I’ve got my first piece up on RogerEbert.com today about a subject I’ve been touching on in movie reviews all summer: the way blockbusters are handling the use of drones and combat robots. I think it’s easy to say that the skepticism about drones that’s shown up in movies like Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness is a simple reflection of Hollywood liberalism or libertarianism, but I think there’s something more complicated, and more specifically cinematic at work here. Superheroes aren’t just fighting back against drones because they can cause collateral damage, or circumvent the justice system. They’re trying to preserve their own jobs:
Hollywood loves a big man with a big gun, but superpeople and action heroes are confronting the same problems that their working brethren further down the economic ladder. Man versus machine has one connotation when Superman’s trying to shut down a World Engine or Kirk is skydiving onto the platform of the drill Nero is using to destroy whole planets. It’s another thing entirely when machines, in this case, drones promise to replace superpowers and action heroes, and to do so with greater precision and less collateral damage than men themselves. If you can take out the bad guy without destroying much of a major metropolitan area along with him — and, it goes without saying because we’re operating in the realm of Hollywood fantasy, without killing specific Americans in the process — why do we need these brawling, imperfect figures to fight our wars and wreck our cities for us?
Superhero movies may be making bank at a rate that continues to be astonishing, but we’re at an interesting point in the discussion of how we feel about the people we’re spending money to watch. Whether it’s mass casualties, the emotional beats of origin stories, or the limited roles of superheroes’ girlfriends, we’ve gotten to know all of these people very well, and to a point where we can see how their stories are going to proceed, rather than simply being swept up in spectacle. Superheroes may have justified their existence against cleaner mechanical alternatives this summer. But I still think it might be creatively and commercially smart to start preparing audiences for new kinds of stories involving superheroes, beyond the simple beats of the superhero genre itself.