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The Subversive Ability of Popular Culture: Superhero Movies Post 9/11

SUPERHEROES is a fortnightly column from Mike McKenny. Over the weeks and months to come Mike will take an in-depth look in to the world of the Superhero film, and its place within the cinema and wider popular culture of the 21st Century. 

Despite losing some significance over the last couple of years in light of the global credit crisis and the current problems of national identity posed by the capitulation of that dominant western dogma of capitalism, it would still be a fair statement that the most defining contribution to the current socio-political climate is the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on the 11th September 2001 (9/11). Considering this event occurred at approximately the same time of the exponential growth of the on-screen superhero, this week’s article is going to have a look at how the dominant line of thought in the prevailing decade since the event has been reflected in the superhero film. The superhero film, as claimed in the last article two weeks ago is amongst the most popular forms of mainstream cinema in the last decade, with mainstream cinema itself being one of the most prominent forms of popular culture. Rebecca Housel, in her essay ‘Myth, Morality and the Women of the X-Men’ from the book Superheroes and Philosophy noticed the effect that this event has had on the superhero genre: “Since the tragedy of September 11th  2001, the popularity of films featuring heroes in many forms has soared. Naturally, comic-book superheroes perfectly fit the need, and comic-book based films have set new box-office records”. These box-office records, which will be examined a little later, are very significant according to prominent writer on genre cinema Steve Neale, who explains: “profitability is an index of popularity, popularity an index of significance, and significance a matter of socio-cultural values and dilemmas”.

In light of this poignant and succinct point about the popular within society, before examining why these films have flourished in such a climate, I would just like to set up the whole discussion within the confines of popular film and popular culture in general. These films and the characters that inhabit them are not only popular, they are internationally renowned super brands; loved by many around the world, on either side of the political spectrum, throughout many demographics and permeating various social settings. Is there a certain amount of snobbery surrounding such popular cinema? I would have to say that although there isn’t as much snobbery as some may believe, it still exists. In light of this, an essay I read this week seemed particularly apt, and felt therefore I must appropriate its overarching message – regarding the importance of taking popular film seriously – onto this specific example. It is an essay written by Andy Willis called ‘Cultural Studies and Popular Film’ in the edited book Approaches to Popular Film, which I picked up after browsing the film section at Bradford Central Library (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, use your local library).

The essay gives a brief introduction to the rise of cultural studies throughout the seventies and its significance to popular culture:

“it enabled one to present an analysis of popular films which neither celebrated nor condemned them, but examined how they were produced in relation to the struggles between dominant and subordinate groups”.

Willis compares cultural studies to ‘screen theory’, the dominant approach to film studies of that era. He explains that:

“the main feature which came to distinguish cultural studies from screen theory in the 1970s was that while the latter tended to see popular film as a form of ideological domination, cultural studies tended to see the ‘popular’ as a site of struggle between groups, rather than the property or expression of any specific group’s interests. For this reason, cultural studies did not rely upon a simple opposition between a conservative popular culture and a radical avant-garde, but tended to be far more historical in its focus. It was concerned with the ways in which cultural forms developed through a process of conflict and struggle between social groups”.

The premise laid out here, that popular film is a significant measurement of society comes up again and again in my experience. Most notably every time a big spectacle film comes along with some horribly regressive ideological statements, which I object to and am consequently told: “oh it’s ONLY entertainment”, as if entertainment and intelligence are somehow mutually exclusive.  For a perfect example of this, see this website’s own review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the ensuing debate. With that rant over, I will refocus. It is not only the first of Willis’ points that I would like to pick up on, that popular films are culturally significant and worthy of analysis, but also to the second point that he raises, this negotiation of popular expression, or ‘process of conflict and struggle between social groups’. This is something often overlooked and is the root of genre’s subversive nature. The beauty of well thought out genre cinema is that it is spectacular, easily digestible due to formula and (if successful) exhilaratingly entertaining. Yet, within these formulaic parables, any tiny alteration can subvert expectations or dominant modes of thought. In order for this contradiction to succeed though, this subversive narrative must exist within the mainstream norms. In Willis’ words:

“This situation means that no text is ever purely radical or conservative. Whatever its political ideology, it is always produced within conditions of power, and as such it must address alternative interests and aspirations if it is to present its own position as a solution to them”.

The events of 9/11 dictated the shape of global politics for the decade to come, setting in motion the social circumstances for the ludicrously named ‘war on terror’ to somehow root itself into the popular consciousness. This ‘war on terror’ required that the Western world – and the US in particular – completely redefine – or more accurately reinforce – notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The Bush administration was doing everything within its power to create the picture of grand, unexplainable evils in the world (hence the term ‘axis of evil’, a more ludicrous term than ‘war on terror’). What better to support this movement than the superhero myth: a narrative structure that in the majority of its existence tells simple stories about the triumph of good over evil; of heroes over villains.

Despite this seeming to make sense, and despite that being the mainstream narrative’s answer, why then has this not quite been the case? In fact, the situation has been much closer to what Willis described above; these films are neither rejections of this dominant value system, nor are they propagators of it. Before looking at some specific examples that prove that the most ambiguous films, that subvert from within this dominant framework, are not only the most critically acclaimed, but also the most popular/profitable (and as we discovered from Neale above, therefore the most culturally significant), I would like to bring up something that brought this to my attention.

Rüdiger Heinze’s essay, ‘Trauma, Morality and Conformity: American (Super)Heroes After 9/11’, which I found after a simply Google search, postulates that rather than these films taking on the forced dominant narrative (axis of evil, war on terror, etc) that the films have risen to prominence because of the heroes’ symmetry with America as a nation. Specifically, he writes that the most successful superhero films like the Spider-Man films (Sam Raimi, 2002, 2004, 2007) and Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) feature heroes that constantly return to their trauma (the death of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben and the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents respectively), which he argues resonates with a public that returns to the previously unthinkable social/national trauma of 9/11.  He also stresses the levels of humanity and fallibility that these most popular heroes possess, further humanising them and likening them to the mass audience.

“In order to resolve this dilemma, some of the most successful recent comic and film representations of superheroes render them more human and bring them closer to our actual, natural world (e.g. Spiderman, Batman, Daredevil, Wolverine), while others reinforce the status of their heroes as unequivocally super and superhuman (Superman, The Fantastic Four, Elektra)… the first kind are portrayed as superhuman heroes who happen to also possess extraordinary powers.”

This idea coincides with the notion – that I will go into more detail about below – of the difference between the ‘super’ superheroes as conservative/least successful and the ‘human’ superheroes as the subversive/more successful. Further, by stressing the proportionally larger popularity of the human characters, in answer to what I said above regarding the popular assertion that these blockbusters are ONLY entertainment; that they are simply escapism, Heinze raises the point that: “contrary to the idea that these artistic reactions to 9/11 epitomize the need of “the ‘average’ American” to “escape from the very real horrors of international unrest and terrorism”… in fact are symptomatic responses to collective trauma and thus very much rooted in the real rather than an escape from it”.

Having considered Heinze’s position I shall just take a few examples that help to illustrate his point. He uses, as examples of the films that embody the fallible, more human hero, the Spider-Man films and the Batman films (he only uses Batman Begins, as The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) hadn’t been released at the time, but is more than applicable). On the other hand he singles out Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) as the antithesis: “In contrast, the recent Superman Returns is blissfully devoid of any moral complexity and aesthetically complex representations of traumatic experiences and their effects upon individuals”. He also mentions Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005). In addition to Heinze’s point about these characters not returning to the trauma, I would say that these two films are also the most simplistic and conservative representations of the ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ narrative that was being promoted by the Bush administration and the right wing press. For example, in X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), produced before 9/11, Magneto is given a sympathetic origin as an oppressed Jew to explain his evil nature. Completely opposed to this is that Fantastic Four gives no real reason for Dr Doom’s evil nature, which mirrors the portrayal of terrorists in the mainstream media as having no motivation other than just being evil. The same, though not quite as crudely, can be said for Lex Luthor in Superman Returns. In contrast to these, the Spider-Man films have sympathetic villains (apart from venom in the third, conveniently the far less acclaimed instalment), as does, Heinze argues, Batman Begins.

Having created some distinctions between what we could term the conservative and the subversive we can use some measurements in order to compare their success. To get a rough, yet even measure of critical response, we could compare scores from the website Rotten Tomatoes. Spider-Man films receiving 89% for the first, 93% for the second, and 63% for the third (something that can be accounted for, amongst other factors, by sequel exhaustion), the Batman films are similarly – if not more – subversive and currently have an 84% for Batman Begins and a whopping 94% for The Dark Knight. Compare these figures then with Superman Returns, with a very mediocre 76% and the Fantastic Four films with a paltry 27% for the first and an only slightly higher 37% for the sequel: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007).

The second way to measure the cultural significance of these films, as mentioned a number of times above, would be to look at their box office figures. Is it no surprise then, that according to the statistics on Box Office Mojo’s helpful collection of superhero film takings the second highest (and highest for many years) is Spider-man. It has been explained above that the film has ambiguous villains and a fallible hero, but being released very soon after 9/11, it does benefit from some mild jingoism, i.e. American flags all over and the all American everyman Peter Parker as Spider-Man, the hero of New York (Note that this is only in reference to the film’s reception post 9/11, as it was produced prior to the event, these things can’t have been in there, specifically as a direct reaction to it). This was the top grossing superhero film for some time, that is, until America changed. Years later, with more temporal distance from the ‘trauma’ of 9/11, this jingoism was no longer what was needed. The immediate jingoism – though still prominent in some spaces – has become much less widespread and has in fact turned to a confused cynicism. Hence the massive financial success of the current highest grossing superhero film The Dark Knight, by far the darkest, most ambiguous and furthest from American jingoism of all the mainstream superheroes that have made the jump to the big screen. Note that by saying darkest ‘mainstream’ superhero I am ruling out other significant texts like the divisive Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009), which if I can afford a quick aside to, Jonanthan Crompton, a friend of mine, wrote in his undergrad dissertation on a very similar subject that: “The Watchmen themselves are morally dubious: emotionally troubled, flawed and ideologically suspect. One could read this as a projection of post -Iraq fears, of a weariness of America as the World’s ‘policeman’”.

Just to finish, another contemporary example, one that almost perfectly surmises the earlier postulation that the best way to achieve subversion is to work within the dominant framework/ideology and then deviate from it, would be Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008). To contextualise, compared to others mentioned, this currently sits at a 94% Rotten Tomato rating and is the third highest grossing superhero behind Batman and three Spider-Man films. The villain of the film is set up to be some unspecified Middle Eastern Islamic extremist terrorists. So far this is according to the dominant narrative. Yet, this cell are revealed to be powered by, and in villainous terms completely overshadowed by an even greater evil: the uncontrollable destruction of unfettered capitalist greed and how it leads to soulless profit making (selling weapons to the highest bidder, even if they’re an oppressive, unstable terrorist organisation), not to mention an unquenchable thirst for power (Obidiah Staines’ increasing insanity). How apt, that this corporate figure emerges as the greatest villain, just prior to the financial crash of 2008.

The main inspiration – even prior to reading Heinze’s essay – forcing me to move away from the belief that superhero movies grew to prominence post-9/11 because they are essentially the ultimate tale of good versus evil; that alerted me to the reality of these being much more complex and subversive, was Dan Cole’s (Found on Twitter) staggeringly comprehensive knowledge of comic books. His advice on many facets of Marvel’s change throughout the decade was instrumental in forming that base understanding that in pretty much every crevice of the Marvel Universe were themes of confusion and paranoia; of a nation that has lost its identity in the face of the divisive politics that force one to either conform to or reject the mainstream’s picture of the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘axis of evil’. I regret that I cannot repeat Dan’s comprehensive advice within the body of this text but invite him to add in the comments section some of the insightful information that I was sent, as it really does enrich the whole notion of the emerging post 9/11 superhero myth.

SUPERHEROES continues in two weeks time. 

Mike McKenny is an academic and writer on film. He writes for FilmAndFestivals magazine, and is the editor of Destroy Apathy. He can also be found on Twitter


  1. A great article Mike! Here are some of my notes I sent you for everyone else to read.

    Post 9/11

    – Marvels immediate post 9/11 was three comics. Two for charity, Heroes and A Moment in Silence, and a monthly, Amazing Spider-man #36.
    – Heroes had the marvel characters interact with the real life heroes of the day and is quite heartfelt (apparently). Cap and Hulk are the main heroes.
    – A Moment in Silence is completely in silence. It focus on the reactions of the emergency services. Poignant perhaps.
    – ASM #36 Spidey’s reaction and shock, everyone coming together in there grief (the villains are also devastated with Dr Doom CRYING!!!)

    – The most blatant attempt at a cash in is The Call which is about the emergency services (I couldn’t find the dates). It didn’t last long.

    Major Postt 9/11 themes

    – Rise of the Muslim Superhero – Instead of making every Muslim a villain we have the emergence of muslim heroes. Dust and M from the X-Franchise and Faiza Hussain from the pages of Captain Britain and MI 13 (You must read this book, also she wields Excalibur) Could it be a coincidence that they are all female?

    – Rise of the Hidden threat – to echo the ‘war on terror’ the threats in the marvel universe have not been so blatant. The New Avengers title first dealt with a shadow organisation that seem to have infiltrated both shield and hydra (the evil equivalent). Also we have secret invasion as a prime example.

    – Libery vs Security – see civil war, but we must also mention the X-Titles as after the decimation (see house of m later on in this email) of the mutant race on M-day the government decided to act and police the xavier institute. Sealing them inside the walls of the Professor estate the x-men are watched over by Sentinels piloted by humans and a government initiative called O*N*E Office of National Emergency. Also the concept of the initiative (a superteam in every state) is kind of like martial law.

    – Villains becoming government agents – civil war sees Iron Man deputise some villains to help against Cap, but it goes further than that. The Thunderbolts after civil war are villains (Bullseye, Venom, Moonstone) who are under control of ex-green goblin Norman Osborn who are registered heroes and help the initiative. Then after secret invasion Osborn become head of shield (renaming it hammer) and this is when the dark reign begins.

    – Paranoia and fear – See secret invasion and dark reign

    – The people in charge might not have our best intentions at heart – See dark reign, but also the Illuminati (Reed Richards, Prof X, Iron Man, Black Bolt, Namor and Dr Strange) who are a recent idea (2005) but was formed after the kree-skrull war storyline (1972). These guys have been dealing with threats without anyone knowing. They are famous for sending the hulk into space as he is too much of a threat the consequences being World War Hulk (see below). They have just been revealed fully to the rest of the superhero community, which hasn’t helped Iron Man and Caps friendship.

    Major events and comics rebranding/relaunching

    – In 2002 Captain America (John cassaday – artist) relaunched under the marvel knights banner and he hunted terrorists (I kid you not)

    – Avengers Disassembled (2004 Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch) was an attempt at marvel to reboot their floundering Avengers line (no one wanted the classical style of hero that the book was producing perhaps at the time). So they cleared the board and tying into Thor, Cap and Iron Man’s books the event will be the last time we see the big three together until 2010. The avengers are discredited and demolished from within. The Scarlett Witch goes mental and uses her reality altering powers to attack her comrades, hawkeye and vision are killed (so are the ant-man of the time scot lang). The mansion is demolished and by the end the avengers disband (due to lack of funds from mr stark)

    – Secret War 2005 Bendis – Nick Fury sends a small team of heroes into Latveria to stop the prime minister from arming criminals with high tech weapons. It is a covert operation and Fury goes into hiding afterwards.

    – Shooting out from disassembled where two books both in 2005. One is The New Avengers who came together after a break out at the raft (a super villain prison). The team consists of Cap, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, Woverine, Sentry and Ronin (ronin is merely in a few issues). The new avengers fight a global conspiracy whilst hunting down the escaped villains. It has become know as the ‘street level’ book after the events of Civil War. The book focused on the anti registration heroes (whilst mighty avengers was pro) and their war against The Hood who had created a society of super villains (villains allying with each other to protect their interests seems to be a recent development, it is run like a business or protection racket).

    -Young Avengers is about some hopeful young superpowered heroes who want to keep the avengers legacy alive. Iron Man and Captain America try to shut them down as they don’t want to see more young people die. So obviously they rebel and they are on the anti registration side of the civil war (Cap needed the numbers lol)

    – After the disassembled we had house of m (Bendis and Olivier Coipel 2005). Basically the scarlet witch is manipulated into creating a utopia where Magneto rules the world and mutants are the dominant species and humans are the under class. The heroes manage to get it back on track but the parting shot from wanda “no more mutants” reduces the current mutant popultion to only 198. This made the mutant species an endangered one, leading to them being policed, attacked by religious xenophobic cult (see terrorist) and after dark reign they exiled themselves to a island called utopia.

    – World war hulk – Greg Pak and John Romita Jr (2007). The hulk returns to earth and wages war on the superhero community that sent him into space.

    – obviously civil war – leading on from this Marvel put the Initiative over the books that where pro registration (mighty avengers, Ms Marvel, Iron Man and Avengers: The Initiative). The avengers: the initiative was a book about traing new and old heroes in their powers and how to work as a hero.

    A massive side note after civil war is that cap died and his sidekick (recently ressurrected or in fact never died and became a killer for the soviets called the winter soldier) inhereted his role. He is a hard edged compared to the original and he even has a gun!

    Secret Invasion – Skrulls infiltrate earth. Remember they are religious zealots. At the end of this event Norban Osborn is show killing the Skrull Queen and becomes a national hero and it is revealed that he has a secret cabal (a villainous version of the Illuminati) which include Emma Frost, Loki, The Hood, Namor, Dr Doomand of course Osborn.

    From secret invasin comes Dark Reign. Osborn hunts down Iron Man (who is blamed for the skrull invasion) and leads to our armoured avenger erasing his brain. He creates his own versions of x-men and avengers and allow the villains free reign. He turns the initiative training sites into his own personal war factory and turns shield into hammer. Basically corrupting everything.

    also from secret invasion comes secret warriors (Jonathan Hickamn writing) concentrating on Nick Furies new covert super team who are trying to stop hydra from infiltrating everything and winning the world.

    Siege is the end of the dark reign but it ends with Asgard (which has come to earth thanks to a rejuvenated Thor after disassembled) being obliterated, but Osborn is defeated and the big three are reunited. This leads into the heroic age which see Steve Rogers as the top cop and everyone repairing the damage left by Osborn.

    However we are now in the grip of fear itself. Basically the norse avatar of fear has come back to earth and the world is in its grip (rioting and such forth). He has summoned his worthy (Hulk, Thing, Juggernaught and other bruiser who are taken over by magic hammers) and they are wreaking havoc around the globe, massive devastation basically. The Red Skull’s daughter Sin is a major villain of this event (calling her self Skadi) and she launches blitzkrieg america and decimates the capitol. She also kills bucky barnes who is captain america at the moment.

    Sorry if this is far to big!

  2. Interesting overview, but there are plenty of reasons that the superhero MOVIE genre differs significantly from the superhero COMICS in ways that are ideologically and politically intriguing. Ironically, comics are potentially MORE subversive than Hollywood films since those commodities necessitate increasingly innovative stories… which is why they will continue to shape Hollywood with stories that were innovative decades ago! More here:


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