If you’ve noticed a disturbing trend in summer action films, you’re definitely not alone. Earlier this month on Vulture, Kyle Buchanan wrote a piece that finally gives voice to our moral misgivings by asking: “Is It Possible to Make a Hollywood Blockbuster Without Evoking 9/11? ”
Using Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as his point of departure, Buchanan indicts all our summer action fests, writing, “Hollywood feels the need to out-9/11 itself. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.”
American movies have been serving up generous helpings of mass carnage since Gone With the Wind. What’s new is a calcifying indifference to the human cost of violence. Buchanan cites cineplex orgies such Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers, World War Z, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. But he saves his most blistering attack for Man of Steel:
(Superman) seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.
Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, goes further, calling the film’s “intentional” referencing of 9/11 as “evil” and “sick.” These strong and convincing charges are made on the latest installment of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m a huge fan of this show; it’s the only podcast I listen to every week. And I’m an even bigger fan of Weldon: he’s one of the few pop culture critics out there who’ll rip into the moral core of a movie or TV show without getting self righteous. But as I continued to listen to the conversation, I realized that something wasn’t sitting right. For some reason, I had a feeling that an important part of the equation was being left out or ignored.
After a while, I figured out what it was. A little later in the podcast, Man of Steel is pejoratively compared to two other superhero films that were made a few years back. Chris Klimek, a guest on the Pop Culture Happy Hour panel, recalls two extraordinary moments of ordinary heroism dramatized in Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight, respectively. Each film has a moment when at least one non-super hero character steps up in the face of danger and chooses to do the right thing. With no super powers or gadgets to protect them, these ordinary crowd members stand up and show us that we, too, can be heroes. What makes these cinematic moments so special is that they have “nothing to do with Batman” or Spiderman, but are, as Klimek puts it, a way of saying to the audience: “Hooray for us.”
I’m not sure if this is what he was going for, but by citing these two films, Klimek takes the 9/11 theory and turns it upside down. Sam Rami’s Spiderman 2 was released in 2004, three years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit the theatres is 2008. Both films are much closer to 9/11 than this summer’s Man of Steel. If what we’re seeing on our screens today is the movie industry’s response to 9/11, then why has it taken Hollywood so long?
The answer is: it hasn’t. If you want to see Hollywood’s real response to 9/11, look to those earlier superhero films from the mid-2000s. To get a sense of how the attack initially impacted us, let’s look at the speech Bill Clinton made to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, while Spiderman 2 was playing in theatres:
Americans long to be united. After 9/11, we all just wanted to be one nation. Not a single American on September the 12th, 2001, cared who won the next presidential election. All we wanted to do was to be one country, strong in the fight against terror, helping to heal those who were wounded and the families of those who lost their loved ones, reaching out to the rest of the world so we could meet these new challenges and go on with our democratic way of life.
That’s not to say that in the days, months, and immediate years after 9/11, contempt for human life was completely absent from the world of American pop culture. (Anyone remember 24?) But the beauty of those earlier superhero movies is that they offered us something else: hope. It’s the real life heroism of 9/11’s first responders – the firefighters, the policemen, and the medics – that Rami and Nolan paid tribute to in their mythical metropolitan chaos. It is saying a lot that a film as grim and nihilistic as The Dark Knight could give us even one of those moments – one that Klimeck remembers as earning audience applause when it first played in theaters.
So if films from the mid-2000s represent Hollywood’s response to 9/11, then what are we to make of today’s blood free genocidal building smashing action porn? Bill Clinton’s 2004 speech gives us another clue:
(President George W. Bush) had an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror. Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice. They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies… (by) attacking Iraq…
Oh right. Iraq. Afghanistan. Those would be Washington’s response to 9/11. Buchanan hits the bull’s eye in his use of the term “collateral damage.” It is a well worn phrase employed by our military, the world’s largest, when referring to civilian casualties when we are the aggressors. Man of Steel and films of its ilk may think that they are about 9/11, and their use of its iconography must surely be intentional. But what the summer blockbusters of the 2010s truly represent are America’s numbness to a perpetual state of war.
“There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them.” Kind of sounds like the American public. After all, Zack Snyder isn’t just a Hollywood director. He’s a United States citizen. That means he’s had over a decade’s worth of practice at ignoring the human cost of war. The combined financial cost of both Iraq and Afghanistan will run anywhere between 4 and 6 trillion dollars. As for collateral damage in Iraq, estimates range from 113,185 to 123,900 civilian deaths since 2003. For Afghanistan, the number is somewhere between 16,725 to 19,013 since the war began 13 years ago in 2001.
Oh, well.Seems like yesterday’s news, doesn’t it? With the U.S. reducing its military presence in both countries, Americans list foreign policy at the bottom of their list of concerns. How can our summer blockbusters reflect two wars that everyone wants to forget?
By helping us to forget them. By erasing the blood from the moral equation of violence. Battles don’t kill people; they just smash a lot of buildings and blow things up. Ten years ago, it was possible to believe that truth, justice, and the American Way were all members of the same happy family. Today, a majority of Americans believe that the Iraq war was a mistake. What is the Obama administration’s most ambitious foreign policy goal? Hunting down the man who exposed its secret spy program. Complain if you want to, but most Americans support our in his quest to track down Edward Snowden and put the criminal behind bars.
And so, once again, when Buchanan writes about our alter egos, he reflects a hidden and deeply troubling truth that plagues our national character:
“Only one bittersweet nod to our post-9/11 outlook remains: Action heroes used to prevent disasters, but now…
…they can only avenge them.”
June 25, 2013