How Hollywood blockbusters inspired 9/11 – and vice versa

It’s not hard to draw a line from Armageddon to al-Qaeda to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The World Trade Center burns in a scene from the 1998 film Armageddon

The World Trade Center burns in a scene from the 1998 film Armageddon

 

Did Osama bin Laden spawn the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)? And did Hollywood provide the inspiration for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in the first place?

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, I took the (always risky) step this week of re-reading an article I’d written in the days immediately following the attacks, about the intertwined symbolism of the fall of the World Trade Center’s twin towers with the contemporary pop culture of the day, in particular the high-concept action blockbusters in which exploding skyscrapers and the annihilation of Manhattan played an oversized part.

What meaning, if any, could be derived from the almost uncanny prefiguring of the images we had just seen live on our television screens and those we were familiar with from films such as Armageddon, Independence Day and Fight Club?

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, emotions were high and confusion was widespread about whether it was appropriate to discuss the atrocity in such terms at all. TV shows such as Sex and the City and The Sopranos were busily scrubbing shots of the World Trade Center from their credit sequences. The Simpsons pulled an episode in which Homer runs up and down the stairs of each tower in search of a toilet. Several films were yanked from the release schedule, and the climactic scene of the new Spider-Man movie, featuring a web cast between the towers, was immediately axed.

Globally understood symbols

It would be absurd to imagine that al-Qaeda’s choice of target (for the second time, after the failed 1993 car-park bombing) was not inspired or informed to some degree at least by the use in Hollywood of Manhattan in general and the twin towers in particular as globally understood symbols of American imperial power. The high-end disaster movies of the 1990s deployed brand-new digital technology to create entertainment spectacles which exuberantly celebrated the destruction of those symbols while retaining an arch detachment from the consequences. Centring their storylines on tongue-in-cheek performances from the likes of Bruce Willis and Will Smith, they are in many ways the defining cultural expression of the post-Cold War, dotcom-boom Clinton era: brash, fearless, unserious.

As critic David Thomson wrote a few days after 9/11: “It is a culture that has been encouraged to separate such things from the damage that goes with them. And it has seemed like a flourish of American supremacy that it can so flirt with disaster, and turn it into an entertainment.” What better way, then, to inflict damage on the Great Satan than to turn its decadent, consequence-free celebration of its own destruction back on itself with real horror, real tragedy and real loss?

Superhero films had been around for a long time, but Marvel fixed the problem Osama bin Laden had caused, thereby achieving global dominance

In the weeks after 9/11, some predicted the appetite for these movies would come to an end. Filmmakers would stop blowing up Wall Street, hurling fireballs down Fifth Avenue or sending 500-foot monsters stomping across a terrified midtown. The real pictures of figures falling to their deaths from the towers would make it impossible to render similar images in CGI. There would be a renewed hunger for gentleness, empathy and a human scale, along with a desire to take refuge from reality via fantasy.

Sweeping success

Yeah, right. The first of these definitely didn’t happen, although the second did, with the sweeping success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises. And within a year or two Manhattan was back under cinematic attack, although the fun seemed to have gone out of it. The tone was sombre and scarier, concerned with climate change, viruses or an encroaching police state. The Blow Everything Up film seemed to have run out of road.

Which is where the MCU came in. Launching as a standalone independent studio with 2008’s Iron Man (which, appropriately enough, opens in Afghanistan and has an arms manufacturer as its hero), Marvel married the long-running storylines of the fantasy franchises with (sort of) real locations. Superhero films had been around for a long time, but Marvel fixed the problem Osama bin Laden had caused, thereby achieving global dominance in the second decade of the 21st century.

From the anarchist bomb-throwers of the 19th century to the Red Army Faction kidnappings of the 1970s, spectacular terrorist attacks are essentially media products. They presuppose that a mass audience will be available via the media platforms of the day, which is why they have little or no effect inside totalitarian regimes. Viewed in those terms, the attacks of 9/11 were an act of genius, allowing a nihilistic death cult to appropriate its enemy’s most potent symbols and benefiting from the relatively recent arrival of live satellite television, which distributed their product immediately and simultaneously around the world. The success of that act of murder can still be seen and felt in the lives we lead and the culture we consume.

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