On Watching Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness: Mourning and Loss

Yufang and I saw Man of Steel, the latest reboot of the Superman film series, last week. We both enjoyed it and we might see it again.

As I was telling my SF students this morning, I liked how Man of Steel reconnected to Superman’s science fiction roots by treating Superman’s source material with respect and solemnity. Man of Steel is about aliens, evolutionary biology, hatcheries, high technology, artificial intelligence, spaceships, and civilian-military discourse. In this one summer blockbuster, Zach Snyder combined some of the most significant, contemporary SF film themes into a mostly cohesive narrative.

However, Man of Steel, like Star Trek Into Darkness, does a poor job of dealing with the effects of collateral damage, death, and mourning. The climactic battles of both films offer up what Susan Sontag identified as the “imagination of destruction.” Buildings fall and people die.

In Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan arranges terroristic attacks early in the film, single handedly destroys platoons of Klingons, and crashes the Vengeance into San Francisco. Admiral Marcus relishes his attack on Kirk’s Enterprise. In the end, we have a one-year anniversary memorial followed by Kirk getting back into the saddle of the Enterprise wagon train to the stars. The effects of loss are either absent or extremely muted.

In Man of Steel, Kal-El (Superman) battles General Zod through Metropolis. Before this fight, General Zod’s “world engine,” begins destroying Metropolis and the planet Earth by bouncing gravitational waves through the core from an inhabited part of the Indian Ocean (we glimpse a fisherman) and Metropolis. After this considerable devastation–including the witnessing of smashed civilians fleeing their doom, buildings crumple, shatter, and fall from the force of Kal-El and Zod’s incredible fight. Kal-El stops Zod by killing him in what seems to have been an instance of “suicide by cop”–Zod slowly threatening to kill the cornered family in the train station as a means to force Kal-El to follow his destiny as humanity’s protector. What of the family that Superman saves by killing Zod? What of the people that died in Metropolis (and Smallville earlier in the film)?

If we are going to take these films more seriously as they are being presented as serious films with significant stories to tell, should we not also demand them to consider the weight of loss that occurs on the screen? In these films, I believe that we should attempt to grapple with the hard issues of loss and mourning that happen in the real world. Spock loses Kirk (temporarily–Kirk comes back in the same film, unlike Spock in Star Trek II) and Kal-El loses his human and Kyptonian fathers, but these microcosmic losses pale in comparison to the deaths of unnamed persons trapped in the carnage of the Starfleet heroes and sons of Krypton. I am glad that Hollywood is treating these stories with respect and seriousness, but I hope that we will one day see films that acknowledge the debt of loss and come to terms with the mourning of tremendous loss created by the “imagination of disaster.”

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.