Damage is a form of design, and the traces of damage inflicted by political violence—a façade stippled by the spray of bullets, a penumbra of smoke around the hole where a door or window once was, or a pile of rubble no longer identifiable as architecture at all—are at least as significant as any of the elements from which buildings are constructed for living, for the living.
Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites.
In 1975, the poet and vocalist Gil Scott-Heron, accompanied by musician Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band, sang the chorus, “So tell me why, can’t you understand / That there ain’t no such thing as a superman / There ain’t no such thing as a superman.” According to comic book scholar Adilifu Nama, what Scott-Heron meant, in short, is that Superman does not fight for the Black man.3 While the first impulse might be to disagree and suggest that Superman fights for all humankind (he is, after all, portrayed as Earth’s global protector), Nama’s point is that Superman preserves the status quo. Politics and economic woes remain largely unchanged by the extra-terrestrial immigrant Kal-El, and while he may rid Metropolis of lawbreakers and sinister bandits, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color might have a hard time trying to flag down Superman to help with, say, systemic racism or redlining. Neither fighting for progressive values nor proactively advocating for marginalized communities, DC’s first superhero, “a virtually indestructible white man flying around the world in the name of ‘truth, justice, and the American way’ is not a figure black folk should waste time believing in.”4 For those oppressed and cast aside, Superman is nothing more than childish fantasy, a sentiment echoed in Marvel’s 2018 feature film Black Panther when sympathetic villain Killmonger, death imminent, laments, “Can you believe that? A kid from Oakland walking around and believing in fairytales?”5
Superheroes in both comic books and film have historically been regarded as humanity’s saviors, heroic vigilantes fighting for juvenile notions of “good versus evil” centered around simplistic moral axioms. These figures are typically anti-theft, anti-murder, anti-lies and feel compelled to step in when law enforcement cannot aptly resolve these conflicts. This was certainly the case with Marvel’s Captain America, who was illustrated punching Adolf Hitler in his debut issue in 1940. Yet, the two comics powerhouses DC and Marvel each approached the production of heroes differently. DC privileged less corruptible personalities, strong morals, and extraterrestrial magic, whereas Marvel’s heroes were typically average citizens cursed with powerful abilities with some exceptions.6 As superheroes grew up, so did the representation of their moral values, but DC and Marvel’s distinctions remained largely intact. The 1960s, often called the Silver Age of Comic Books, saw the introduction of fallible heroes such as Marvel’s Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther, X-Men, and DC’s Justice League of America. Not only were Marvel’s “reluctant superheroes’’ troubled and insecure; they were also called upon to face less obvious foes like civil unrest and the Vietnam War. By the time Scott-Heron wrote “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman,” both DC and Marvel comic book heroes were deeply ingrained in the American cultural imagination. Still, the values they represented remained nebulous. For instance, some protagonists actively fought against the US military-industrial complex, while others kept it afloat. Superheroes’ inherent fallibility was eventually addressed in 1986 with the introduction of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (DC Comics), a tale of heroes whose “super” status, in contrast to most other DC storylines, engendered more complex questions than simple answers regarding superpowers, humanity, and morality.
Depicted as rogue vigilantes, Watchmen’s heroes stood against their morally superior god-like predecessors. This raised a key question for the genre as a whole: when superheroes fight, what exactly do they fight for? What values do they embody? Captain America and Superman purportedly fight for “justice,” yet that sentiment is often construed as “the American way.” From this perspective, as Nama suggests, heroes fight for and uphold “white racial superiority and American imperialism,”7 a notion evidenced most clearly in DC and Marvel’s whitewashed team rosters.8
But as the superhero genre made its way onto the screen, it also brought with it a material component. Superheroes require cities to save and property to protect. Inevitably, the fights for supposed justice generate much collateral damage, making architecture—or rather the destruction of architecture—a significant component of their narratives. Beyond a simple action movie trope, this architectural violence has become the ideological visual language of the superhero genre on screen, a kind of reification or materialization of the values put forth by the story. Aided by high fidelity visual effects and simulation techniques, damage and destruction are core components of today’s heroic movies. Although a few recent feature films address the ramifications of this destruction (see: Disney’s Incredibles and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War), this ideology relies on a victory-at-all-cost mentality that positions all damage as collateral. In other words, it is centered on the premise that demolishing buildings and leveling downtowns are okay if the story ends with victory for the heroes. However, as the following will make evident, collateral damage is not an objective phrase; it is as much a political descriptor as an architectural one.
If Marvel’s comic book narratives were a response to social unrest in the 1960s, today we can identify a similar link between superhero movies and contemporary social justice issues. Ideological paradigms are not limited to canonical documentary images such as the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe and the World Trade Center or burning police stations in the spring of 2020. Fictional images like the destruction of New York and the imaginary country of Sokovia in the Marvel Cinematic Universe also contribute to those paradigms. Because ideology (defined here as the perpetuation of specific values, myths, and principles) is both social and aesthetic, it provides a structure to critique how images of destruction are communicated to the public and how popular culture reflects and, at times, glosses over pressing social matters. Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) was as much a response to a lack of Black superhero films as an adaptation of the original comic; Watchmen was as much a deconstruction of the superhero genre as it was a satire. Oscillating between reality and fiction, this essay outlines the means through which collateral damage is politicized and presented as an ideological mechanism on the screen and in real life, a mechanism that depends wholly on who is narrating the story and its vehicles of dissemination. Whether as movies, news stories, comic books, or 3D visualizations, images of architectural destruction contain within them a panoply of cultural associations ranging from implicit racism to white hegemony to imperialist legacies that must be unpacked.
In the wake of September 11, 2001, images of destruction flooded media outlets. Chaos and resilience were simultaneously portrayed by photographs of a crumbling metropolis, a city shaken to its core. From an architectural perspective, we can say that the dominating material image of the years following 9/11/2001 was that of rubble and smoke, heightened by US media coverage of debris from Ground Zero to Baghdad. As the focus shifted from search and rescue to revenge, images of the damage done to New York had a double duty; they had to both symbolize American unity—New York’s reconstruction and tidying up—as well as fuel a collective desire for retribution—the US’s quest for vengeance in the Middle East.
Collateral damage per se was not experienced on the day the World Trade Center towers fell. It was, however, quite prominent in the Iraq War. This is largely because, as Andrew Herscher has written, “damage inflicted in war is either strategic, in the service of the war’s end, or collateral, an accidental by-product of the intent to achieve that end.”9 Damage and destruction are not neutral signifiers of some objective reality but are instead highly subjective and motivated descriptors. The attacks on New York were labeled terrorism by some, and collateral damage by others, revealing damage’s “double status” as a “signifier whose meaning is wholly determined by the chain of signification it is inserted into.”10 In short, what is or is not collateral damage depends entirely on who is telling the story and why they are telling it.
Narrators in stories of destruction reveal their motivations by isolating right and wrong, good, and bad, into clear camps. Take, for example, Marvel Studios’s 2012 depiction of another attack on New York. The general formula for the portrayal of destruction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) follows a similar logic: bad guys do terrorism, good guys do collateral damage; bad aliens are non-humanoid monsters, good aliens are human-passing heroes. In Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012), bad aliens have come to disrupt the flow of life and it is up to Nick Fury’s reluctant crew to return it to normal. In the process of kicking these invaders out of Earth, much of New York is damaged along the way. But death and destruction are mere casualties of war. As with the American narrative of the war on Iraq, our heroes’ good intentions far outweigh the material value of the city. Similarly, in the 2015 follow-up feature, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the team—upon confronting a villain who turns an entire city into an Earth-shattering asteroid—must make a quick value judgment between the cost of citizens’ lives and the physical city. In the end, the imaginary city of Sokovia is decimated, but at least the heroes saved as many lives as they could. Both films paint collateral damage as an unfortunate yet necessary side-effect of saving the world.
In 2016, Marvel finally addressed the Avengers’ carelessness with the built environment. As if to provide a meta-critique of its own reliance on explosive visual effects (VFX), Captain America: Civil War had the heroes face a villain worse than sinister aliens or murderous robots: their own ethical values. With the plot point of the Sokovia Accords, a holdover from Age of Ultron and a means to hold the superhero squad accountable for their destruction, Marvel Studios introduced the role and politics of collateral damage into their universe.11 The team is confronted with images of their own destructive recklessness causing a rift between those who wish to be above the law and those who agree to be held accountable. The Sokovia Accords could be likened to Watchmen’s Keene Act of 1977, a fictional law that outlawed vigilantes and superheroes. But despite its emphasis on legislation and open discussion of ethics, Civil War upholds a heroic interpretation of vigilantism. The Avengers eventually skirt the Accords and, much to the audience’s delight, save the world regardless of the criminality of their actions.
As its title suggests, Civil War is a highly political movie. Much of it revolves around the power relationships between governing bodies and superhuman vigilantism, manifested primarily as an internal battle amongst members of the Avengers. It also reinforces Nama’s critique of American imperialism when the main villain, Zemo, a vengeful victim of the attack on Sokovia, proclaims he wants “to see an empire fall.”12 Presumably referencing the Avengers, this statement serves a metaphor for renegade imperialist impulses like the post-9/11 war on terror. Moreover, Zemo’s portrayal as a terrorist and not a heroic vigilante further cements the role of the narrator as the judge of right and wrong. In a parallel story, we might regard Zemo as a hero avenging the death of his family and the Avengers as rampant destroyers of the built environment.
Images of destruction are thus a productive medium for placing good and evil in any narrative. Together with the phrase collateral damage, narrators establish plainly who is right and wrong. Upon further inspection, however, these images rarely tell the whole story. As media scholar Scott Bukatman has pointed out, “superheroes are a trivial and unconvincing lot . . . nothing really changes through their actions.”13 Organized crime always resurges in Gotham, and Spider-Man always has a new enemy to face. In the case of the MCU, the Avengers are not proactive seekers of justice, but rather reactionary vigilantes always responding to threats. Here we see Nama’s assertion that superheroes preserve the status quo in full effect. Throughout all Avengers films, the team is portrayed as a collection of reactionary heroes fighting to regain normalcy without regard for injustices endemic to that normalcy. Though not mentioned outright, it is implied that normalcy in the MCU parallels real-world conditions such as social inequity and white racial hegemony. Our heroes focus on fighting aliens while largely ignoring the “practice of white supremacy” that on top of perpetuating anti-Black racism, as Cornel West remarks, “has left its indelible mark on all spheres of American life—from the prevailing crimes of Amerindian reservations to the discriminatory realities against Spanish-speaking Latinos to racial stereotypes against Asians.”14 Instead of avenging social injustice, the cinematic heroes are concerned with suppressing threats deemed too overwhelming for law enforcement. Historian Daniel Immerwahr describes this as another swerve from their original depiction in the comic books. “Injustice,” Immerwahr notes, “is a word barely heard in the Marvel movies—only Black Panther explores the theme. The other films are obsessed with a different word: protection.”15 For the MCU, this constitutes two distinct narrative angles epitomized respectively by Tony Stark’s dream of a “suit of armor around the world”16 and King T’Challa’s reflection on African diaspora. The phrase collateral damage thus starts to unravel if we pull at each individual’s motivations. This requires asking how damage should be perceived, how it is justified, and who has the right to destroy.
The Right to Smash
The real and fictional attacks on New York City represent the means through which architectural destruction is politicized and how images of rubble and crumbling buildings are inherently tied to privilege and inequity. Despite attempts at oversight, our pop culture heroes are afforded the privilege of no accountability. For example, Captain America coyly encourages Hulk to “smash” as he wishes whereas protesters in Minneapolis in 2020, calling for justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, are depicted as “thugs” and “looters.”17 The narratives of heroism and resilience that accompanied the World Trade Center attacks and the alien invasion in The Avengers are no longer applicable when marginalized citizens are inflicting damage.
Again, it is the cinematic portrayals of destruction that best illustrate this double standard. For instance, it is by no means a coincidence that two of the most destructive scenes in the Avengers canon take place in Africa. The first, from Age of Ultron, depicts the destruction of downtown Johannesburg by an out-of-control Hulk. Filmed on location in the South African city, the sequence follows Tony Stark in his Hulkbuster suit attempting to subdue the recently agitated Hulk. As both rampage through the city, we see glimpses of Johannesburg’s architecture, a panoply of colonial structures and modernist high-rises. The fight culminates in a skeletal building under construction, which, after a quick scan by Stark’s computer, appears to be empty of civilians (i.e., safe to destroy). Stark collapses the entire tower on top of Hulk, subduing him back to normal. The second sequence, from Civil War, takes place in Lagos, Nigeria. Although filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, another prominent Black area, the series of events depicts a traditional informal market disrupted by the Avengers chasing down what is left of Hydra. When the villain prepares to self-destruct, Scarlet Witch picks him up and throws him toward a neighboring building causing an explosion that kills hundreds. Lagos is the last straw that forces the United Nations to draft the Sokovia Accords.
The episodes in Johannesburg and Lagos reveal two subtexts of superhero destruction in the MCU: (1) the Avengers follow a kind of American imperialist doctrine abroad, and (2) African cities are not afforded the privilege of revenge. The former is characterized by the large discrepancy between damage caused outside the US (Age of Ultron, Civil War) and damage caused within its borders (The Avengers, The Winter Soldier). Though not officially a government agency, the team’s actions appear to echo those of the US military after 9/11, particularly with their peacekeeping rhetoric and Western savior complexes.18 The latter subtext is exemplified by the films’ antagonists. While the attacks on New York and Sokovia spawn villains like Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture—a displaced contractor working on post-alien cleanup—and the previously mentioned Civil War instigator Zemo, the only African justice-seeking antagonist we encounter is Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger. But Killmonger’s quest to avenge his father and disrupt the aforementioned status quo features significantly less destruction than those of other villains. Collateral damage in Black Panther is minimal, and when compared to Age of Ultron, almost negligible—a car, a wall here and there. Wakandan heroes and villains are not given the same right to “smash” as Hulk and the other Avengers.
It is difficult to ignore the significance of a movie about African diaspora displaying significantly less destruction than its counterparts featuring white heroes. Whether intentional or not, the lack of grandiose collateral damage in Black Panther implies that audiences can handle plenty of destruction, but not if it is generated by Black superheroes. This is a social phenomenon that extends well beyond the superhero genre and the screen in general. Despite attempts to rectify these biases, Hollywood’s fraught history of portraying Black people as thugs and criminals still seeps through.
Heroes and Villains
If the cinematic representation of the right to destroy touches on a racial divide, then this double standard is exponentially multiplied in the contemporary moment, specifically in the case of public protests. Despite the peaceful nature of most Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations in the spring of 2020, the dominant narrative stemming from these events turned towards the violent exceptions—images of individuals taking it upon themselves to rid cities of monuments to racism and calling attention to injustice by damaging property.19 The destruction of confederate statues and storefronts took center stage and was framed by many media outlets as “looting” and “riots” that had gotten out of control. This was a powerful narrative maneuver. As Antonia Malchik has pointed out, “when a protest is labelled a riot, it invites the automatic judgment of lawlessness and irrational, illegal behavior begging to be quashed.”20 These descriptors of unrest during protests bypassed the purposes and complexities behind the demonstrations and immediately generated weighted narratives and knee-jerk political reactions. A Fox Business article covering a damaged Target store in Minneapolis described it as a “store that was looted by rioters.”21 Another piece in USA Today declared that “some criminals used George Floyd protests as cover for looting.”22 That these articles skirt any mention of collateral damage should be expected. As we have seen, collateral damage is a descriptor only afforded to soldiers, white Avengers, and white vigilantes.
But who is telling these stories? Because the construction of heroes and villains in both news stories and superhero movies depends wholly on the narrator, it is necessary to investigate these viewpoints. We may consider Marvel (owned by Disney) the narrator of the Avengers opus. Having an American corporation describe canonically American values and how they might heroically disseminate across the globe further reinforces the films’ imperialist actions and motivations. In news media, our narrators are less abstract. Today’s US news outlets constitute a highly politicized landscape of information. It is therefore unsurprising to see organizations on the side of governing bodies, who are actively against BLM values, spin protests and political demonstrations as “riots.” In both cases, narratives are supported and exaggerated by framing images of architectural destruction and property damage against a rhetoric of violence, sometimes necessary, other times not.
Caught up in these images of collateral damage are questions concerning human lives versus property and law enforcement’s role in upholding justice. Again, we must understand that these images are fragments of a larger narrative. A conclusion that emerges upon closer inspection of BLM protest imagery is that protesters, like superheroes, rarely engage in unrest for the fun of it. According to Malchik, “they do it because they feel they have no other choice” for communicating injustice. Damage done to capitalist establishments directly addresses the failure of capitalism to benefit non-white communities, toppled statues shed light on the remnants of confederate ideology in the US, and stealing material goods from already profitable retailers calls attention to the original theft of land and people in American history. Seen from this perspective, images of boarded up storefronts and burning police stations signify collateral and necessary architectural damage from a war on injustice.
Like the canonical photographs of the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, these images engender powerful narratives about social order and ideology. However, they rarely tell the whole story. Consider, for instance, Charles Jencks’s famous reference to the Pruit-Igoe demolition. An often-rehearsed quote from his The Language of Post-Modern Architecture states: “Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32pm . . . when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme . . . [was] given the final coup de grâce by dynamite.”23 What is typically omitted is the second part of the quote where he states: “Previously it had been vandalized, mutilated, and defaced by its black inhabitants.”24 The imagery that Jencks conjures up is eerily similar to right-wing narratives on protest activity. Might we ask instead, why the communities felt compelled to damage? What were they calling attention to? While modern architecture (by way of specific racist and negligent urban planning policies) certainly failed the residents of Pruitt-Igoe, the photographs of its destruction also fail to communicate the complexities inherent in architectural unbuilding, which as we have seen goes beyond heroes and villains.25 There is always more to architectural damage than can be presented in an image. We need only probe further.