Superhero movies have a deep connection to 9/11, and it shows how NYC and Disney capitalized on our collective grief

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Superhero movies have a deep connection to 9/11, and it shows how NYC and Disney capitalized on our collective grief
"The Avengers" during 2012's depiction of "the battle of New York." Marvel Studios
  • Twenty years after 9/11, the superhero film has come to dominate entertainment as a form of collective therapy.
  • The 21st-century renaissance of both New York City and Disney capitalized on the phenomenon.
  • The pandemic may have drawn the era of superhero films as group therapy to a close.

Two decades ago, terrified New Yorkers looked on at a calamity. The skyscrapers of Manhattan were witness to a tragedy unfolding.

But then a superhero saved the day.

That was how it played out in the famous train scene from 2004's "Spider-Man 2," when Tobey Maguire's wall-crawler prevents a runaway subway train from crashing. The reason it's famous is what happened next: The exhausted hero collapses, and grateful New Yorkers carry him to safety, passing him over their heads in a Christ-like pose.

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The scene is powerful on its own merits, but its initial context was a statement on recovery from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A fictional New York City was being saved, and expressing thanks to its savior. Twenty years after 9/11, this urgent emotional need has been fed again and again by superhero films.

As the "war on terror" transformed American foreign policy in concrete terms and American political culture in more intangible ways, as argued in Spencer Ackerman's new book "Reign of Terror," superhero films came to dominate Hollywood with New York-centric tales that reckon with the sacrifices required to face down an existential threat.

Warner Brothers' "The Dark Knight" of 2008 was a direct allegory for the Bush-era scandal of warrantless wiretapping, as Batman decides the best way to defeat a terrorist is to illegally surveil the entire city of Gotham. The same year, Marvel's first "Iron Man" film stars a billionaire arms dealer who builds a suit of armor to break himself out of a terrorist den in Afghanistan.

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As the superhero took over the American imagination, Disney took over the film industry, beginning with its acquisition of Marvel in 2009. Early aughts movie themes centered around the redemption of New York City, cementing a close relationship with Disney that stretched back to the 1990s, when it partnered on the rehabilitation of Times Square. (Disney did not respond to a request for comment.)

Disney's market cap skyrocketed over the next two decades, keyed on by its focus on superheroes after 9/11. Along the way, it snapped up Lucasfilm, and its share of the Hollywood box office expanded from around 10% in 2008 to a full third by 2019. These acquisitions have transformed Disney's lucrative theme-parks business, which it revamped in the late 2010s to focus less on Mickey and Minnie and more on recreating its blockbuster Marvel films.

By the time of 2012's "The Avengers," Disney was setting box-office records with the cinematic wrecking of New York, illustrating that the psychic cost of 9/11 was still the animating force of blockbuster entertainment. Years later, audiences still weren't over their collective trauma.

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"Avengers: Endgame" became the highest-grossing film of all time in 2019 as an exploration of group therapy and dealing with loss, cultural critic Tom Breihan argued on the AV Club, before becoming an exercise in group catharsis as the good guys literally traveled back in time to undo damage on a galactic scale. Eighteen years after 9/11, audiences still wanted to see things put back to the way they used to be.

The fortunes of Disney and NYC were virtually entertwined throughout this period, as a Disneyfied theater district shed its gritty image and tourism boomed, setting the stage for a New York City renaissance. The city became one of just a few American "superstar cities," led by its dominant financial services sector.

Although the New York metro area was relatively flat as a share of GDP over the two decades, at around 9%, the NYC-based financial services sector steadily ascended from about 5% of GDP to about 6% between 2001 and 2019, representing billions of dollars flowing into the city, along with a huge stream of tourists, usually with "Lion King" tickets.

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The superhero itself is a NYC success story. Comic-book journalist Abraham Riesman's recent biography of Stan Lee, "True Believer," argues that Marvel's founding editor-in-chief saw his co-creations as the true successor to Disney's empire.

Comics' status as outsider art allowed the creation of a violent new mythology, and the Marvel work of legendary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko specifically elevated New York City itself as a main character in the mythos, as Kirby's Fantastic Four lived in a midtown skyscraper and Ditko's Spider-Man was a kid from Queens, while his Dr. Strange was a Greenwich Village resident, on Bleecker Street.

In 2018, with the superhero supremacy well enshrined at the box office, The New Yorker's Richard Brody analyzed the genre as a type of "secular religion," faithful to parables that are canonized almost on the level of Catholic saints.

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Twenty years after 9/11, cracks in this secular canon are emerging, as the pandemic abruptly ended all the cathartic in-person experiences in which Disney specialized, from theme parks to packed movie theaters.

It may give way to a new kind of superhero narrative, centered on the kind of civil-rights movement that ignited throughout the Trump years, especially the George Floyd protests of the summer of 2020. Disney's surprise smash hit "Black Panther" in 2019 was just such a film.

It just so happens that Disney acquired exactly such a property in the biggest purchase from its imperial post-9/11 phase: 21st Century Fox and the film rights to the X-Men. Maybe it's time for a new story.

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