The shock of 9/11 affected everyone differently, but there’s no denying it changed us. They call it “terrorism” for a reason, and one need look no further than the shape of the movies that followed the World Trade Center attacks to witness the jittery, unbalanced state those events inspired.
Earlier that summer, a more innocent kind of moviegoer had been shoveling popcorn to “Pearl Harbor,” in which Michael Bay restaged that earlier attack on U.S. soil with all the subtlety of a Super Bowl commercial. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it’s hard to imagine that project ever getting off the ground, and yet the anxiety of another attack soon resonated in subsequent blockbusters.
In 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears,” Ben Affleck can be seen failing to recover a stolen nuclear warhead, which detonates and destroys the better part of Baltimore — an upsetting twist that nevertheless reflected the system’s fallibility in averting such actions.
If Jack Ryan couldn’t save us, maybe superheroes could. Though a “Spider-Man” teaser featuring the webslinger catching bank robbers between the twin towers was pulled from screens out of sensitivity, the film itself plays like a Manhattan turf war in which the patriotically hued hero prevails.
Meanwhile, in Christopher Nolan’s hands, Gotham City — which bore little resemblance to the New York in Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies — became a clear stand-in for a terrorism-besieged metropolis in which an exceptional man in an exceptionally silly costume just barely managed to maintain order. “Iron Man” actually took the fight to Afghanistan.
The most clearly 9/11-inspired hero could be found on television, where “24’s” Jack Bauer defused one potential catastrophe after another, all in a day’s work (although he, too, wasn’t always successful, allowing a nuclear bomb to wipe out Valencia, Calif., in season six). But Bauer was certainly tough on terrorism, using whatever methods necessary to extract information from his prisoners.
Not since Watergate has a single incident had such a powerful impact on pop culture. Nixon’s disgrace shook our faith in government, resulting in decades of entertainment in which corrupt politicians loomed large. In our response to Osama bin Laden, patriotism was the first and strongest reaction, serving to bring the nation together.
We’d seen such bombastic Americanism before in the steroid-ripped action heroes of the 1980s, but 9/11 briefly enabled the career of Vin Diesel (“XXX”) and encouraged fresh support for the U.S. military. A silly yet satisfying 2002 release called “Behind Enemy Lines,” inspired by a true story about a downed fighter pilot, was one of the first to benefit from such sentiment, offering “Rambo”-like relief to a stunned nation.
As America entered into war against Iraq, a noxious xenophobia swept the nation, casting suspicion on Muslim countrymen and providing Hollywood with a potent new stereotype. Nazis, who had served as the go-to villains since World War II, gave way to brown-skinned bad guys.
By 2004, the rah-rah spirit had grown so strong that “South Park’s” Trey Parker and Matt Stone spoofed the country’s intense us-vs.-them attitude in “Team America: World Police,” a Bay-style satire starring marionettes. Meanwhile, Bay took on the Transformers franchise, making a trilogy of what felt like feature-length Army recruitment videos with the full and enthusiastic support of the U.S. military. However unlikely an alien robot invasion, this enormously successful series is noteworthy in that it breaks from the lone-hero model to show politicians, civilians and troops working together to thwart evil.
The Iraq War movies, when they came, focused more on the home front than the enemy, though audiences tended to avoid such poignant reflections as “The Messenger,” “The Lucky Ones” and “Home of the Brave.”
Perhaps the most popular villain of the post-9/11 era was Voldemort, that master of terror and disguise who looms over the “Harry Potter” series. Those films, born in a spirit of pure fantasy in late 2001, grew increasingly dark and realistic as the franchise matured. Consequently, there’s a certain symbolic poetry to the fact it took the boy wizard nearly a decade to vanquish Voldemort, whose fall followed bin Laden’s only months before.
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