There's a meme going around lately, saying that the September 11 attacks gave rise to our current boom in superhero movies. And there's definitely some truth to it — superheroes gave us a nice escapist fantasy in the wake of a terrible tragedy, and allowed us to talk about some stuff we couldn't have addressed in straight-up narratives.
But how much of the past decade's superhero-mania is due to a desire, after 9/11, to explore stories about people who have great power, after an event that made us feel powerless? And how much of it was just a special effects-driven boom that would have happened anyway?
Hollywood goes Superhero Crazy
Make no mistake — a resurgence of Hollywood interest in superheroes was already underway before 9/11, and probably would have continued no matter what. Michael Chabon's influential Adventures of Kavalier and Clay came out in 2000, and so did Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie. Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film had already completed filming by summer 2001, too — although some argue that Spider-Man's huge success was partly because people wanted a fun, escapist movie right after 9/11. Smallville, the most successful superhero TV show of the past decade, was in the works long before.
There have also been a number of popular superhero novels, including Soon I Will Be Invincible and Superpowers. And the major TV networks have experimented a lot with superhero shows, with mixed success. Smallville had a decade of popularity, while Heroes managed to sustain a few years on NBC, but other shows crashed and burned. Superhero cartoons and video games have also continued to expand.
At the same time, there are plenty of other reasons behind the superhero boom of the 2000s. Thanks to CG animation, superheroes could finally look cool on the big screen. The late 1990s animated superhero boom, including Batman and the X-Men, had given supers a new visibility. Superhero video games were also improving. Mainstream culture had finally noticed that superhero comics had been getting smarter and cooler since the mid-1980s. And so on.
And yet, the idea that 9/11 helped to push superheroes to pop culture supremacy remains pretty compelling. There's the "fun escapism in the wake of trauma" thing, and the patriotism of American heroes like Captain America — but there are also some other reasons why we might have turned to superheroes in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy:
- Superheroes regularly confront evils that are organized but hard to identify, in much the same way that terrorists are stateless.
- They're stories in which good wins out over evil. As Agence France-Presse wrote yesterday, Hollywood insiders see 9/11 as having led to a greater demand for light stories about heroes and villains, because people needed a distraction from the new reality of post-9/11 life. Disney Producer Don Hahn is quoted as saying, "Maybe that's why we are seeing so many super-hero movies, so many ‘Captain America', ‘Iron Man,' because those characters can defeat bad guys and that's really a great story for us."
- Superhero films allow us to talk, very obliquely, about American power and the morality of using extreme methods to deal with challenging, slippery foes.
And the third bullet point above might be just as pertinent as escapism — superheroes have given us a way to talk about the War of Terror without directly talking about it.
With Great Power Comes Great Dilemmas
Not all of the huge crush of superhero movies in the past decade have dealt with terrorism or the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. (You'd have a hard time reading any kind of topical meaning into Catwoman.) But most of the best superhero movies have commented on our post-9/11 era, one way or the other.
For example, The Dark Knight is about how Gotham's only superpower (Batman) copes with a lawless terrorist (the Joker) and how far Batman is willing to go to restore order in the wake of the Joker's rampage. And the ultimate line that Batman crosses, that leads to his victory and a rift with Lucius Fox, is using every cellphone in Gotham for surveillance.
And TDK plays with an idea that's been around since at least the 1980s: that Batman creates his villains, that the existence of such an overwhelming force calls into existence a proportionate response. Batman is too much for his natural enemies, organized crime, to handle — so a great counterbalance, the Joker, emerges more or less naturally. In that metaphor, if Batman is America, the lone superpower after the Cold War, then the Joker is a new force emerging to challenge him.
Iron Man isn't even metaphorically about the war in Afghanistan — Tony Stark is in the weapons business, and he goes to Afghanistan and gets mired in conflict. Thor is about a young leader learning why it's sometimes better to avoid war, even in the wake of a serious provocation. Even some of the genre's crappier movies, like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, are all about war and the costs of warfare.
Meanwhile, it's almost impossible to summarize trends in actual superhero comics over the past decade, except to say that their audience has continued to shrink, and they've continued to get more event-driven. A lot of those big events have been self-referential (another reboot, another alternate universe), but rguably the most successful comics event of the past decade was Marvel's Civil War. And as we wrote http://io9.com/5837443/how-91…yesterday, Civil War starts with a huge catastrophe, which is partly the fault of irresponsible superheroes, and then soon turns into a riff on the classic theme of superheroes on the run from the authorities. Eventually, all of the rogue superheroes are being rounded up and put into a kind of super-Guantanamo Bay in the Negative Zone.
Traditionally, commentators like Gerard Jones have described superhero stories as power fantasies, and the big question has always been how to use great power properly. Hence the "with great power, etc." thing. But the lesson of a lot of superhero narratives, after 9/11, is that great power may not be enough. You can have great power and still be unable to stop evil or destruction. Or you can use your power carelessly, and cause greater harm than the threat you were trying to stop. The list of things that come with great power keeps increasing.
So it seems pretty likely that 9/11 was one factor behind our recent decade of capes — although certainly not the only factor. After a dreadful attack that left a whole country bereaved, with no easy way to fight our new enemy, superheroes offered a welcome escape into heroic fantasies — as well as a way to talk about the complications of fighting an amorphous threat.