No event in modern history has had a greater impact on pop-culture than the September 11 attacks. It was a tragedy that fundamentally changed us as a country and as a society. The day the modern world changed forever. But the difference between the September 11 attacks and, for example, World War II was the Nazis were clearly and unquestionably the enemy. It was armies facing armies, you knew who the bad guys were. Nazis are pretty much the ultimate bad guys. As we all quickly learned after the attacks, fighting a terrorist cell is much different than confronting a hostile foreign country. After 9/11 people wanted justice and who could blame him? I think this is an important distinction to make because our cultural mindset after the attacks is key to the point I’m trying to make.
This attack haunts us to this very day and it will for decades and maybe even centuries to come. Now before I get into my main topic I want to make it very clear I am in no way disrespecting the gravity and seriousness of the September 11 attacks. The last thing I would ever want to do is disrespect the families of those who died in the attacks, the rescue workers who saved countless lives, and of course the many victims who lost their lives that day.
I have a few rules I live by in my life, philosophies if you will. I wouldn’t pretend to have a whole hell of a lot of my life figured out, so there’s only a few profound, fundamental life lessons that I’ve learned. One of my most important beliefs is in the power of storytelling. And how it shaped us as a species and a society. We use stories to make sense of things we don’t understand. Stories tell us about our past and our heritage and make sense of our present. So sometimes when we watch the news or look out our window and see things that scare us, that we don’t understand, we turn to our stories.
Films, music, books… the stories inside them can help us get through some of the darkest periods of our lives. Around the time of the 9/11 attacks, we began to see an interesting shift in the types of films and characters that resonated in our popular culture.
When we look back to the 80’s and the 90s, there was a specific hero archetype that dominated cinemas:”The Muscle Bound Super Man”. Men like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damm, Dolph Lundredgren, I could go on and on. The main thing these “heroes” had in common is that they were all unstoppable killing machines who obliterated anyone or anything that stood in their way. They were badasses, they played by their own rules, they were RIPPED, and they always, ALWAYS, got the girl. Perhaps the most important thing these heroes had in common was that they were absolute nothing like the people watching them in movie theaters and on TV. As we got closer to the turn of the 21st-century, these types of heroes begin to become less and less popular. Former power houses like Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered bomb after bomb at the box office. And when 9/11 hit, the world had forever changed.
I remember reading somewhere that within the first few weeks after the September 11 attacks, rentals of movies like Armageddon, The Siege, Die Hard with a Vengeance skyrocketed. All of these films feature destruction and violent attacks on New York City. My personal theory, is that people were trying to make sense of the very real horrors they were witnessing on TV by turning to something they knew, in this case: movies. Movies are stories and as I said earlier one of the reasons stories are so important is they help us process our grief and help us get through tragedies we can barely wrap our heads around.
One of the big things that came out in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was the heroism of every day people. Not only cops, firefighters, and paramedics, but civilians as well. That kind of heroism is what keeps people going in the worst of times. Seeing people come together to help each other in the face of horror can make you think there might be some hope for this world after all.
And that’s when I really started to notice something different in the types of movies that were being released. I’ll give three examples: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Spider-Man, and the Harry Potter films. I think the reason people gravitated towards these movies and why they were such big hits was because they came out right around September 11. All of these movies were about very clear fights of good versus evil (One of my favorite reviews of the first Lord of the Rings film described the movie as having “impossibly noble heroes” specifically referring to Aragorn, the reviewer meant this as a positive. It perfectly sums up that character). At the heart of each of these films was an “everyman” hero: Frodo Baggins, Peter Parker, and Harry Potter. You can’t get much further away from the musclebound action heroes of the 80s and 90s then those characters. They weren’t built like Greek gods, they didn’t always get the girl, and they didn’t always know the right thing to do.
That’s why those movies resonated with audiences so much. People needed it. It was cathartic. Characters like Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and Peter Parker, they are us. These films show us that you don’t need to be a superman to behave heroically. In Return of the King, the fate of the earth isn’t in the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, but two small Hobbits who spent most of their days tending to their gardens and going to their local pub only months before the events in that film. Our art and our pop culture reflects the time we live in. In the end, I don’t know if any of these stories made a real difference, if they changed anything in the real world. I’d like to think they did, but I really don’t know.
Today we face new threats, new fears (and some old ones rearing their ugly head again). I think, to a lot of people, the problems that we face, from ISIS to global warming, to issues with our government, can feel overwhelming. Every day, we wake up, check the news feed on our phone or read the local paper and we find out about the new disaster of the day. We want to chose leaders and put them into power who are supposed to protect us and do what’s right and represent the country with the respect and dignity it deserves. But that’s not what we’re seeing, they seem to have forgotten what their role as our political leaders are, if they ever cared at all. It would be great if we could turn into our political leaders to be role models, to inspire us to change the world. But they seem content to leave the world a worse place than they found it.
Im certainly going to sound like an old man raging against those damn kids, but a big problem is people under the age of 25 don’t consume entertainment like older generations have. Social media has shortened their attention span so much that I don’t know many high school or college age kids who make it a priority to go to the movies or follow a television series. I’m concerned about the long term affect this will have on our pop culture, but maybe that’s an article for another day.
So here we are with our leaders content to watch the world burn and the next generation too distracted to care. We’re more dived than ever. Can a great, powerful story help inspire us to change that? Do our stories have the same power they once did? I don’t know. I wish I did.
But people are looking for a hero, they NEED a hero. Which is one of the reasons we see so many superhero films being made. Of course, they make a shitload of money and that’s the real driving force behind it. But sometimes, even unconsciously, our pop culture reflects the real world problems and situations we deal with. I know from experience and that a superhero story can give people hope, make them fight one more day. That’s why superhero stories are more important than ever, because there are so few people we can look to in the public eye to help us make the world a better place.
It would be great if Captain America could show up, raise his shield and rally hope and dignity around him, but sadly that’s not gonna happen. We need to be our own Captain Americas, our own Iron Mans. To some people out there, these comic books movies and superheroes films are silly kid stuff, but like I said, stories are powerful things. So, even if just a few people walk out of the latest Avengers movie or Captain America movie with the desire and the inspiration to go out and make the world a better place, even in some small way, then a story can still help change the world…
As always, thanks for reading…