The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Is it OK to massacre skyscrapers in movies again?

with 42 comments

[warning: this post might contains what can be perceived as very mild spoilers for The Avengers.]

I’m a regular listener to the podcast Slate’s Culture Gabfest. Usually I often find myself nodding in agreement with whatever the hosts put to the table. But this week’s show was an exception.

As was to be expected by a pop culture show, they had a discussion about The Avengers, since it’s opening in US this weekend. Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner didn’t fancy the movie as much as I did, which I’m perfectly OK with.

What did surprise me though was one of their reasons for disliking it. They were critical about the final battle scene takes place on Manhattan in New York where space worms are going berserk and we see skyscrapers crumbling into pieces. They were also bothered by the aftermath scene, where you see people putting up pictures of lost people.

According to them, all of this reminded far too much of what happened at 9/11. Stephen called it “totally inappropriate”, “cheap” and even “bordering of repulsive”. He wasn’t completely against that you in some distant future could show falling skyscrapers in a movie, but if I understood him correctly, he thought that this was far, far too early. The national tragedy was too recent.

And this is where they lost me.

However, before I go into my objections, we’ll have a short break, because I need to point out something. I’m not a US citizen. I haven’t lived in New York and I didn’t know anyone who died there. While 9/11 affected me too, the way it affected the entire Western world, I didn’t have the direct connection that many Americans have. It’s possible that I would have thought differently about this under other circumstances.

So, after this intermission, back to business! A rant will follow!

Why it should be allowed
For a little while I thought I had one of the party members with me. Someone, I think it was Julia, objected: “Are you saying that nobody ever can destroy NY in a movie again? That could be a terrible thing for the terrorists to have taken from us”.

To this Stephen replied something about how the footage looked too much like CNN and in the end conclusion seemed to be that everyone still thought it was tasteless.

I however think that this question is totally valid and a good reason why demolishment of skyscrapers should be allowed in movies again. After all it has been an element that has been used over and over again in action movies for decades. I actually think that it’s the opposite idea – to completely eliminate this from pop culture – that is worrying and repulsive.

To me this is in some sense to let the terrorists go away with the victory. They wanted to achieve terror, they wanted to get attention and they wanted to restrict our lives. That is exactly what you allow them to do with that kind of self censorship.

The strongest act of resistance you can do against someone who tries to intimidate you with violence and fear is to just ignore it – to keep living your life the way you always have.

I can understand why it would have been strange to watch a falling skyscraper on the film screen within the first year after 9/11. But after more than ten years I think you must be able to send in some crazy space dragons there. Or to let bodies fall in the air, such as in the signature of Mad Men for that sake.

Other traumas
Also: 9/11 isn’t the only trauma the world has had. Air plane crashes happen. Earthquakes as well. And remember the tsunami in Thailand? That was a trauma to large areas of the world, though not so much to US. In the name of consistency, should we refrain from making movies about this type of disasters as well? For Sweden it was a disaster when the ship Estonia sank in 1994, costing 852 lives. Three years later came Titanic and I think that revived a lot of memories for many people. Was it tasteless and inconsiderate to make it so soon after?

Exactly where do you draw the limit? Is it required that US is involved for Hollywood to take those considerations? Many movies get global launches nowadays. Does that matter?

People are fully in their rights to criticize The Avengers but I don’t think this one is a good reason.

It’s been ten years since 9/11 and of course I don’t expect people to be “over it”. We’ll never ever be “over with it”. It’s a scar we’re going to live with for the rest of our lives.

However it’s long enough for filmmakers to be allowed to massacre skyscrapers on Manhattan without being called out for it.

Written by Jessica

May 4, 2012 at 5:00 pm

42 Responses

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  1. Since I’ve not seen Avengers yet I didn’t read the article (I try to steer away from spoilers as far as I can for any movie), but to answer your question in the subject I guess it is. It’s been done in Transformers 3 and recently in Battleship as well. So I guess it’s not a problem anymore….

    Nostra

    May 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    • Welcome back to read it once you’ve watched it. I’m afraid I haven’t seen either Transformers 3 or Battleship so I don’t know how this one is in comparsion to those.

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 8:43 am

  2. I’ll have to comment on The Avengers specifically once I watch it, but just the trailer of Transformers 3 hit me very wrong in the absolute glee that Michael Bay seemed to be taking in having these skyscrapers be destroyed. I think tone is so vital in determining whether something is appropriate or not. Is the destruction meant to be horrific or is it just whiz-bang effects for the purpose of being “BIG!” If it is the latter, I’m not so on board. I don’t think 9/11 should mark the end of cities being destroyed in films, but it should weigh on consideration of how that kind of thing is handled.

    Bondo

    May 4, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    • To be honest I can’t remember the trailer of Transformers 3, but it’s been said to me that the final of The Avengers has something Michael Bayish over it, so I suspect it might not be completely of yur liking. Horriffic or BIG? I don’t know.

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 8:48 am

  3. Well, I am American, and I totally agree with you. I think your arguments are very good ones. I think it’s totally reaching to say that showing just some unnamed NYC skyscrapers falling in an action movie is insensitive to the memory of 9/11. Now if they digitally put in the WTC and had it fall, now THAT is insensitive. What happened was really tragic and I can’t even begin to imagine what’s it was like for the families to have to go through that but I think we have to draw the line somewhere.

    Shala

    May 4, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    • Thanks Shala. I think it wasn’t ONLY the skyscrapers, it was also images of people posting pictures of their missed ones. But people do that all over the world in connection to big disasters. For instance we saw a lot of images of that in connection to the tsunami in Thailand. And yes, digitally putting in WTC would have seemed not just tasteless but also weird. But they didn’t do that.

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 8:41 am

  4. I haven’t seen The Avengers yet, but I say Blow ‘Em Up! I’m from the US (although not NYC specifically), and I am constantly amazed that some people around me seem to act like this was the only tragedy the world had ever seen — and the most recent, despite all of the things that have happened around the world in the last decade.

    There is a lot of politics in the US around 9/11 – including groups that use it specifically to shut down legitimate political debates, and to keep people focused on the US alone instead of looking at crises around the world. It might be different if we were getting mass reports of people coming out of The Avengers feeling traumatized, or physically needing to leave the theater because of it. But if they just feel that it is “insensitive” then what makes this any different than a lot of movies that have depictions that are insensitive to one group or another.

    nevertooearlymp

    May 4, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    • I haven’t heard of any traumatized groups and the criticism that Slate brought up isn’t one I’ve heard a lot of. So maybe it’s just them. And yes, there are SO many movies that can feel inappropriate for one group or another. The thing is that I think people need to take some responsability for themselves. If you’ve been through a traumatizing experience, like a horrible car accident, perhaps you’ll avoid movies about car chases for a while?

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 8:51 am

  5. Actually, what they said was insensitive was the news footage after the big action where it shows people putting missing persons posters on a wall and having candle light vigils, two images that immediately recall 9/11, particularly for New Yorkers. These images were used by Whedon to get people to make that conscious or subconscious connection to 9/11. The Slate people said the film did nothing to earn that and it felt like a cheap way to lend weight to all the silly action that took place. I see where they’re coming from, and I agree it wasn’t totally earned, but I wasn’t even close to being offended by it.

    Corey Atad

    May 4, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    • Just want to add a comment on what Adam on Filmspotting brought up. He didn’t mention the 9/11 imagery, but he did bring up the very obvious Hitler/Holocaust reference with the one guy in the crowd standing up to Loki. That’s a case where I actually disagree with Adam. It happens early enough in the movie that while it comes a little out of nowhere tonally, it does add some weight in theory to what Loki’s threat is. All this silly talk feels meaningless, but that scene actually expresses the realistic end result of the things Loki wants to do.

      Also, with regards to the city destruction and taste and all that, it’s important to note that Whedon/Marvel specifically avoided shots that would be too intense or too reminiscent of real terror and 9/11. I think I saw one building actually falling down, and even then it was in like half of a shot and the building was more falling sideways than collapsing like the WTC towers did. That’s a taste issue, and I think including those images would definitely have been tasteless. That said, if we actually understood the scope of the terror unleashed by Loki (people actually dying) it might have earned those images of missing persons posters. As it is, those images felt more like “wait, I was supposed to take all that destruction seriously?”

      That’s the major difference between something like Avengers and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Some people though the imagery in that was cheap as well, but I think that Spielberg very smartly used images of billowing dust and missing persons posters because they were the new shared language for expressing shock and terror, and perfect for making what would otherwise be a silly horror movie into something with real modern relevance. That movie was made to be horrific. Avengers feels far too light-hearted, with jokes about shawarma, to earn the use of the imagery without also showing the horror of it. I could see something like The Dark Knight (or the upcoming Dark Knight Rises) using that sort of imagery because tonally it takes the stakes of the villains’ carnage more seriously.

      Corey Atad

      May 5, 2012 at 12:42 am

      • My impression as a listener was that they thought all of it was insensitive – massacring skyscrapers at Manhattan as well as people searching for missed ones posting images of them. They thought the whole lot of it reminded to much of 9/11. But I may have misunderstood it. They speak so quickly and it’s not my own language again.

        As of Loke’s speech, which Adam brought up in FS, but which I haven’t commented on here: I thought that scene worked very well. Even as I watched it I thought to myself how much it reminded me of certain Buffy scenes, where villains also sometimes hold bombastic speeches, demon NN who wants to take over the world.

        I’m a big fan of Filmspotting but sometimes I just don’t understand Adam’s preferences for film. Is it perhaps as simple as that he just doesn’t like imaginative films, but prefer realistic dramas?

        Jessica

        May 6, 2012 at 8:58 am

  6. All I can say is that 9/11 never entered my mind while I watched The Avengers. Whether it’s tasteless or not, I’ll ultimately let Americans decide. This was a really good post, Jessica, and I particularly found myself nodding in agreement when you brought up other tragedies from all over the world.

    Emil

    May 4, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    • Thanks Emil. Well, the thought did cross my mind for a moment. There was some shot or angle when they were running away from something in a street or there was smoke and fire or something like that and I thought: “this reminds me of 9/11″. But again: I get that thought often and I don’t take offense from it. It just… IS.

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 8:34 am

  7. This argument has been going ever since 9/11, and I doubt we’ll ever see it resolved in our lifetime. I remember the same concerns being put up when Cloverfield came out, and while I suspect Cloverfield’s use of collapsing buildings was actually designed to tap into that 9/11 emotion, the vast majority of filmmakers simply want to show destruction. Unfortunately it’s easier to show massive destructive power by decimating a city – can you imagine the same battle playing out over the Mojave Desert where noone was in danger? – so setting your world-ending apocalypse in a major urban centre has come to be an easy shorthand for directors.

    It’s funny, but I don’t remember if there was as much hue and cry when Zach Snyder obliterated a vast section of Midtown Manhattan in Watchmen…. so audiences can be funny that way..

    Great thought-provoking topic, Jess!

    Rodney

    May 5, 2012 at 12:31 am

    • Thanks Rodney! Well, I was actually a little bit surprised to see it come up now. “Too soon” after more than ten years… I don’t know. It’s been up before and the first couple of times you see it post 9/11 I guess audiences will react but at some point I think we just need to accept that crumbling skyscrapers is an action movie trope that has existed long before 9/11 and will exist for a long time to come.

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 8:36 am

  8. HOLLY THINK SINCE WE TALKING ABOUT SMASHING -AND- AVENGERS, HOLLY WOULD GO TO HER TWITTER (@INCORRECTDIGIT) AND FACEBOOK HULKY PERSONA. HOLLY GOOD AT SMASHING AND HOLLY ALSO A HULK SO HOLLY HAVE HULK SIZED QUALIFICATIONS TO TALK HERE!

    HOLLY IN HER VIDEO GAME TRAVELS HAS SEEN THIS ONCE BEFORE, IN A GAME CALLED SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH. PEOPLE HAVE A BAD HABIT OF LOOKING AT SUBJECT MATTER AND MAKE INSTANT ASSUMPTIONS, IN SIX DAYS CASE, IT WAS THAT IT WAS A GAME, IN AVENGERS CASE IT WAS THAT IT WAS COMIC BOOK/SUPERHEROES/’KID STUFF’ AND VERY SIMILAR.

    SEE? IF MOVIE DID NOT HAVE SOMETHING THAT PEOPLE ASSOCIATE WITH KID STUFF, IF THERE WERE NO SPANDEX WITH THIS MOVIE, HOLLY WOULD GUESS THAT PEOPLE WOULD BE MORE UPSET IF IT ‘DIDN’T LOOK LIKE CNN COVERAGE’. FROM EVERYTHING HOLLY HAVE READ AND SEEN THEY SHOW NOT ONLY WHAT HAPPENS BUT YES, REALISTIC RESULTS. PERHAPS WAS ‘CHEAP EMOTIONAL PULL’ BUT HOLLY KNOW THE STORY THEY GOING FOR AND IT NOT CHEAP EMOTIONAL PULL THERE. HOLLY NOT REMEMBER WHEN STORY PUBLISHED, BUT HOLLY WOULD GUESS IT WAS WHEN THE DEMOGRAPHIC OF COMIC BOOKS WAS 20+ (ESSENTIALLY ANY TIME AFTER THE 80′S.)

    HOLLY AMAZED AT HOW PEOPLE THINK AVERAGE COMIC BOOK AGE IS STILL LIKE, YOUNGER THAN 18, BUT HOLLY DIGRESS THAT GETTING OFF TOPIC. HOLLY THINK FILM USED IT APPROPRIATELY IN THE CONTEXT OF THE MOVIE. HOLLY ALSO THINK CENSORING IN GENERAL IS WRONG. IF YOU NO LIKE SUBJECT YOU CAN LEAVE. HOLLY LIKE TO POINT OUT THAT WE HAVE FREEDOM IN THESE THINGS FOR REASON, PEOPLE NOT GUARANTEED TO NOT BE OFFENDED, BUT DO HAVE RIGHT TO GET AWAY FROM OFFENSIVE MATERIAL, WHICH THEY CLEARLY HAVE. HOLLY THINK SCENE IN MOVIE NOT DONE REALLY DISTASTEFULLY AND HOLLY THINK ‘TOO SOON’ ARGUMENTS ARE FAR TOO SUBJECT, EITHER IS OKAY OR NOT TO EVER SHOW ON FILM, AND HOLLY HAVE TO SAY SHE GOES WITH OKAY.

    Holly "Digit" Dotson

    May 5, 2012 at 3:10 am

    • This made my eyes bleed. Fact.

      Rodney

      May 6, 2012 at 5:08 am

      • HOLLY HULK SORRY YOUR SQUISHY WHITE EYES HURT AT HULK SIZED LETTERS. HOLLY HEAVES THE WEIGHT OF EVERY KEY BY PRESSING THE SHIFT BUTTON.

        Holly "Digit" Dotson

        May 6, 2012 at 6:21 am

        • Holly is a bit nutty but she’s a longtime blogging friend who I keep close to my heart. Even when my eyes bleed. The big letters makes your comment a bit hard to read. But a hulk’s got to do what a hulk’s got to do, right?

          Jessica

          May 6, 2012 at 8:32 am

          • Exactly, plus I think the like one reader I have that actually follows me on twitter/facebook would have disowned me if I didn’t do the hulk speak just like I do there.

            Holly "Digit" Dotson

            May 6, 2012 at 8:40 am

            • LOL…. Actually, I’m surprised your hulk fingers hit the right keys Holly Hulk…. after all, Hulk smash, right? ;)

              Rodney

              May 6, 2012 at 9:44 am

              • HOLLY HAVE SPECIALLY MADE HULK SIZE RUBBERMAID KEYBOARD. HOLLY ENJOYS WRITING AND GETTING ANGRY AND PASSIONATE ENOUGH ABOUT GAMES TO DO SO!

                Holly "Digit" Dotson

                May 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm

  9. The film never attempts to be a realistic depiction of the world or New York. So for that, I can see no reason why showing fictional action sequences in one of the greatest cities in the world would not be acceptable.

    Some interesting points you made Jessica – but it would appear the hosts of the show you listen were just looking for bits and pieces to criticize, rather than provide fair, valid criticism.

    Sam Fragoso

    May 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    • I don’t want to trash the show tbh. Usually it’s very good. But I thought it was a bit strange that they spent so much time and effort on this part. If you want to criticize and pick The Avengers into pieces there surely must be a lot of other stuff you can pick on.

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 8:38 am

  10. Great post, Jessica. As you know, I didn’t enjoy The Avengers but I agree with you that the movie shouldn’t be criticized for this, and especially with the point you make about not letting the terrorists win. I think the people from the podcast took it way too seriously. Again, maybe it’s the outsider’s perspective. Like you, I was indirectly affected by it and I’m not a US citizen, either.

    fernandorafael

    May 6, 2012 at 2:30 am

    • Thanks Fernando! At least something we agree about in the case of this film! :)

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 8:45 am

  11. While 9/11 was a tragedy I completely agree with you – there were far bigger tragedies. Honestly the whining and the rants every time the film shows something that one person can connect to 9/11 is pathethic. I remember when they wanted to change the title of second LOTR movie and recently when a poster promoting Mad Men with the picture of man falling (!) was considered insensitive because of 9/11.

    sati

    May 6, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    • I don’t know if tragedies can be compared. What is biggest depends so much on how close you are to it and suffering of that kind is unmeasruable. But I agree with you that the crtiticism against anything that even remotely can associate to 9/11 is over the top.

      Jessica

      May 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm

  12. If the movie was made only for the people that lost loved ones in 9/11, this movie was totally inappropriate. But those are just a fraction of the target audience for this movie. You can’t make any movies at all if you had to take everyone in consideration. There’s always someone taking offence. And thats ok. I took offence for every movie just containing or dealing with death when i had lost a close one.

    johanbenjaminsson

    May 7, 2012 at 2:29 am

    • I wonder what the family of JFK felt about Oliver Stone’s film on the assassination…? When is “too soon” no longer too soon?

      Rodney Twelftree

      May 7, 2012 at 4:49 am

      • I have no idea frankly. If ten years isn’t enough I have to assume that we need to wait until noone is alive who still has any personal memories? But again: that’s not what I advocate.

        Jessica

        May 7, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    • Spot on. I think if we never made a movie that could upset someone for this kind of reasons there wouldn’t be any movies made.

      Jessica

      May 7, 2012 at 8:47 pm

  13. I didn’t contextualize it in quite this way, but I can certainly see how someone might be offended by it. All I could help but think is that for an alien invasion it just didn’t feel that bleak to me. I was reminded of how much more haunting the images of destruction in War of the Worlds are in contrast to this somewhat upbeat action/carnage spectacle. In that case, I can see how they would be offended by the film tenuously trying to make a 9/11 corollary. The film doesn’t have the frankness or gravitas to bring up such an issue.

    James Blake Ewing

    May 7, 2012 at 5:14 am

    • It is a very limited alien invasion also, isn’t it? And not overly frightening either. But then it’s OK for a younger audience I think. I think it works for what this is: an adaptation of a comic series…

      For my own part I doubt that they conciously tried to make some kind of 9/11 references. I reckon it’s unavoidable that someone will think of it when you show Manhattan under attack. But yeah, it’s too light to really feel like a serious effort to tap into it.

      Jessica

      May 7, 2012 at 8:51 pm

  14. [...] sequences in the city that never sleeps: New York City. What’s your take on. Jessica’s excellent [...]

  15. I’m American, was watching on TV when the buildings fell, and was definitely impacted by what happened that day. Was I bothered by the destruction of NY buildings in the Avengers? Not at all. This is the first I’ve heard of anyone even connecting the movie with 9/11. And this is hardly the first film to have destruction of buildings in it since 9/11. It never even entered my head while I was watching the film.

    Chip

    May 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    • I don’t think it’s been up all that much; perhaps it was just them. But it did surprise me a bit that they made such a big thing out of it.

      Jessica

      May 8, 2012 at 11:11 pm

  16. I heard the podcast and honestly thought Metcalf was imagining things when he spoke of the “putting up pictures of loved ones” in “Avengers” since I don’t remember that in the film at all. (Neither did my movie-going companion, who I asked after hearing the podcast.)

    So apparently it was in the fake TV news footage at the end of the battle? Wow, could that have been more fleeting?

    Could Metcalf be more of a ninny about this? Doubtful. Guess what, those images are part of our shared consciousness now. It’s like saying you can never make a joke about rape or the Holocaust or something else because some things are sacred. Gimme a break.

    Granted, I don’t agree with the inclusion of those images (even though they didn’t register AT ALL for me) if only because they would be (to those that did see them) tonally jarring with the end of the film. Weird to focus on the “tragic” aftermath of the attack when the Avengers themselves are hopeful and pleased with the outcome of the story. There is not a whiff of tragedy or sense of loss or seriousness in the film’s conclusion.

    Similar 9/11 imagery has been used before in fiction before, even in sci-fi. See “Battlestar Galactica” for numerous appearances of a 9/11 style memorial wall. That show was far closer to the events of 9/11 and had a much more grim tone. I’d say those associations were more appropriate in that context since the tone of that show was much darker and more serious than “Avengers.”

    But, seriously, Metcalf needs to relax his sphincter.

    Jack W.

    May 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    • Hi there and thanks for your support here. Then I wasn’t the only who reacted listening to his rant about it. This said: I’m normally a big fan of the show. It gives me a lot of entertainment and sometimes a little bit of insight and makes me feel as if I’m “in the flow”, having a clue about things that are discussed. This however was a slip step.

      Jessica

      May 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm

  17. Great topic Jessica. I’m not against violence in films and certainly The Avengers’ cartoonish building-smashing is okay in my book. I’m not a fan of the films made about 9/11 but that might be more the fact World Trade Center is so rubbish.

    Dan

    May 10, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    • Thanks Dan! I actually like United 93 a lot. But that’s a completely different genre than this. But I guess there were people taking offence from that too.

      Jessica

      May 10, 2012 at 5:04 pm

  18. [...] weapon of mass destruction.A few weeks back, Jessica at The Velvet Cafe pondered how long a shadow 9/11 should be allowed to cast over the action film habit of city destruction. At [...]


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