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September 6, 2011
Paul Asay
The Way We Watched (After 9/11)

The Way We Watched (After 9/11)

On Sept. 11, 2001, our whole world changed.

Or so we told ourselves.

We didn't know how, necessarily. But in our guts, we knew. When I heard about the collapse of the second tower that morning on my way to work, I wasn't thinking about the economy or militant Islam or world reaction. I certainly wasn't thinking about how it'd affect the entertainment industry.

I don't know if I thought much at all. I simply remember wiping tears from my eyes as my car trundled on to work, pushing myself forward even when everything in me wanted to pull over, to cradle my head in my hands, to mourn. My hitched breath was sandwiched between the drone of the car and the drone of the reporters.

I'm so happy my grandfather never had to see this day, I remember thinking. Nothing'll be the same now. Nothing.

A decade later we live in a much different world. Politically, economically and even spiritually, much of who and what America is now can be traced back to 9/11. The day changed us, without a doubt.

But not exactly in the ways you'd think. And in some respects, the change is actually quite difficult to detect. For that, I'll focus on entertainment, always something of a bellwether in our society. Are we seeing different sorts of movies than we did before 9/11? Watching different sorts of television shows? Did that September calamity change the kinds of games we play?

Or did we, as I did on that roadway 10 years ago, simply keep moving forward?

Disaster-Driven Cinema
In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the entertainment industry reeled. The Emmys were postponed. Broadway went dark. Disneyland shut down. Fox pulled ads for its new, terror-centric serial 24. And many observers observed that Hollywood would now have to do things differently.

"The reason [9/11] was like watching a movie is because we did see this movie," expert Michael Barson told USA Today. "We watched it as Independence Day. We watched it as Air Force One. To have it actually happen makes everything that preceded it seem irrelevant. It was high entertainment because we thought those famous buildings getting destroyed was impossible."

Barson was one of many who believed that catastrophes would never be seen as "entertainment" again. And for a time it seemed like he might be right. Studios were scrapping action films in favor of light, frothy comedies—hoping to capitalize on what was assumed to be an escapist mindset. And even if an action movie was greenlit, it was often rewrit.

"On a very practical level, there's certain imagery that's very tainted now," DreamWorks production co-chief Walter Parkes told Entertainment Weekly, explaining why he reworked a scene in The Time Machine which showed a meteor shower hammering New York. "Even if it's not in a political context, or a movie about terrorism, [there are things] one no longer feels [are] appropriate."

It made sense.

I remember after being involved in a semi-serious car crash a while back, every time I saw an auto accident in a movie, I'd involuntarily wince. Those sorts of scenes impacted me more because of what I'd been through. They felt more real, more visceral, more painful—and it was more difficult for me to separate what I saw on the screen from what I'd dealt with in reality.

But after a few months, that sort of hypersensitivity faded for me. And it faded for all of us. People are amazingly resilient, and it wasn't long before most of us were again happily entertaining ourselves with fictional catastrophe.

While direct references to 9/11 disasters were, and are, rare, Hollywood didn't shy away from cinematic cataclysm even the following year. In 2002, the sci-fi smash Signs depicted the near end of the world via alien invasion. The Sum of All Fears showed much of Baltimore being destroyed by a nuclear blast. Even The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers—featuring a people under assault by an overwhelming enemy—reflected the uncertainty and oppression many felt in a post 9/11 world.

And they kept coming: The Day After Tomorrow—an apocalyptic environmental fable—made nearly $190 million in 2004. War of the Worlds blew past $230 million the following year. And 2012—a movie explicitly about the end of the world (just a few thousand people survive to see the credits)—banked $165 million-plus in 2009.

Water surged. Aliens zapped. Battles raged. Bombs exploded. Buildings collapsed. People died.

But there was, perhaps, something strangely comforting in these new disaster movies of ours. The hits invariably featured characters facing disaster, persevering through the world's worst moments to see a brighter day beyond. In the rubble, we were witnesses to cinematic bravery—perhaps a muddy reflection of the firefighters and policemen we saw in New York City, who dove into the battered World Trade Center to rescue others, even though some knew they might not make it out alive.

Caped Comeback
With so many real heroes on display during and after the events of 9/11, doubt was cast on the survivability of some of the heroes most of us grew up with—those guys in tights and capes. Would there be a place for them in this new environment?

It seemed as though interest was already on the wane, at least in terms of mainstream exposure. The last Superman movie (The Quest for Peace) had been released 14 years prior. Batman's latest big-screen effort—the much ridiculed Batman & Robin (in 1997)—seemed to have effectively killed that franchise. The terror attacks were the last straw, some thought.

"Who can now abide the fantasy of an evil madman's nefarious plot to kill thousands of people being foiled by a muscle-bound troglodyte?" Andrew D. Arnold wrote for Time in October 2001. "This has been a time when ordinary people—fireman, policemen, volunteers—have been justly hailed as heroes. They only make the comicbook superheroes seem more artificial."

The following year, Spider-Man was released. It made more than $400 million and became 2002's biggest blockbuster.

Perhaps it was coincidence. Spider-Man might've been a runaway hit even if 9/11 had never happened. But there's little question now that the film sparked a veritable tidal wave of theatrical supers. America has been loving on Arnold's "artificial superheroes" for a decade now—and with the success of Thor and Captain America this year, and the much ballyhooed releases of The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and a Spider-Man reboot in 2012, the trend shows no signs of collapsing. The superhero film has become its own genre—more popular now than the Western or the gangster flick.

We didn't scrap our fictional superheroes. In a way, it seems as though we needed them more than ever.

And yet Arnold still had a point: Many of these modern "superheroes" aren't that far removed from "ordinary people." Spider-Man is an everyman with extraordinary abilities. Batman and Iron Man are semi-regular Joes with some impressive gadgetry. They are approachable, vulnerable … human.

From the Ashes, Animation
That sense of humanity kept growing as we took stock of our own lives and rediscovered the idea that the most precious commodities we had were the people around us. And as we held our friends and family closer, we grew to embrace a new sense of humanity onscreen—even when there weren't any humans there at all.

The world of animation has often been, by its very nature, the most "inhuman" of movie genres. We do not see flesh-and-blood actors before us, but pen-and-ink (or pixels come to life by way of CGI renderings). Many of animation's characters aren't even designed to look like humans. Our cartoons have long been populated with talking mice and anthropomorphic teapots and lively toys. And while many were beautifully told tales with lavish musical numbers, and some were surprisingly sophisticated, they were thought of—by many—as simply capers for the kiddos.

Then, in 2003, Pixar's Finding Nemo came out. It was the story of a little fish and his overprotective father, both wrestling with concepts of independence and safety, loss and risk. It made nearly $340 million Stateside. The Incredibles followed closely on Nemo's tailfins, meshing a superhero story with themes of family and acceptance. WALL-E—a disaster tale of a sorts—sorted through our built-up emotional trash piles in 2008. Up, a poignant tale of loss and grief and friendship, landed in theaters the following year. In 2010, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon became tear-jerking blockbusters.

"Cartoons"—the bright spectacles and baubles of the pre-9/11 world—were telling some of the most affecting, moving stories put to film. These inhuman flicks became rooted in a deep humanness. They were reflecting our desire—our need—to hold tight to our loved ones, the ones in our lives who make living in such a perilous world worthwhile.

A Focus on the Family
"We do not very often make recommendations for people's behavior from this chair," ABC news anchor Peter Jennings said on that September 11th, struggling with emotion. "But … if you're a parent, you've got a kid in some other part of the country, call them up."

In the aftermath of 9/11, many of us remembered once again what's most important in our lives—our families. We longed to hold onto them with all our strength and soul. We wanted to love them, and go on loving them forever. And we retreated a bit from the outside world to take comfort in the worlds we'd built at home.

As moviegoers, we displayed little interest in directly reliving the disasters (the two 9/11-themed movies that came out in 2006—World Trade Center and United 93—underperformed) or examining its causes or aftermath (serious films about the ensuing war in Iraq, particularly those critical of it, uniformly bombed). We didn't turn to movies to face our fears, at least not head on, but to escape them for a time—to explore the comfort of familiar images and tropes we'd so long embraced onscreen. We escaped real disasters and embraced fictional ones with guaranteed happy endings. We longed for heroes, revisiting the comic book creations of our own childhoods. We treasured our families … and we went to films that made us feel as if we were kids again.