20 years of 9/11 in film

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

The core ennui of being a ‘90s child is having to watch things disappear.

This is most easily tracked through technology. Within our childhoods, we watched playing outside with neighborhood kids, maybe one of whom had an N64, turn into a kaleidoscope of different gaming systems, most of them played in private, all major investments that needed to be upgraded every five years or so. These miraculous toys of the future, things we loved and grew up with that partially defined our social circles, became “obsolete” within the span of half of our lives, roadside attractions whooshing past backseat car windows as a technological race we knew nothing of sped onward. Mobile phones, monstrous things that could barely be held onto but still had to be considered luxury items because of how few could afford them, became sleek handheld flip phones we were given “for emergencies,” a major threshold for the American teenager comparable to what cars used to be that represented our first measure of privacy and critical dating tools, and they have since become glass sandwiches of varying size that are considered critical teaching tools with which we raise our own children with from birth. Computers and the internet went from science fiction to ubiquity seemingly overnight.

I was born in 1992, and having grown up through all this, I’ve always gravitated toward things that I can be comfortable will outlast me. These can be movies or classic literature and what they say about their time and place, news events that will go into history, or more often recently trying to directly seek out the spirit of a given place, that amalgamation of psychic energy that grows like a cancer anywhere people gather over time, but what underlies all of that is architecture. Architecture is the oldest form of mass media, of artistic expression that can affect an audience at scale. It defines the skyline, look and memory of a place, feeding and feeding from a city’s character, monoliths that inspire the art made in their shadows and can summon all the history of a place to mind with their single images.

9/11 was not just an attack on American soil, American people or the American psyche, but on American architecture. It was an attack of the American identity, on American engineering and artistry, on American permanence. What can anyone build now when titans such as these can be destroyed? What can I be sure will outlast me, what can a ‘90s child forever lost in time draw toward in a world where the twin towers are fallen?

Immediate aftermath

With the twin towers’ ubiquity in ‘90s culture, several movies set in New York and the Tri-state area paused to reshoot scenes featuring the towers, and series like “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos” had to re-edit their opening sequences to not include their images.

The most famous change was to Spider-Man, Sam Raimi’s long-awaited blockbuster that had been in development since the 1980s. The film initially contained a scene in which Spider-Man stopped a bank heist by catching a helicopter in a gigantic web between the World Trade Center towers, an image featured prominently in the initial marketing push. All that marketing was pulled immediately after the attacks, and Raimi unlocked the movie to remove the scene.

Image courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

The film as a whole became a major point of immediate catharsis, particularly for the late scene in which Spider-Man is saved by onlookers. The scene of everyday New Yorkers taking on this fantastic evil creature on a futuristic glider, not just watching the hero, served as an immediate image of the city fighting back to save a longstanding symbol of Manhattan. The scene has been repeated in several subsequent Spider-Man movies, and we would see more superheroes directly participate in 9/11 as time went on, with Iron Man getting his start fighting Afghan warlords and climaxing in The Avengers, when Earth’s Mightiest Heroes planted themselves on Broadway and pushed an alien invasion back into space.

Other New York City-set movies, particularly Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, couldn’t help but serve as commentary on the freshly scarred city, and movies about globe-trotting warriors like The Bourne Identity couldn’t help but feel relevant to the intensifying global conflict, but Spider-Man is really the only direct response to 9/11 at the movies we’d see for the next couple of years. Lord of the Rings, the first entry of which came out three months after 9/11, would dominate popular culture and the Oscars for the next little while. As a general rule, it takes a couple of years for Hollywood to properly react to anything – movies can be altered in the wake of tragedies, but in terms of building something from the ground up, that just takes a while, and by the time movies directly addressing the tragedy like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which felt tacky and entirely too soon in August 2006, Hollywood was reacting to much, much more than just the attacks.

President George Bush first introduced the term “War on Terror” Sept. 16, 2001, signed off on the invasion of Afghanistan Sept. 18, and Congress passed the Patriot Act by Oct. 26. After a year of digging in the fresh wounds of 9/11 with lies about weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 under what were widely known to be false pretenses even at the time. The first reports of torture, sexual abuse and holding prisoners without charges at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba emerged as early as January 2002, though it didn’t blossom into a dominant global scandal until similar abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq emerged in June 2003, the irony of using Saddam Hussein’s torture facility the exact same way he did after spending a year talking about “regime change” – this was a mere 15 days after Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.  

Movies are an international industry, but the post-9/11 propaganda that justified all this was merely national. While stupid platitudes about “hating our freedoms” and “supporting the troops” and whatever “history will decide” held sway in shorter-term and more localized art forms like music and television, the rest of the world saw what was going on for what it was – a president who was not elected telling provable, obvious lies to justify an invasion that was already part of his party’s platform, going through with it despite Iraq trying to surrender months in advance and piling on human rights abuses, including both torture and dramatically expanded surveillance, for good measure. When Hollywood finally caught up, it was this, the subconscious anxiety of being gaslit by the most powerful man in the world and the guilt of perpetuating those lies, not the destruction of the towers themselves, that the movies began responding to.

9/11 as tragedy

When Hollywood finally consolidated its forces into true, built-from-the-ground up post-9/11 movies, the result was a swift reactionary movement toward realism stands in distinct contrast to the European surrealist movements following the world wars, particularly in Germany and Russia. This doesn’t stem from some truth about cinema, but a restlessness with the old villains after trauma reset national anxieties. Watching our cities be destroyed by aliens in Independence Day wasn’t fun anymore after seeing that level of violence could be real, so the violence remained, but it had to become real.

The most direct example was the swift rise of the “torture porn” subgenre in the mid-‘00s. These movies were quite a perfect fit for their time, offering not just violence and gore, but especially cruelty and senselessness for a population that felt like it had just been attacked for no reason and could be again at any moment, while also opening a voyeuristic, detached window into the human rights violations that were being performed ostensibly on its behalf. The connection between the genre and the swelling national trauma is well-documented.

Mainstream blockbusters also shifted to harsh realism. Probably the most important, iconic and influential example of this was Batman Begins, the 2005 superhero reboot in which Batman, last seen in 1997 in a bondage suit wielding rubber lips and a bat credit card against the terminator with a freeze ray in a claustrophobic post-Cold War nightmare of a city, was suddenly using realistic military technology against global terrorists who live in central Asian mountains plotting to destroy Chicago, slums and all, literally by spreading fear. Its titanic influence can be seen in every Hollywood reboot since – and in most original blockbusters, whenever those get made – but it was far from an isolated occurrence.

Batman Begins and 2006’s Casino Royale, which followed the same playbook to the letter, ballooned the movement in international blockbusters, but both clearly trace their roots back to The Bourne Identity in 2002. Realism, or at least movies set in brutal, realistic worlds, would also dominate in arthouse environments, with films like The Departed, No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood headlining the next few years.

Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.

This era was also marked by an apparent increase in the military being portrayed in mass media of all kinds. Military portrayal in film has always been a direct reaction to national mood and has never been directly negative – this is partially because the Department of Defense sits in on production and makes sure of it. In the post-Vietnam era, soldiers were portrayed as musclebound superheroes stuck in ultimately nihilistic conflicts by underprepared leadership, such as in Aliens, or abandoned in a country they didn’t recognize, as in Rambo.

Where these movies reflect a preoccupation with war and veterans as an everyday fact of life after the first war to be broadcast on the nightly news, post-9/11 movies seem to be trying to reinstall them as such after a long era of peace. Just about every action or disaster movie from this time period positions the military as the first solution, either having soldiers stand side-by-side with the heroes in Transformers, integrating the heroes as a branch of the military as in GI Joe or much of the MCU, or taking time to demonstrate that the military cannot solve the crisis, either due to its own bureaucracy as in Iron Man, the ineffable antagonist of The Dark Knight or the impossible scale of the villain in Man of Steel.

The general thrust was to foster the expectation that the U.S. military will be the first step in solving global-scale problems, an idea that would normalize the rationales behind the two-front “War on Terror.”

Masterpieces of terror and guilt

The twin icons of post 9/11 cinema, which distill every particular anxiety and trope and address them by far the most directly, are The Dark Knight, an explosion of the 9/11 anxiety that remained at home, and The Hurt Locker, a detailed examination of the terror being committed abroad.

The Dark Knight is the only movie I can think of that really got it, that honestly and accurately expressed what it was like to live with. In a sea of movies about fighting 9/11 off, The Dark Knight is set in a world that is still clearly not safe and is growing less and less safe as it is more and more policed. The common fan theory that Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker is a disaffected veteran with extensive training in interrogation, heavy weapons and guerilla tactics is the only way I can watch the movie now.  

Watching it again in 2021 after seeing 20 years of languishing in Afghanistan go concretely to waste feels like a dire warning. The Joker’s playful habit of picking up weapons as he goes along is now a dark echo of the knowledge that the Taliban is now ruling Afghanistan with arms the U.S. left littered across the country, the disposability of his henchmen a reminder of the quickness with which the Ghani government was abandoned. In the face of a villain who tells him in as many words he “has nothing to do with all his strength,” Batman quickly begins to abandon his principles, and we end the film hearing a eulogy for a morally bankrupt character. The undercurrent of “freaks” taking over from traditional organized crime, a principal theme in the comics it was based on, reflects a world in which violence that used to make sense, or at least have a clear motivation, stop doing so.

The movie’s principal theme of escalation reflects not a world that is being driven out of control, but a world that has been out of control for some time. Whatever law enforcement tries, the Joker always has another level he can go to. He is constantly finding more resources, his schemes are rapidly growing more violent and extreme and depraved, and they start coming faster. When the Joker is caught at the film’s midpoint after a shocking chase through the city streets, which he seems to have men planted at every point along the route of, everyone goes home and we’re told “The clown will keep till tomorrow,” but tomorrow refuses to come. Two protagonists are kidnapped and put in bomb rigs that must have already been set up, and we physically follow Jim Gordon to his home and, seemingly the moment he gets there, right back to the police station. The Joker has Gotham General Hospital rigged to blow by the next afternoon and the ferries the next evening. Within the film world, it is an endless torrent of violence and fear that Batman’s efforts, no matter how extreme, do little to stop.

The iconic image of Will James in a spider’s web of roadside bombs. Image courtesy Summit Entertainment.

The Hurt Locker was written and produced by Mark Boal based on his experiences as an embedded journalist in Iraq in 2004 – though fictional, it’s generally considered a highly accurate depiction of the atmosphere of Iraq under U.S. occupation. It portrays war as a purely nihilistic exercise from the outset, with Thompson noting the insurgents are only blowing up their own roads and James saying of a civilian he confronted, “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he sure is now.” The soldiers have no direction to advance and nothing apparently to do except disarming bombs in defiance of people who just want them to leave. The distant, almost always obscured faces of the Baghdadis, which does feel quite racist, reflects the unknown and unknowable nature of an enemy that could be any member of the population they’re meant to coexist with.

It is led by Sgt. 1st Class Will James, an adrenaline junkie who rejects civilian life and goes about the most dangerous job in Iraq, bomb disposal, in the most dangerous possible way, apparently for the sole purpose of staving off boredom. He is hailed as a hero saving the lives of his comrades, but never questioning whether they need to be in harm’s way in the first place.

9/11 as farce

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

As cinema slowly acclimated itself to a world without the twin towers, movies started exploring major property destruction again, not with the careless joy of late ‘90s disaster movies, but as a new taboo. As audiences adjusted to movies that recreated 9/11 directly, probably most importantly with The Dark Knight and The Avengers, someone somewhere forgot that trauma was being processed by all this, and instead snapped right back to the late ‘90s, when gratuitous destruction of cityscapes was exciting and fun.

And so the DCEU was born.

In terms of their relationships to 9/11, Zack Snyder’s Superman films, and especially the first one, Man of Steel, are a psychological attack. Where plucky, spirited Avengers had deftly and effectively mobilized to save as many human lives as possible just a year prior, Man of Steel portrays a godlike hero who couldn’t care less about human life. The movie ends on a full hour of thick 9/11 imagery, with Superman and Zod punching holes in dozens of buildings, civilians struggling in rubble and covered in that exact style of asbestos dust that will end up killing more people than the attacks themselves. At the 2 hour mark, Superman stands at the center of a crater that used to be Metropolis and makes out with Lois while an onlooker says “he saved us.”

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice doubled down on the terrorism, opening with an even more graphic recreation of 9/11 from an even more powerless perspective, this time following Batman as he tries to pull civilians out of an even more dire disaster zone on the ground. Instead of affirming this viewpoint, the movie focuses mostly on the notion that human life is actually of dubious value, and Superman isn’t obligated to do anything to preserve it he doesn’t want to.

These movies’ depiction of city-level destruction that is both highly accurate to 9/11 and apparently oblivious to how people responded to it are genuinely unbalancing to watch. It’s an emotionally revisionist, rub-your-nose-in-it steeping in the national trauma that feel less like they have anything coherent to say and more like a shock-jockey who’s found an open wound to play with, but what’s really unnerving is how it implicates the audience in this viewpoint. They present the horror and destruction as something for viewers to revel in, as a step up from movies that handle it more deftly. They offer the best, longest and most extreme 9/11 experience and insist to viewers this is what they wanted to see.

The next 9/11

The next 9/11, a term which here means “an event that will have a comparable effect on media as 9/11,” has almost certainly already happened. In fact, there are several partial successors.

Climate change has been taking over as the principal national anxiety, first slowly and now all at once. The anxious mood will change from paranoia that violence on a mass scale could break out all around you at any moment to despair that things are only going to get worse, that there are no more cold winters or mild summers or good days left, but the traumatic imagery of buildings falling cannot be replaced by floods and fires and dust clouds. Those images are seen first-hand by too few people at a time. The climate change-associated disasters we’ve already seen have made them accepted and easy for viewers to handle. The COVID-19 crisis provides a similar elongated trauma and a much higher death toll – Sept. 9, 2021, just two days before the anniversary, saw 254 more Americans die of COVID than were killed on 9/11 – but this also mostly lacks the uniform imagery.

To my mind, the most direct successor to 9/11 as a mass trauma was the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Like 9/11, it was viewed from a limited number of perspectives, all first-person, and it was viewed by everyone – children confused and frightened by what they have seen turning to their teachers for comfort is what’s driven the popular movement against critical race theory movement in recent weeks, which mostly took place at the school board level.

It’s been an entire generation – at least a couple of generations now – since the towers fell. Whether or not there’s anything as galvanizing as 9/11 ever again, the national anxiety can’t help but change. No matter how insistent certain people are about “never forgetting,” plenty of Americans don’t remember because they weren’t there. Time has marched on, and so will the movies.

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