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Superhero Movie Themes: Collateral Damage Is People!

Two of this summer's super hero movies share a theme of how normal people get hurt when powered people fight.

Before the movie Captain America: Civil War came out, Charlie Jane Anders wrote about the themes that the big superhero movies are  using this year: the use or abuse of power and state control.

I don’t expect either Batman v. Superman or Civil War to offer an explicit critique of our collective fantasies about power and invulnerability—fantasies that all our political leaders, to some extent, have been pandering to for years.

But she does hope that, "along the way, countless moviegoers might be forced to think for a moment about what kind of responsibility goes along with the use of power."

It worked, I did think about the responsibilities that come with power. And it wasn't just because, Mr. "With-great-power-comes-great-responsibility" makes an appearance half way into the movie. I also though about the way the writers of Civil War used human "collateral damage" as the main reason the government needed control over super-powered people.

io9 Writer Germain Lussier, explains, "..the government wanting to control the Avengers, is based on collateral damage: a smaller number of people who mistakenly die to save billions of others."  He also notes that collateral damage is  "the go-to conflict in superhero movies (see also Batman v Superman)." (I will also note that collateral property damage was used as one of the story drivers in The Incredibles.)

Both movies have characters who were survivors and victims of the collateral damage that happened when the Good Guys With Powers (GGWP) fought the Bad Guys With Powers (BGWP).  The movie Civil War did a much better job than Superman vs. Batman in developing the reasoning that drove various characters to act and react.

What does a country (or the world) do once their enemies are vanquished and then their powerful protectors unintentionally go too far? Steps need to be taken, by governments, to protect the people they represent.  That means getting the powered people under control.

The film makers needed a way to get the audience personally involved with the plight of the survivors and victims of the powered people's battles. At the same time they didn't want to make the super heroes bad guys, since they saved the day (and brought in the box office!) To do this the writers set up three types of collateral  damage survivors we could relate to. Both films did this, but again, the Civil War script was better so I'll talk about theirs.


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First Collateral Damage Survivor

Civil War sets up a scene with Tony Stark (Iron Man) and a victim's mother. She essentially tells Stark. "My son died because you got out of control." She made the connection personal--his actions led directly to her dead son. It's a powerful scene. This hit Stark's character hard. She was right. He was guilty and he knew it. (In the last film he accidentally created Ultron, the bad guy the Avengers had to destroy.) This revelation leads him to see the need for oversight. It changes his attitude and behavior in the future.

American politicians have learned that when you want to start a war, you ramp up the threat of the bad guy. The bad guy becomes Double Hitler, his followers are demons. What the politicians, military and the embedded press DON'T do is show the innocent people who are injured and killed while the good guy army are kicking the ass of the bad guy and his followers..

Second Collateral Damage Survivors 

Another group of survivors of the GGWP vs BGWP fight assembled to put a system in place to oversee the powered people. The powered people needed to agree to this oversight and be willing to submit to their authority. These agreements were called the Sokovia Accords  (Not to be confused with the Honda's) Since normals currently have no way to control the super powered, if some powered people decided to break them, powered people who believe in the will of the people, would need to step in.  Unfortunately, Steve Rogers (Captain America) just had a bad experience with government--it was filled with corrupt liars in the movie The Winter Solider, and did not represent the will of the people..

If you find out that your politicians serve a small group of people, instead of the will of the people, you might not willingly agree to do their bidding.

Third Collateral Damage Survivor

Still another survivor didn't care about all the lives saved by the good guys fighting the bad guys. What he knows is that his family is dead. He might have known that the good guys didn't do it intentionally, but he still wants the people who were involved to pay. He also wants them to feel the same pain he did. He can't take on the super powered people himself, so he sets them up against each other.

To an outsider these actions make no sense.  "Why are the survivors doing this? They should be thankful for our guy's actions. Why don't they think of all the people who didn't die, instead of the few that did? Look at all the good they have done!"

From listening to right-wing radio, and reading their writings I know that they expect the families of the innocent people we accidentally kill with drones to understand we are doing this for the greater good. We were just taking out the bad guys, is nothing personal, it's just war business.

Lines like, "It's for the greater good" work as long as everyone believes that the actions are in service of the greater good. People also need to agree on the definition of "the greater good."  Even then, when it's your family and friends having to sacrifice, "acceptable loses" looks more like reckless endangerment.

In "24" the heroes were always saying. "This is our only choice!"  right before they tortured someone. Americans always think they will be the ones in power who have to make the hard choice to do bad things "for the greater good."  But they never put themselves in the position of the person being tortured, who was mistakenly identified.

On Madame Secretary violence is constantly being pushed as the answer to conflicts, but the Secretary of State--or her husband--usually find other solutions that work. Then it is begrudgingly acknowledged, "Well diplomacy worked this time--and the last 30 times--but next time, we are totally going to bomb someone!"

In the movies the screenwriters need the audience to go along with the flow of the movie narrative. Sometimes they want you to identify with the powerful, the heroes, people like being heroes. Other times people identify with the underdog, the oppressed, the innocent.

Image from: Zombie Designs ZD

If you had super powers would you be a good guy or a bad guy?

But people also identify with the innocent survivors of the super heroes' big fights. What if your family was killed in the collateral damage? Don't you have a right, an obligation even, to go to the super-powered people and say, "Hey, I know you had good intentions, but you need to be more careful in your pursuit of the bad guys. We appreciate what you did, really, but it's not all about you. We live on this planet too."

If you were a survivor, human collateral damage, following a big fight of powered people might you want to get together with other survivors and figure out how to limit the damage before the next fight? And if it looks like the powered people can't be stopped by normals, might you turn to other powered people for help?

And, if you can convince a powered person to look out for you, can you really know if he is on your side, or when it comes down to it are his loyalties to other powered people?

Civil War leaves the viewer in an ambiguous place about the future. The movie marketers keep pushing, "Are you Team Captain America or Team Iron Man?" To me the real question is "Which powered person will be on my team?"

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