The Art of Destruction in Superhero Films

Marvel Entertainment (in conjunction with Disney and 20th Century Fox) has released two new superhero films, long awaited Captain America: Civil War (2016) and X-Men Apocalypse (2016).  If you haven’t seen either film, warning there are some spoilers ahead.

Have you ever stepped back from an action film and looked at the demolition of buildings? The fires, explosions and smoke that leave behind a fictional city to pieces.

It’s quite a spectacle.

spectacle disasterDoes anyone ever stop and think about what happens after? After the pinnacle battle scene where Good defeats Evil, there tends to be some image of recovery. But, the scene circles around the main characters – obviously. But what happens to the average citizen whose car was stepped on, workplace was crushed, home ripped from the ground or family member possibly killed? The art of explosions leaves the common figure, who stands behind the superhero, changed forever. Or dead.

In an extreme case, a man changed forever by one superhero/super-villain battle is the main antagonist behind Captain America: Civil War.

Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) was a citizen of Sokovia with a father, wife and son until Ultron and the Avengers ripped the country out of earth. Zemo tried to seek revenge – which ultimately turned into bombing the United Nations building and manipulating Bucky into his old “Winter Soldier” state. He is one extreme example of someone who suffered from the battles between villains and heroes, which brings up the question of what affect does the spectacle of ruin have on the common man? Civil War brings this question to the forefront of its own universe, embodied in the Sokovia Accords.

The third installment of Captain America brings the Avengers together once again (minus Thor and Hulk), rips them apart and then eventually brings them back together again. The Sokovia Accords lies between them throughout the course of film. The Accords is an agreement between the Avengers and the governments of the world, where the United Nations controls all decisions and actions of the superhero squad when it comes to all things saving the world.

“The Sokovia Accords. Approved by 117 countries, it states that the Avengers shall no longer be a private organization. Instead, they’ll operate under the supervision of a United Nations panel, only when and if that panel deems it necessary.”

Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt) to the Avengers

The Accords came to fruition after battles between the Avengers and many enemies throughout past Marvel films, which caused great casualties and destruction of New York, NY; Sokovia (fictional European country), and Washington D.C.

Past films within this universe such as Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) play right into the creation of mass devastation without much focus on the casualties the battles create. You can find more destructive fight scenes from older films here.

Civil War is different from the preceding installments because it confronts this problem – among the action/superhero genre – within its own plot line. Through the conflict of government control vs. independence, Civil War is bringing to the forefront the question of what happens to all the people who live in places like New York and Sokovia once they have been destroyed.


The film’s conclusion veers away from this problem and focuses on the relationships between the Avengers. As Team Cap and Team Iron Man fought each other, secrets were unraveled and some avengers left in pieces. The world’s recovery from super-villains and superheroes falls to background once again.

Audiences have been conditioned to be emotionally connected with the main characters in the middle of the chaos- whether good or evil. We are supposed to view the battle as a spectacle rather than a tragedy.  It is not the audiences’ fault that we aren’t focusing on the individuals living in that building that was just blown to bits, the camera makes us focus on the main characters’ and the cloud of smoke behind them is the wow factor. That being said, lets take a look out how 20th Century Fox’s newest release fits into this dilemma.

The ninth installment of the X-Men series centered around ancient mutant Apocalypse – aka En Sabah Nur – who awakens from his tomb in the 1980s with the goal of taking over the world. He searches for other mutants to be his ‘Four Horsemen’ and help him “cleanse the human race” (4).  The X-Men, during the time they no longer call themselves ‘The X-Men,’ get caught up in Apocalypses’ search for mutants once he finds out Professor X can reach each mind in the world. Also, Magneto joins Apocalypse when his family is killed after his secret was revealed while living in Poland. Thus, the battle between X-Men and Apocalypse and the Four Horsemen arose.

X-Men Apocalypse (2016) was my entrance into the X-Men universe, so while I was missing tiny details and hints that referenced past films, I noticed other things. Things like how little real humans were seen being affected by Apocalypse’s plan to destroy the entire world. Governments, especially the U.S. Government, were mentioning how the nuclear weapons were being released, but there was little screen time for the common man’s suffering.

Sean O’Donnell from CinemaBlend describes Apocalypse as a “true armageddon,” that no X-Men film has seen before. (1)

“Apocalypse will have more of the mass destruction that X-Men films, to date, have not relied upon. There’s definitely now a character and a story that allow room for that kind of spectacle.”

– Bryan Singer, Director of X-Men Apocalypse


X-Men Apocalypse differs from Civil War because the plot focuses solely on characters like Magento – whose entire purpose for Apocalypse is to rip metal out of the earth, which in turn destroys homes, cars, workplaces and all past worlds that have been buried under the earth.

This film’s conclusion reinforces’ its focus on the main characters and not the masses as the X-Men begin to recover after the X-Mansion is left in pieces. Fortunately for them, Jean Grey and Magneto have the ability to reconstruct the school. As for the rest of the world, we never see what happens to it – leaving audiences with a hope for its recovery in the back of our minds, maybe.

Most action, superhero and disaster movies that destroy a city, country or planet have this flaw embedded in their plot lines. Star Wars is another franchise that has this dilemma within its series.


In her piece, “The Star Wars Fandom Menace,” Lili Loofbourow synthesizes this problematic concept within Star Wars: A Force Awakens (2016).

occ61daShe argues that the way audiences are encouraged to regard the “annihilation of several planets” (2) is so marginal that by the end, audiences aren’t going to care about how many planets were destroyed, but the fact that Han Solo and his son are enjoying the last few moments of that planet’s existence while standing on a bridge. Loofbourow sees this as a fatal flaw within the Star Wars series, and I believe that this flaw is embedded into many other films as well.  

Warner Bros’ Man of Steel (2013) has also gained some criticism for lack of concern in fight scenes. In Devin Faraci’s “Why The Destruction In Man of Steel Matters,” he argues that Superman’s entire purpose is to save people, so his fight against General Zod in Metropolis doesn’t play out tman-of-steel-attack-on-metropolishe way it should. The story is more in depth than this blog post, but essentially General Zod’s World Engines are going to destroy the earth unless Superman destroys them first. Your classic ‘big machine that will end the planet’ kind of conflict. After the engines are destroyed, Superman and Zod fight it out in Metropolis, and that is where the casualties begin. Unlike the trope where the superhero lets the villain escape to save innocent lives, Superman battles General Zod while a populous city gets wiped out in the process.

“[H]is utter disregard for the collateral damage was just jaw-dropping as they just kept crashing through buildings full of survivors…Superman rarely if ever bothered to give the safety and welfare of the people around him one bit of thought.”

– Mark Waid, veteran comic book writer

Faraci goes on to say that, just like other superhero films, the fight scene is “without a doubt, magnificent spectacle.” (5)


Does portraying this message over and over on-screen have an impact on how audiences view real life destruction? When tragedy hits thousands or millions of people, we as a society often fail to genuinely empathize with the sufferers. Do people react to real-life situations the same way we do while watching movies?

The way the genre is headed, this type of performance is now becoming similar to an assembly line where a battle sequence can be pieced together with exciting, but predictable pieces. Next time you’re watching a superhero or action film, see if you notice any faces within the catastrophe, and not just your heroes or villains, but every Helmut Zemo (before he goes insane and tries to take down an force like Steve Rogers).

What are your thoughts on destruction in superhero films? Let me know in the comments!


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