The culminating twist of Iron Man 3, declared Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “signals both the making of Iron Man 3 and, with any luck, the possible unmaking of the genre.” It was an early review, so Lane had to be coy about specifics, but a few weeks and a few hundred million box office dollars later, we can take the spoiler gloves off and just say it:
“This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war – justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism – that is the single greatest cause of that threat.”
Oh, wait, sorry, that’s not Iron Man 3. That’s Glenn Greenwald on Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the twelve-year-old foreign policy franchise formerly known as the War on Terror has another two decades of sequels left in it.
What I meant to write is completely different. That Iron Man 3’s supervillianous corporate technology genius invented his own Osama Bin Laden to mask his R&D and drive up government demand for his ever-expanding arsenal of military products, locking American and the rest of the planet in a self-perpetuating cycle of unwinnable war. But that’s just a movie. The kind that now pretty much defines the Hollywood blockbuster. Director Shane Black even goes the extra metafictional mile and includes the villain’s blue screen movie studio, the same corporate tech keeping Tony and his pals alive.
“From here on,” writes Lane, “the dumb-ass grandeur around which superheroic plots revolve can no longer be taken on trust.” Greenwald thinks the same about Obama. The war on terror, like the Hollywood superhero, will never end on its own because so many “factions reap a bonanza of benefits from its continuation.” Black lifts the edge of the curtain, but that glimpse will hardly unmake or even marginally slow the onslaught of forthcoming productions. Captain America 2 is shooting in D.C. as I type. That’s D.C., our nation’s capital, and so not technically a Warner Bros or Marvel Entertainment branch office.
The modern superhero movie first took flight in 1978 with Superman: The Movie (the subtitle says it all), with the total number of productions tipping just over forty in 2001. How many since 9/11? Fifty. In less than half as many years. So, no, 9/11 is not the box office superhero’s origin story. It’s merely the transformative accident that doubled his powers. Like the Golden Age’s Blue Beetle. When his comic book incarnation debuted in pre-war 1939, the Beetle was just another mystery man in a domino mask and fedora. Listen to his first radio broadcast a worn-torn year later and the guy’s ingesting the power-inducing 2-X formula from his pharmacist mentor.
Novelist Austin Grossman recently told my Superheroes class that when he started writing his supervillain-narrated Soon I Will Be Invincible in 2001, he had to ask himself, “Am I just writing about a terrorist?” Austin’s brother, The Magicians author Lev Grossman, penned his own superheroic response, “Pitching 9/11.” The short story is a sequence of failed pitches for adapting 9/11 to screen. Here’s my favorite:
“Lonely, misunderstood Dominican elevator repairman (John Leguizamo?) finds himself trapped by fire after the second plane hits. In agony from the heat and smoke, near death from asphyxiation he jumps from the 83rd Floor. Instead of falling he hover in midair, then rockets upward. The trauma of the attack, and of his impending certain death, has awakened latent superpowers he never knew he had. A handful of others have undergone similar transformations—they hover in a cluster over the collapsing buildings, like so many swimmers treading water. As the roof sinks away below them into nothingness, they choose colorful pseudonyms and soar away together in formation to take vengeance on evil everywhere.”
Lev’s other pitches include scifi thriller, Discovery Channel documentary, and a filmed performance piece, but superheroes are the ready-made absurdity 9/11 was meant for. Diverting the path of an airliner? That’s a job for Superman. The pre-emptive prequel would star Batman. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, President Clinton was so annoyed with the lack of options for taking out Bin Laden he said to one ofhis generals: ‘You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.’”
Substitute “ninjas” with the superhero team of your choice and you’ve got your very own dumb-ass grandeur plot. But according to Blake Snyder (a friend leant me a copy of his Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need), the Superhero genre isn’t just about “guys in capes and tights.” It’s what happens when an extraordinary person is stuck in an ordinary world. In addition to Bruce Wayne and the X-Men, Russell Crow’s Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind are his go-to examples of misunderstood Gullivers shackled by Lilluputians.
I’m more than a little skeptical about Snyder (he argues Miss Congeniality is a better film than Memento), but he has a point. Especially when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Superheroes soared after 9/11 because Hollywood cast America as the planet’s mightiest super being and the rest of the word population as those moron Lilluputians willfully misunderstanding him. Weren’t they listening when Bush Sr. explained the New World Order?
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was the lone superpower, to be loved and respected by a planet of grateful mortals. When some of those ingrates go and topple the Fortress of Solitude, what choice does America have but to declare a War on Lilluputianism? “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war,” laments Greenwald, “has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation.”
But then in his own superheroic plot twist, Obama, days after his Assistant Defense Secretary was arguing for an unlimited renewal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, declared: “This war, like all wars, must end.” The Associated Press boiled the President’s 7,000- word speech down to a sentence: “Barack Obama has all but declared an end to the global war on terror.”
Congress is balking of course. And so is our Democracy’s fourth branch of government, Hollywood. While Obama declares war on perpetual war, Marvel has two superhero franchises in post-production (Wolverine, Thor), three filming for 2014 release dates (Captain America, Spider-Man, X-Men), and another four announced for 2015 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Ant-Man). Throw in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show that premieres next fall, and the superhero war isn’t dialing back—it’s surging.
But all those capes and tights flying across our screen have been an inverse shadow of real troops on the ground. So what happens when we finally leave Afghanistan? What happens if the drone war on al Qaeda really does die down? I’m no pre-cog, but the pop culture tea leaves are telling me 2015 will be the last big year for dumb-ass superhero grandeur. Though I wouldn’t underestimate Hollywood’s shapeshifting powers either. Both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness were already in theaters, literally blowing up their representations of the U.S. drone armada, when Obama dropped his own policy bomb of a speech.
Box office superheroes will endure. Just scaled back to their pre-9/11 levels, where they belong.