Looking back, superhero movies and a boom in Middle Eastern terrorists on television and film were probably the inevitable pop culture responses the September 11 attacks, the former a fantasy of stopping the worst before it happens without loss of life and treasure, the latter an attempt to personify an enemy most Americans hadn’t even considered. But while most of these cultural references have been more allusion than direct reference, the Joker’s demented drag as a substitute for Osama bin Laden, Oded Fehr in Sleeper Cell instead of Mohammad Atta, The Avengers and The Dictator both seem to me to be addressing September 11 and its aftermath with unusual directness, if to very different effect.
The Avengers is hardly the first post-9/11 movie to have superheroes rampage through New York, causing property damage and loss of life along the way. But I was struck, in the moment when Thor, doing battle with his brother Loki atop Stark Tower, forces him to look out at the city Loki’s forces were laying waste to, trying to force him to recognize the stupid, destructive futility of his attack. The crash of alien invaders into skyscrapers was one of the most striking visual allusions to the September 11 attacks I’ve seen in an action movie, flowers of fire blooming from pillars of steel in an eruption of violence hugely more widespread than the terror accomplished by 19 angry men in three hijacked planes.
The buildings didn’t fall. We didn’t have to go to war, because we could shut the border between our world and the one from which our enemies came. We didn’t even have to conduct a mop-up operation or interrogate detainees because when that portal closed, the invaders collapsed like toys (interestingly, while in Avengers captivity, Loki assumes he’ll be tortured and Nick Fury certainly seems prepared to do so, but it’s Black Widow who talks information out of the mad god without touching him). This isn’t just a fantasy of an easy dynamic, of revenge on the bad guys as Adam Serwer has written at Mother Jones. It’s a dream of resilience and clean war, where we can suffer greater losses and survive; where we can solve our problem without putting as many men and women at risk of death, deformity, or traumatic brain injury; where we can end the war in a day; where we can avoid doing grievous harm to ourselves and our values in the process.
The Dictator doesn’t perform alchemy on our post-9/11 fears, it mocks them. Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming comedy about a Middle Eastern dictator adrift in New York City takes on issues ranging from anti-Arab sentiment. But it also features an extended joke, which appears at the end of this red band trailer, that derives its humor from the idea that a pair of tourists in a helicopter are stupid to think that they might be the victims of a 9/11 style attack again:
It’s a poor choice of target. Publications like The Onion and Modern Humorist dived in immediately after 9/11 to start making fun of the hijackers themselves, and the Taliban and al Qaeda more broadly, turning them into small, delusional, murderous, isolated men rather than giving them the deference of treating them like an existential threat to the United States. It’s that kind of thinking that leads to raids to take out Osama bin Laden directly, rather than grinding wars that have accomplished little more than giving the sense that the country responding with force equal to the trauma we felt on September 11 itself. If you want to make fun of that trauma, it makes more sense to mock the things that it’s made us do to ourselves, be it the threat level system, invasive TSA searches, or watch lists. For all the movie’s other fantasies, Bruce Banner’s indignant request to know why “Captain America’s on a threat list?” in The Avengers says a lot more about the idiocies of post-9/11 vigilance than mocking the terror of two middle-aged tourists who think they’re about to die.