The Hero We Create: 9/11 & The Reinvention of Batman

By Joshua C. Feblowitz
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/9 |

A giant hole is ripped in the side of a skyscraper. Smoke and flames pour out and debris tumbles into the street. Clouds of smoke billow upwards and burning embers rain down. Plumes of dust and smoke blot out the sun, darkening the city skyline. In the foreground, a figure stands defiantly, his confrontational gaze burning with dark intensity.

This imagery is hauntingly familiar. The flaming wing-shaped hole in the side of the building, the smoke-darkened sky, and flaming debris all conjure up painful memories. “Welcome to a World Without Rules,” the caption reads dramatically. Yet this striking image does not come from any news report, documentary or amateur video clip. The disturbing scene captured in this picture exists only in the realm of imagination - on a promotional poster for the most recent Batman , The Dark Knight (2008).

The parallels between this poster and the events of 9/11 are so striking and visceral that they prompted the London Times to ask, “Has the new Batman plundered its plot from 9/11?” The Times, which calls Gotham City “New York’s alter ego,”1 draws abundant parallels between the film and the real world concerns of a post-9/11 American society:

The imagery here is blatant: firefighters framed in tableau against the smouldering rubble of Downtown; politicians cashing in on the paranoia; bound hostages used to relay demands on ; the extraordinary rendition of a foreign suspect; a crusade against an “evildoer” that turns more personal vendetta than reasoned response.2

According to the Times, the film’s violent imagery, its tacit political commentary and even its characterization of Batman all evoke the traumas, struggles and moral quandaries central to 9/11 and the War on Terror. Likewise, the previous Batman film, Batman Begins (2005), displays an overt preoccupation with . From the use of fear as a weapon, to the plot to destroy Gotham’s most iconic skyscraper, the film allegorizes 9/11 in a way that is jarring in its bluntness.

These films, both co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, are not alone in their engagement with modern-day anxieties about terrorism. In the seven years following September 11th, 2001, numerous novels, films, poems, plays, paintings and photographs have engaged the events in an attempt to transmute emotional responses and historical fact into a cohesive narrative. Some, such as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, have celebrated heroes of the tragedy. Others, such as Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, have endeavored to extract cultural meaning from these traumatic events.

While creative interpretations of September 11th have taken on numerous and varied forms, no genre deals more transparently and explicitly with the themes of 9/11 than the superhero narrative. For decades, figures such as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman have been fighting evil and criminality in fictional worlds that re-imagine American society and offer clear and unequivocal ideas of justice. The fantastical stories of these superheroes generate frameworks within which endlessly complex social issues can be disentangled to reveal pure and didactic cultural ideals, collapsing moral shades of gray into a black and white duality. The genre’s engagement with concepts of justice, evil and terror uniquely positions the superhero to comment on the events of 9/11. Superhero narratives allegorizing 9/11 possess the power to create analytical spaces in which reworked conceptions of terrorism, justice, and “good and evil” can be examined and tested.

The superhero film genre has grown explosively in the post-9/11 world. According to the Movie Database, there were 39 superhero films released during the entire 1990’s.3 In contrast, there have been 45 superhero films released in the last five years, and there are a staggering 42 films planned for the next three.4,5 Of the all-time top-grossing films in the US, eleven of the Top 100 are superhero movies released after 9/11.6 As Peter Coogan, author of Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, puts it, we are truly in the midst of a “superhero renaissance.”7 Furthermore, it would appear that 9/11 has something to do with this revival.

Through analysis of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), I intend to prove that this renaissance and the events of 9/11 are indeed related and that these films represent both a reassertion of and reflexive commentary on a cultural mythology that forms the foundation of the superhero genre and the American response to 9/11. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I argue, seek to explore and mitigate the trauma and anxiety associated with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The films work to establish the terrorist as the supreme form of evil, incorporating the events of 9/11 both thematically and allegorically to demonstrate the continued ascendance of Good over Evil. In the first film, Batman Begins, the worldview of the terrorist is explored through the character of Ra’s al Ghul, and a fantasy of conquering fear and preventing the attacks is enacted. In the second film, The Dark Knight, the terrorist is embodied by the Joker, who is dismissed as a nihilist and agent of chaos. Yet this film also explores the moral ambivalence about questionable tactics such as spying and torture that characterized the American reaction to 9/11. Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) reveal a latent desire to prove the ascendency of the terrorist model only to subsequently defeat it, thus demonstrating the moral supremacy of American society. Yet these are also deeply self-conscious and reflexive works, critical of the American response to 9/11 and of the very process of cultural mythmaking itself. Despite the exploration and defeat of terrorism that occurs within these films, they reveal a deep-seated cultural anxiety about the nature of the American response and a fear that fighting terrorism necessitates a fundamental compromise of American ideals. 

Trauma & the Superhero

In order to make sense of the current Great Superheroic Reawakening, the genre itself must first be deconstructed and rigorously defined. According to Peter Coogan, the superhero genre emerged in 1938 with the creation of Superman and has since been a stable if mutable aspect of American popular .8 Over the course of the 20th century, the superhero genre (in comic books, television and film) has experienced sporadic cycles of celebrity and disrepute. Batman himself has enjoyed periods of great success (as with the enduring popularity of the comic series), mixed reception (as with the campy 1960’s television show that was both popular and widely ridiculed), and outright failure (as with the generally reviled box-office flops Batman Forever and Batman & Robin of the 1990’s).9 Batman, like the superhero genre itself, has indeed led a varied existence and is now in the midst of an intense revitalization.

Given the highly referential themes of the new Batman films and the genre’s current renaissance, it would be naïve to treat these works and the superhero genre in general as distinctly divorced from historical events. As Ann Keniston and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn argue in Literature After 9/11, much of post-9/11 literature insists… on the space between the real and imagined, between image and trope, and between the private realm of memory and the public realm of history. 9/11 literature impels us to see these spaces even as it forces them together; it consistently uses the literal to deconstruct the symbolic and the reverse. It thus offers a kind of partial, awkward bridge between life and language.”10

There thus exists, according to Quinn and Keniston, a profound and meaningful interplay between fact and interpretation, between the factual trauma of the attacks and the symbolic interpretations that have resulted. Instead of factual reality simply giving rise to creative interpretation, the factual reality of 9/11 and creative interpretations of 9/11 can be viewed as having a reciprocal relationship. Not only do historical events influence creative works but creative works also come to influence popular perception and interpretation of those same historical events. As Keniston and Quinn point out, literature (especially, but not uniquely, the literature of 9/11) serves both as a symbolic interpretation of events and a method of understanding the literal events themselves. Interpreting the attacks of September 11, 2001 in a literary context thus serves both a palliative and instructive function; fictional portrayals of the events possess the power to simultaneously explain 9/11 and redefine it.

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