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9/11 and the Rise of the Comic Book Superhero Genre

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Comic book superheroes have been a part of Hollywood since the Batman and Superman serials airing before the main feature in the 1940s, but it was not until the 21st century that they became the most commercially viable genre in the industry. Indeed, this genre that just a few short decades earlier was characterized primarily by cheesy made-for-TV movies and TV shows has attained critical legitimacy unthinkable as recently as the 1990s when the genre was characterized by a series of critically savaged Batman. Box office figures and production numbers irrefutably reveals that the rise of the comic book superhero movie to its current place of prominent directly coincides with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the atmosphere of fear and suspicions imprinted upon an American society desperately searching for a lack of ambiguity in their heroes and villains that countered increasingly ambiguous distinction between heroes and villains in the real world.

The comic book superhero movie genre had experienced intermittent periods of popularity since the late 1970s, but did not reach the status formerly awarded genres as diverse as the Western and Film Noir as a storytelling trope capable of reflecting the contextual mood of America until directly after the attacks of September 11, 2001 (Staley 2016). That contextual mood was one so overcome with fear and paranoia that it was willing to sacrifice personal freedoms in exchange for security (Himberger, Gaylin and Thompson). The heroes of the past simply would not do; Americans wanted to believe in a hero that could protect them from another such attack so deeply that the actually began to treat Pres. George W. Bush like he was one. Americans would quickly find, however, that what they really wanted a superhero and so the explosion of the genre traces a path that runs parallel with the revelations that their President was just another ambiguous figure in a world where it was impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys without. If they were going to put their trust in a rich capitalist without a heart who lived in a tall tower isolated from the realities of their mundane world, they would rather have Tony Stark than George W. Bush and Iron Man than Dick Cheney.

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The unifying element that ties all superhero movies together whether the adaptation is from DC or Marvel comics or independent publishers of graphic novels is the costume that make it easy to distinguish between the good guys and bad guys. The garish costumes immediately distance the superheroes from regular people and their common sort of villainous bad guys. These costumes attain a level of pop culture identification by the regular citizens populating these stories so that it also becomes easy to distinguish between Spider Man and a Green Goblin. or a Doc Ock or even a guy capable of turning into sand. In a post-911 society where the only distinguishing feature of the really bad guys also happens to contain the distinctly uncomfortable tinge of racial profiling and stimulating an atmosphere where any man with dark complexion and beard is immediately targeted as a potential terrorist, there is clearly an element of comfort in sitting down to watch a movie where all ambiguity over who are the good guys and who are the bad guys has dissipated.

Comic book superhero movies have managed to become even more relevant to the increasingly more ambiguous dividing line between heroes and villains in the fifteen years since the attacks of the 9/11. A refreshing lack of ethical ambiguity also allows for audiences to identify with superheroes even when their own attempts to impose authority over the villains results in collateral damage to the innocent. While issues of collateral damage caused by destruction in the name of security have been directly addressed as issues of plot and theme in movies like Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, one element of real life notably missing on screen is the presence of ambiguous circumstances capable of creating doubt on issues such excessive force directed toward innocent people or killing or injuring unarmed and defenseless suspects. In the post-911 world where innocent people are treated by the police as bad guys simply because of their physical appearance while the supposedly good guys on the police force are revealed to be getting away with murder on an almost daily basis, the comfort afforded by superheroes who never once step over the boundaries of ethical and limits to their authority becomes ever more comforting.

The overriding reason why comic books movies have risen to such elevated levels of commercial and critical success directly resulting from the attacks of 9/11 is also free of ambiguity. The world inhabited by America in comic book superhero movies is one that Americans have been desperate for ever since that first plane flew into the World Trade Center. At no time in any superhero movie is any real effort ever required to identify who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Even the Batman of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy who bemoans having to become a criminal himself in order to be a hero to Gotham City remains far less ambiguously on the side of good than Presidents who lie about weapons of mass destruction to gain public support for a war or Vice Presidents who insist that interrogation methods recognized by nationals around the world as torture is not really torture. The world of comic book superheroes is a return to the mythic heroes of the ancients and a rejection of the human failings that stimulated the invention of those myths.