The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 9/11 helped superhero movies conquer the world. They never moved on.

From left: Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Evans (Captain America), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) and Mark Ruffalo (the Incredible Hulk) in a screenshot from the 2012 film "The Avengers." (Pictorial Press Ltd.) (Pictorial Press Ltd /Alamy Stock Photo)

It’s been 20 years since 9/11, and we Americans are still looking for someone to save us.

Superhero comics and movies have a rich cultural history. But in the wake of the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, superheroes met their moment, perfectly suited as they were to meet Americans’ deep psychological needs for reassurance and vengeance. The rise of superhero franchises as the dominant global form of entertainment has been a remarkable feat of filmmaking and marketing. It’s also a legacy of 9/11 hiding in plain sight.

But even as the world, and the major threats to it, have changed since 2001, superheroes still face off against the same perils with the same weapons. On screen and in the audience, it seems we’ve never really moved much beyond that September morning.

Initially, the 9/11 attacks posed both logistical and tonal challenges to pop culture. The teaser trailer for the 2002 “Spider-Man” movie, which featured the titular teen superhero trapping a getaway helicopter in a giant web strung between the twin towers, was yanked from movie theaters, and the scene was axed from the final cut of the film. “Sex and the City” removed an image of the World Trade Center from its jazzy opening credits. The show was a fantasy, but its dedication to sanding away the rough edges of life in Manhattan didn’t extend that far.

But the lingering trauma of 9/11 would ultimately be a boon for superhero movies.

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It’s easy to see why. Instead of relying on the self-sacrificing courage of the passengers who tried to reclaim the cockpit of United Flight 93, superheroes could take on such burdens without putting themselves at risk. Rather than being haunted by the terrible images of people plunging from the twin towers, superheroes would be there to catch our mortal bodies as they fell. Our dead would never be returned to us; their remains might never even be properly identified. But superheroes could return half the galaxy’s population with the snap of a finger.

At first, superheroes responded to 9/11 and its aftermath in ways that were direct but relatively modest in scale.

Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” featured Peter Parker stopping a runaway subway train. After he saved the passengers, his fellow New Yorkers carried the unconscious superhero to safety. Their care for the young Spider-Man evoked Shannon Stapleton’s iconic photo of 9/11 first responders carrying Father Mychal Judge from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Both the fictional and real-life scenes captured the resilience and solidarity of New Yorkers.

In his 2008 movie debut, Iron Man nodded to a liberal interventionist view of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. He touched down there to protect villagers from terrorists — and gave Afghans the opportunity to mete out justice to one of the ringleaders themselves.

That same year, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece “The Dark Knight” used superhero tropes to explore how terrorism could turn a society on itself and lead people to abandon their values. By then, it had been four years since the revelation that Americans had tortured prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. “The Dark Knight” was released just 12 days after a New York Times investigation revealed that Guantánamo Bay interrogators were trained in techniques used by Communist Chinese forces to elicit confessions during the Korean War.

Batman has always had an uneasy relationship with the rule of law. Nolan’s genius was in using the character to embody the tension between the desperate tactics that seemed necessary to fight the Joker and society’s ongoing need for flawless heroes.

In the years since, spectacle won out over Nolan’s moral complexity. “The Avengers” repurposed the trauma of 9/11 for its climactic action sequence, sending alien leviathans crashing into New York skyscrapers and showing superheroes backing up city cops. Such increasingly baroque catastrophes, and the dramatic new ways our heroes find to save us from them, have become the norm, with diminishing dramatic returns.

No one questions that the horror superhero movies are responding to remains real and present. The ugly brilliance of turning commercial jets into weapons of mass destruction made mundane things seem menacing in a way that still reverberates.

Still, other threats have entered the pantheon of American anxieties, and superheroes have little to offer in response. You can’t punch out a pandemic virus or an opioid epidemic; Bruce Banner would be more useful right now as a brilliant scientist than as Hulk in smash mode. The U.S. military can’t invade to prevent a domestic insurgent movement. What we need is Batman in his original incarnation as a detective, not as a one-man military.

But maybe superhero stories persist because what was once a nightmare now feels like a perverse form of escapism. If only our biggest problem was how to stop a few vicious men. If only we could close the portals that let evil into the world. If only superheroes really could save us.

Instead, we’ll have to save ourselves.

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Conspiracy theories blaming George W. Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been debunked, yet millions of Americans still believe them. (Video: Kate Woodsome, David Byler/The Washington Post)
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