Superhero battles are notoriously bad news for urban infrastructure. It’s a populist genre that developed in the decade-and-a-half after a collapsing building became the primary imprinted image in the American subconscious, so on one hand this sort of city-scale destruction can be expected. But as the scope of the stories being told expands exponentially to match the special effects being used to tell them, the presumed body count has grown just as rapidly as the production budgets.
For example: In the climax of Superman II, Zod’s team of black-clad villains attack downtown Metropolis, but the worst they do is explode a few trucks, knock out a few walls, and blow some poor man’s ice cream cone into his face. Meanwhile, in the climax of Man of Steel, Zod and Superman lay full and detailed waste to a hefty percentage of the city. Some audiences critiqued the film and director Zack Snyder for the sequence, in which the two grappling Kryptonians pinball off and through buildings, bringing skyscrapers presumably filled with innocent bystanders crashing to the ground. The collateral damage was too extensive and too faceless for a hero such as Superman, went the line of thinking.
“I was surprised because that’s the thesis of Superman for me, that you can’t just have superheroes knock around and have there be no consequences,” says Snyder. The director says he had always intended for the dead to be counted. Indeed, Batman v Superman addresses these concerns head-on—Superman’s victims serve as Batman’s impetus to take him down. “One of the things I liked was Zack’s idea of showing accountability and the consequences of violence and seeing that there are real people in those buildings,” says Ben Affleck, who plays Batman. “And in fact, one of those buildings was Bruce Wayne’s building so he knew people who died in that Black Zero event.”
Of course, Man of Steel is hardly the first (or the last) superhero movie to feature grand-scale catastrophe. The genre is littered with detritus. The third act of Avengers: Age of Ultron featured an entire city being lifted into the atmosphere, and a villain planning to then throw it directly at Earth. Beyond some galactic being showing up and playing billiards with the planets, that’s about as blunt an example of mega-carnage as can get. The main difference is in the tone. “There are other superhero movies where they joke about how basically no one’s getting hurt,” Snyder says. “That’s not us. What is that message? That’s it’s okay that there’s this massive destruction with zero consequence for anyone? That’s what Watchmen was about in a lot of ways too. There was a scene, that scene where Dan and Laurie get mugged. They beat up the criminals. I was like the first guy, I want to show his arm get broken. I want a compound fracture. I don’t want it to be clean. I want you to go, ‘Oh my God, I guess you’re right. If you just beat up a guy in an alley he’s not going to just be lying on the ground. It’s going to be messy.”
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