Imagine this scene: There’s a large, booming explosion and glass shatters. The people scatter; confusion is rampant. What’s happening and who’s doing it are questions that won’t be answered for days or weeks to come.
That’s the scenario in many blockbuster movies. The Joker attacks Gotham. Loki demolishes Manhattan with his alien army. The Decepticons wreck buildings and cars while the Autobots and ShiaLaBeouf try to stop them.
But however fictional it may seem, it’s an experience that became much more real than any movie scene 12 years ago on September 11th.
I love action movies,but every time I watch New York or any other city blown to smithereens — even though it’s just CGI — I can’t help but squirm.
I am a proud Brooklynite, and, in many ways, I can divide my life into pre- and post-9/11. Before that day, Manhattan was the exciting place where my dad worked and I got to see musicals on Broadway. After 9/11, I closed my eyes every time we drove over the bridge or through the tunnel. Before, taking the subway was an adventure. After, I worried about every person carrying a dark bag. Before, I loved going to Mets games. After, I worried that someone had snuck something past the new metal detectors. I’m no longer that scared 10-, 11- and 12-year-old, but those feelings are still there, though more deeply hidden.
It’s not just for me that this is true. This is the experience of thousands of New Yorkers and millions of Americans. It’s the experience of people in Boston, London, the Middle East — millions of people worldwide.
In films like The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan subjected the city of Gotham — which has been a stand-in for New York City for many fans — to all of my post-9/11 nightmares. The bridges blew up, a football game was turned into a sick nightmare and nuclear detonation was imminent.
I’m not denying the artistic value of these movies. In many ways, they’re about how far we’re willing to go to stop evil and what we’re willing to give up for justice and good — a relevant topic. This heightened sense of terror is essential to the plot. However, the continued fetishization of terror is excessive. At some point, it’s exploitation of people’s fears for nothing but cheap entertainment. At some point, it’s too much.
The thing that really puts it over the edge is that the city never changes. Because Gotham is presented as a city with an already large amount of crime, these insane criminals don’t seem to shake the people too much. There’s an underlying feeling that they’re used to it.
That part doesn’t make any sense. New Yorkers dealt with a lot of crime in the ’80s and ’90s; 9/11 was completely different. For Gothamites, the Joker should have been something completely different. Yet there’s no sense that exploding hospitals and mass hysteria have any effect on the collective Gotham consciousness. Thus, the explosions and terror — things that aren’t just plot points, but events that many have experienced — become devices for exploring Batman’s issues. I’m not OK with simply using the terror a city faces — a very real terror for the audience — as another reflection of Batman’s internal conflicts.
It’s not just Nolan. Every Spider-Man movie does this. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers completely decimated Manhattan — though Iron Man 3 did a good job of showing the fallout of that terror for Tony Stark and the nation. Films with arguably less artistic value have an even poorer defense, because it’s unclear that films like Transformers, The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 were interested in anything besides creating massive explosions and scenic destruction. They’re disaster-porn at its worst.
The issue becomes more complicated considering the superhero genre in the post-9/11 context. The genre’s resurgence feels like a direct response to the horrors of terrorism: In a world where nothing is certain, it’s wonderful to know that the good guy is going to save the day. The heroes and villains are easily identifiable from the start. Good will win. Terror will cease to exist.
But when that terror is only used as a device to get Batman to stand his ground, to give the Avengers background noise or to let Spider-Man save the girl, it’s not OK. It’s lazy movie-making. If you’re going to graphically revisit that trauma on screen, as many have chosen to, there better be a good reason for it. When a director decides to decimate New York City yet again, they ought to consider the millions of people for whom this isn’t just another story, but reality. They need to bring empathy and sympathy. Because disasters don’t just affect the man in the cape who came to save the day.
Victoria Edel is a senior in the College. Girl Meets World appears every other Friday in the guide.