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In post-9/11 movies, even superheroes struggle to save the day

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - From the first shattering moment, movies were wrapped up in Sept. 11.

The images of planes flying into the World Trade Center and the twin towers crumbling, to be replayed time after time in high-definition on television, were strikingly movielike. With no other frame of reference, many, for a moment, thought they were seeing a Hollywood blockbuster. Robert Altman would later claim that committing such an atrocity would be unthinkable, "unless they'd seen it in a movie."

Speculation soon followed on how and when Hollywood would take up the story of that day. In the 10 years since, 9/11 is nowhere and everywhere, rarely depicted straightforwardly and yet a constant thought.

It took five years before the subject was tackled, and even then, Hollywood did so gingerly. Oliver Stone, usually a filmmaker of bravado, tracked a humble police officer (Nicolas Cage) amid the chaos in his 2006 film "World Trade Center." The documentary-style "United 93" (2006), too, was a specific tale of courage.

There were others, such as "Reign Over Me" (2007) and "Remember Me" (2010) that told personal stories around the tragedy, and documentaries such as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004). And perhaps the most lasting cinematic reaction to 9/11 was the founding of the still-growing Tribeca Film Festival in downtown New York.

But movies often best reflect seismic events not head-on but through the lens of genre, allegory and moods that filter subconsciously onto celluloid. World War II was followed with movies that sought to reconcile the war, such as 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives," released just a year after the war ended. But the more telling movie expression was film noir, the great genre of fatalistic crime films, deeply saturated with dark shadows and postwar cynicism.

Similarly, in the decade since Sept. 11, movies have turned dark, paranoid and questioning. Such a trend, of course, runs parallel with ever-present, pure escapism. But even in the most popular films of the decade, a post-9/11 atmosphere is unmistakable.

The 2000s belonged to the superhero, and among the countless caped-crusaders, it was Batman who reigned supreme. It wasn't the patriotic Superman (recent adaptions have largely sputtered) or the even more red-white-and-blue Captain America (recently restored in a thoroughly nostalgic period film). Instead, Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" (2008) became not only the most acclaimed of the comic book films, but the most popular, earning more than half a billion domestically.

"The Dark Knight" is perhaps the ultimate Sept. 11 movie.

The Joker (played by Heath Ledger) is a terrorist as seen through Western eyes. His only goal is to create chaos and stoke fear. Batman (Christian Bale), a vigilante operating outside of the corrupt police, is effective because he is lawless: He personally extradites a Chinese mobster from Hong Kong and uses a very NSA-like hacking device to spy on the public. Though the film was shot in Chicago, Gotham City has always been a stand-in for New York.

The movie is a dark, pessimistic rendering of the war on terror, doubtful that the government can successfully combat terrorism and troubled by the means necessary for justice. The poster for the film is almost shocking in its imagery: A burning skyscraper lurks behind Batman with his insignia flaming high up on the building, about the shape a plane would leave behind.

New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the film's engagement with 9/11 "diffuse," but claimed, "that a spectacle like this even glances in that direction confirms that American movies have entered a new era of ambivalence when it comes to their heroes."

That's true also of James Bond, originally a witty, but deadly sophisticate. In the latest incarnations of 007, played by Daniel Craig, Bond has turned grim, brooding and doubting.

The war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a large, adjacent body of work. The tone is an extension of the Vietnam-era films of the late 1960s and 1970s, when antiheroes populated movies and mistrust of government and institutions boiled over.

Such movies are numerous: "Syriana" (2005); "Body of Lies" (2008); "Lions for Lambs" (2007); "Rendition" (2007); "Redacted" (2007); "Brothers" (2009); "In the Valley of Elah" (2007); "The Messenger" (2009); "The Men Who Stare at Goats" (2009); "The Kingdom" (2007); "A Mighty Heart" (2007); "Fair Game" (2010); "Green Zone" (2010); and the Academy Award winner, "The Hurt Locker" (2008).

Many of these movies were overtly political, and many were box-office disappointments. On the whole, they turn examination inward, doubting American military policy and direction. The thoroughly complicated "Syriana" seemed to find it impossible to make sense of America's mission in the Middle East.

"We're ready for a big movie. I'd like to see the 'Syriana' of 9/11," says author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn, whose book "How Beautiful and How Easy It Can Be Broken" included an essay on 9/11 and movies. "What you want your artists to do is help you think about things. But nobody in the movies yet is helping to think about this event and I find that strange."

Some films have turned to the past to illuminate the present.

De Niro's "The Good Shepherd" examined the roots of the CIA and its disjointed relationship with American ideals. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (2005), about the pursuit by Israel's Mossad of the Islamic terrorists responsible for the slaughter of athletes at the 1972 Olympics, considered the moral repercussions of revenge against terrorism. "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007), starring Tom Hanks, hinted at the seeds of contemporary Afghanistan by recalling America's neglect of the nation in the 1990s once the threat of the Soviet Union was gone.

Even "Avatar," a huge box-office hit, had clear Iraq or Afghanistan allegory, with American military contractors fighting natives with valuable natural resources.

Richard Pena, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, believes the distrust for authority brought on by Sept. 11 is an extension of a mood begun during the late 1960s. He sees Vietnam War movies as replacing the Western's more golden view of America.

"9/11 will represent, to my mind, a next phase beyond that and one that's probably still becoming clear," says Pena. "It took years for film to really address Vietnam in an interesting way. The same thing is perhaps happening with 9/11."

To Pena, a movie such as 2010's "Inception," where distrust and apathy run through layers of false reality, bears 9/11 themes.

"'Inception' in many ways is really about the cancelling of any borders or structures," he says. "If one wants to take it societally, I think it is about a kind of borderless, ideal-less, goalless world."

In timing, documentaries have the jump on fictional films. The sense of questioning brought on by Sept. 11 and the subsequent wars has produced one of the more fertile periods for documentary film. Aside from "Fahrenheit 9/11," the last 10 years have included documentaries such as "Taxi to Dark Side" (2007), "Restrepo" (2010), "No End in Sight" (2007) and "My Trip to Al Qaeda" (2010).

Given the violence witnessed on Sept. 11, some predicted the end of the disaster film. In the aftermath, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote that "the imaginations that had been schooled in the comedy of apocalypse were forced to reconsider the same evidence as tragic."

"If the liftoff of Apollo 11 — essentially, a controlled explosion in the cause of an adventurous peace — was the spectacle that first gave us leave to indulge in the joy of a big bang, then September 11th was not only an official rebuke to that license but the fiery end of the ride," wrote Lane.

That turned out to be too optimistic an appraisal, and one that didn't account for the unstoppable swagger of big-budget pop culture. Disaster films (which also take much of their anxiety from global warming concerns) have only grown in the last decade.

Just the last few months have seen Los Angeles destroyed ("Battle: Los Angeles") and Chicago torn to bits ("Transformers: Dark of the Moon"). Mendelsohn wonders if we keep creating such images "to inoculate ourselves against the horror" of such destruction.

"When we look back on this in 50 years, it's going to seem obvious how this atmosphere of paranoia has just permeated American culture," says Wheeler Winston Dixon, editor of the book "Film and Television After 9/11" and film professor at the University of Nebraska.

"What we're seeing right now is something that we're too close to see. When we look back in 25 or 30 years, we'll see things like 'Super 8' were a way to return to our childhood, that in 'Thor' we're looking for a hero, that the new 'Superman' movie that's coming — again we're looking for someone to save us."

There are several 9/11-related films on the horizon. Later this year, the adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about a boy dealing with his father's death in the twin towers, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, will be released. Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") is making a movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And Paul McCartney is releasing a documentary about his personal journey through New York after 9/11 in "The Love We Make."

But perhaps the larger cinematic reaction to Sept. 11 will need time to become clear. The collection of movies now categorized as film noir, after all, wasn't noticed until years after World War II by the French. It needed the distance of not just time, but an ocean.

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