evidence of any civilian casualties. Primarily because Whedon’s NYC is conspicuously empty… odd in itself, given the fictional emergency services would have had no time to empty the fictional buildings of fictional people.

At the time, the victory by the rag tag group of superheroes was seen as fairly resounding… Evil was vanquished, good triumphed and the message was heard the universe over – if you send faceless metal beasties down to conquer earth, there’s a fairly strong chance you’ll be defeated. Unless, of course, you have a less pompous, slightly more effective supervillain in your corner and nobody kills Phil Coulson for a second time.

It was only three or four years later in the Marvel-Netflix series that the consequences of the Battle of New York became apparent. In the first season of Daredevil, a headline in a news article informed us hundreds of people had died… a figure that, to me, seems surprisingly low. Then again, I’m not an expert in mass casualties arising from alien invasions.**

Then, there was the episode of Jessica Jones which dealt with the issue more directly, with a couple of grief-stricken parents trying to kill any superheroes they encountered.

But all in all, for an attack that claimed *ahem* HUNDREDS of lives the fictional response seemed both subdued and delayed.

Since then, in the MCU we had helicarriers over Washington an unsuccessful kidnapping and London playing host to Christopher Eccleston… before the ultimate responsible portrayal of destruction™ in Age of Ultron, where the Avengers dutifully helped evacuate buildings and protect the innocent in Fictitioustan*** as a sentient robot tried to destroy humanity…. with these events appearing to barely raise a whimper – either from the fictitious population of the MCU or audiences in general.

Which brings us to 2016, where both Civil War and Dawn of Justice rely on collateral damage and mass casualties as a springboard for their respective stories.

Strangely enough, it’s Dawn of Justice (in my opinion, the lesser of the two films) that best handles this aspect of the story.

Thanks to Zack Snyder’s reckless portrayal of destruction (Trademark pending) in Man of Steel, audiences were all too aware that innocent bystanders were unwittingly caught up in the Supes/Zod fight and that many were most likely killed. So using this as a springboard for Dawn of Justice makes perfect sense and is a logical extension for that world.

That said, Snyder still managed to bugger things up when he *directly* tried to respond to the MoS criticism. Rather than have Bats and Supes shift the chaos and carnage to an area well away from people (given Bats’ direct relationship to the Metropolis battle, you’d think he could at least consider this), Snyder instead had some minor character exclaim loudly to no one in particular that the action’s shifted to an unpopulated area. It’s ham-fisted in both conception and execution, and would tend to prove that Snyder didn’t really understand why people were upset about the Metropolis fight in the first place. Or he just didn’t care. After all, we’re talking about people who don’t exist.

Then, there’s Civil War – a far more entertaining and well-executed film in my opinion that somehow buggers up its initial approach to civilian casualties. The events of the preceding films, and the deaths of innocents, are a key springboard for the ensuing plot (along with that whole Bucky thing, which is also important apparently).

Whereas Dawn of Justice had a well-justified use of civilian deaths, Civil War didn’t.

As we learn after the first major set-piece in Civil War, the Government’s increasingly upset about the carnage that follows The Avengers, and almost every foreign government agrees.

What caused this sudden, seemingly-out-of-nowhere angst? Was it the deaths of *ahem* HUNDREDS in the Battle of Manhattan? Nope. That only pissed off a couple of parents, apparently. Was it the helicarriers over Washington?

Nope. Instead, it was one dude exploding, destroying a couple of floors of a Nigerian office block. It is, for all intents and purposes, the most impressive example of thinking locally and acting globally to ever take place in a fictional superhero inhabited world.

Of course, for that one thing Civil War got wrong, it pretty much got everything else right. And that’s where, arguably, the MCU has it over the DCCU. The spectacle of the MCU is so great, you don’t notice the chaos and carnage. It’s cinematic sleight-of-hand that’s executed with great skill – you’re too busy looking at the left hand to notice the right hand is casually slaughtering innocent people.

Think New York looks oddly empty when hordes of metal monsters attack? Don’t worry, Hulk smash Loki.
Wondering how earth’s mightiest superheroes conveniently end up at an empty airfield to sort out their business?

Hey, look – it’s Spider-Man!

(Of course it also helped that, by the time Civil War rolled around, people had forgotten all of the handwringing around the Age of Ultron finale and how it was a direct response to Zack Snyder’s atrocities in Man of Steel.)

Snyder, on the other hand, gets no free pass. In part, because he consciously embraces the concept of collateral damage. Unfortunately, it’s also because the Man of Steel finale is so tedious that your mind inevitably starts to wander. And because we see the civilians, it one of the first things you start thinking about (followed by, in no particular order, ‘is this going to last long?’, ‘gosh I hope they find a way to bring Russell Crowe back for the sequel’ and ‘if I were a film critic, would Marvel be paying me enough to buy a new house if I said this was terrible?’).

While Snyder may be good at some things, distraction ain’t one of them.

Of course, this doesn’t mean much to the bigger picture. We’ve moved on from the horrific events of Metropolis, and the many, many non-existent lives lost on that fateful day.

But every now and then, it’s nice to pause and honour their memory, and be thankful that both Marvel and DC created universes full of empty spaces where these powerful heroes and villains can duke it out to their hearts content without the rest of us getting hurt.

*Admittedly, with ‘Dawn of Justice’, it was abundantly clear they had a point… With Snyder demonstrating a complete lack of interest in poor ol’ Supes.
**Neil deGrasse Tyson, you know where to find me
*** Not the country’s real name. Just in case anyone wants to correct me.