Superheroes have been household names since the birth of comic books in the 1930’s. Entrenched in the Great Depression and on the cusp of another World War, America needed both a savior and a distraction.
Now, thanks to the rise of superhero movies in the 21st century, names like Iron Man, Captain America, Batman, and Superman not only conjure images of ink lines and primary colors, but also of real-life faces to go with them. We have undeniably entered the glorious era of movies as cape-wearing figures bash super villains and cleanse the world of evil on screens five stories high.
Studios have already laid out plans for caped crusaders for the next four years—a total of 18 movies have been announced from big boys Marvel Studios and DC Comics to be released from 2017-2020. What caused the sudden increase of adaptations, and the growing audience of fanboys and fangirls? In a post-9/11 world, people turned to superheroes.
The industry returned the favor by reflecting the world around us, giving us not what we deserve, but what we need: hope, assurance, conflict, resurrection, and more questions than we bargained for.
9/11 was undeniably a paradigm shift. Its effects would ripple throughout the next decade and continues to impact the world today. The superhero industry’s response to the unjust tragedy was felt immediately. Those who went to the movies to escape the ubiquitous news coverage on Sept. 11, 2001 would have seen a trailer for “Spider-Man,” which would be released in the following May. The trailer, which featured Spider-Man trapping a helicopter of bank robbers in a web strung up between the Twin Towers, was quickly pulled out of circulation along with posters featuring the towers reflected in his eyes.
The nation, still reeling from the horrors of 9/11, flooded the theaters the following year, hitting a record high for U.S. admissions—1.64 billion moviegoers—in 2002, according to the 2006 U.S. Theatrical Market Statistics.
Spider-Man raked in the highest domestic growth of 2002, beating well-established franchises “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” (“All Time Worldwide Opening”). The nation clearly hungered for a figure who could save the country—or, in this case, at least defend New York.
Viewers needed reassurance. After the terrorist attacks, Sony added a brief scene at the end of the film, where Spidey swings through the city and grabs hold of a flag pole. Viewers are left with the image of Spider-Man under the American flag. This was an undeniable message of solidarity to the country. It was the crumbs of hope the studio could offer and a salute from Spider-Man to the real heroes of America, much like comic books produced Ground Zero issues whose covers read, “The world’s greatest super hero creators honor the world’s greatest heroes 9.11.2001.” This was only the first sign of a ripple that would be felt throughout the superhero movie industry.
Despite its critical and box office flop, the reemergence of Clark Kent on the big screen in “Superman Returns” is as significant as the title suggests. In the movie, Superman returns to Earth after a five-year hiatus. Superman Returns was released in 2006, approaching the five-year anniversary of September 11.
The state of the world—post-Katrina, post-Iraq war, post-9/11—called for the reemergence of the undefeatable alien from Krypton to defend Metropolis, the fictional stand-in for New York. His return to the big screen fulfilled American sentiment for a Messiah.
America also needed their faith in the government restored. The Marvel Universe began building in 2008 with the release of “Iron Man,” in which a post-credits scene showed director Nick Fury recruiting Tony Stark to what would become S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers Initiative.
S.H.I.E.L.D., which stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, came to represent a counter-terrorism organization that protected the American people as superheroes stood united with the government. It was a much-needed, timely response in an era when, for decades, the American public had been disillusioned with the government.
What could be more reassuring for audiences to watch S.H.I.E.L.D., a law-enforcement agency, recruit superheroes to defend New York from Chitauri aliens in the 2012 blockbuster “The Avengers”? Marvel raked in $200.3 million dollars that opening weekend, beating all previous records of domestic weekend box offices. Yet, the film still drew a line between “good” and “bad” government.
At the end of the film, the World Security Council votes to send an atomic bomb to New York, which Iron Man carries into outer space, barely averting disaster. However, the film ends with our faith in the government-funded S.H.I.E.L.D. still intact.
That faith would not last for long—in both real life and on the screen. In 2013, former CIA employee Edward Snowden leaked classified information from the National Security Agency and revealed how big of a role the government played in normal citizens’ everyday lives. The increase in global surveillance was a direct effect of 9/11—many analysts today believe 9/11 could have been avoided if surveillance programs had been green lit earlier.
The “Big Brother” trope and turn against the government was reflected most prominently in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the sequel to “Captain America: The First Avenger” and follow-up to the Avengers’ battle in New York. It was a departure from previous tones of superhero movies, taking on a political thriller genre.
Though Snowden’s leak occurred during the filming of the movie, it was already clear the country had already been feeling the effects of increased surveillance.
“It was all leading up to Snowden,” Joe Russo said in an interview with Asawin Suebsaeng. “It was all in the ether [already], it was all part of the zeitgeist.”
In the film, Steve Rogers faces S.H.I.E.L.D.’s latest endeavor, “Project Insight,” three-giant armed helicarriers that could immediately eliminate potential terrorists—or, at least, anyone who could be considered a terrorist by the standards of an algorithm. In Nick Fury’s words, Project Insight could “neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.” Cap protests that “this isn’t freedom, this is fear.”
Although it is eventually revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. was infiltrated by Hydra, a terrorist organization that originated during World War II, the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. marked an end in faith in the government—in both the real world and the fictional universe. In fact, CA:TWS was inspired by President Obama’s “Kill List,” reports that the POTUS had designated himself at the head of a nominations process for potential terrorists to be assassinated.
“You’re taking a character like Cap who is very black and white and comes from the greatest generation, then plopping him into a very subversive and cynical time. He hasn’t gone through Watergate, the Iraq war, the Iran-Contra, 9/11, the NSA,” said director Joe Russo in an interview with David Kahen-Kashi. Co-director Anthony Russo added that Captain America was used as a “political mirror” and that “the nature of the character is political.”
The film was essentially an investigation of current government corruption and lack of transparency through the lens of an originally binary, moralistic character.
America was once again reminded of the horrors of 9/11 with the hunt and capture of Osama Bin Laden about 10 years later.
The events of 9/11 for many felt like a movie itself—footage of planes slamming into the World Trade Center, collapsing played repeatedly on screens across the nation. It was only fitting those images would show up in blockbusters. However, America displayed an aversion to overtly political movies such as “Syriana” (2005), “Body of Lies” (2008), “The Messenger” (2009) and the Academy Award winner, “The Hurt Locker” (2008), all of which flopped at the box office.
On the other hand, superheroes were the exception.
“We live in a very complicated world that seems like it gets more and more complicated every day… There’s something very reassuring about having a fantasy film that can deal with a lot of these issues but in a way that’s one step removed,” explained Anthony Russo.
The genre allowed for a safer fictionalized universe to explore the current state of the world. The revival of DC Comics on-screen beginning with “The Dark Knight” marked a series of darker villains who embodied American fears. Both the Joker and Bane have the ability to cause widespread destruction across Gotham City, New York’s stand-in—the former through chaos, and the latter through meticulous planning.
Neither have superpowers nor mythical armies. Instead, the Joker is an unreasonable and unpredictable psychopath, and Bane is equipped with legions of loyal men who systematically terrorize Gotham City—both qualities the public associated with terrorism.
The DC movies depicted very real scenarios of terrorism as well—Joker murdering police commissioners and trial judges, Bane detonating bombs at a football game—and cast doubt on the government’s ability to counter terrorism, providing commentary on Bush’s War of Terror.
Furthermore, America is portrayed as the victim in “Man of Steel.” The antagonist, General Zod, plans to turn Earth into a new Krypton by exterminating humanity. Man of Steel refuses to acknowledge past genocides that America has committed and instead focuses solely on the threat of attack. The tropes of terrorism seeped into the movie hero industry as America once again became rooted in the victim mentality.
9/11’s effects on the economy furthered the sentiment of “us versus them” in movie on a different scale.
The 2008 recession was perhaps a subconscious instigator behind Sony’s reboot of Sam Raini’s “Spider-Man” trilogy. After all, Spider-Man was the average American taking down giant corporations.
The trend in self-made superheroes taking down big corporations continued most notably in “Ant-Man,” where Scott Lang—a criminal, no less—defeats Pym Labs and its corrupted business-oriented leaders. The industry also portrayed the wealthy using their resources to protect humanity.
The 2008 recession coincided with the release of Iron Man, the origin story of a billionaire playboy making money off of selling arms, who eventually turns his genius to good causes. However, there was a flip side to the superheroes vs. recession confrontation.
“The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012 told the story of a capitalist CEO taking down a villain who, for many, represented Occupy Wall Street, a movement that protested against social and economic inequality with the slogan “We are the 99%.” This conflated anti-capitalist sentiment with the widespread violence and fear of antagonist Bane. The movie asked viewers to place their hope in the superhero who would protect America’s capitalistic interests in a post-recession period.
The year of 2016 marks two of the most widely anticipated superhero movie releases: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and Captain America: Civil War.
What is significant about superheroes facing off in a post-9/11 world?
“For kids and for people who grew up reading comic books, to see Batman fight Superman, it’s unsettling,” said Jimmy Kimmel. “It challenges everything you believe.” The comedic late night host is not wrong.
The conflict in Batman v Superman is built on a war of ideologies. The 153-minute long movie spends the first half justifying why the two legendary figures will eventually face off for a showdown: Batman believes the Krypton alien is a threat to humanity and Superman believes the masked vigilante shouldn’t be allowed to operate his own brand of justice lawlessly. As tensions escalate, Capitol Building is blown up, once again signifying the helplessness of the government.
Marvel’s CA:CW divides the Avengers in half—Team Cap and Team Iron Man. After the events of The Avengers, CA:TWS, and “Age of Ultron” in which New York, DC and fictional city Sokovia were destroyed respectively, the government begins to require superheroes to register and be under surveillance at all times. After witnessing first-hand the corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D. in CA:TWS, Steve Rogers understandably can’t trust the government, whereas Tony Stark believes superheroes need to be regulated after experiencing the destruction his inventions caused in Age of Ultron. The two face off on both personal and ideological levels, marking a turn from the archetypal tale of superhero-defeats-antagonist—the post-9/11 society is less black-and-white.
The world is much more complex than it was in the 1930’s when superhero comic books rose to prominence, and demands non-linear superheroes to reflect that state. It demonstrates that even superheroes can be flawed—after all, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are human too.
Though critics oppose the rise in superhero movies, these films show no slowing down in production.
Steven Spielberg, a critic of the genre, predicted that the superhero frenzy would pass much like the Western. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige defended the industry, likening Spielberg’s critique to saying that movie adaptations of novels will end. Feige doesn’t believe in the superhero genre, or the comic book genre—rather he believes in telling every story the way it needs to be told, whether it is a space epic, political thriller, fantasy, heist flick, or psychological thriller.
Superheroes have always given us the saviors we needed, from super-soldiers wrapped in the American flag to teenage web-slingers defending New York. Though both heroes and plotlines have evolved to reflect modern crises, we will never stop looking to the skies—or screens—for the hope that even in the face of both attacking aliens and terrorism, humanity will prevail.
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