|Comic books have a long history of pitting superheroes against one another|
What motivates moviemakers to blow up entire cities? I ask rhetorically, knowing that throughout the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, comic book writers loved battles that ravaged entire city blocks and neighborhoods. Following the runaway success of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, which culminates with half of Manhattan dead, the comics industry widely misinterpreted why readers found that climax effective, spotlighting the shock value of massive destruction and death.
I stopped reading comics, partially, because mainline publishers fell into a rut of using casual slaughter to attract audiences. It looked slovenly, and worse, it created a world bereft of consequences when superheroes would go unquestioned after creating untold suffering. Though I lacked the vocabulary to express it then, I grew disillusioned because comics increasingly relied upon a fundamental Nietzschean misunderstanding of human nature to get cheap jolts from readers.
But American culture has changed since then. The violence of 9/11, and the alarmist rhetoric of Homeland Security, created an atmosphere of paranoia unseen since the duck-and-cover drills surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, and fears of massive death caused by self-described übermenschen, once the exclusive domain of nerds, have become mainstream. Cities as smoking craters were once the stuff of science fiction. Now they’re America’s mainstream cultural mythology.
|Do heroic poses amid a ruined city move audiences? Only you can decide|
But the Cold War changed things. Cities, which once provided (some) protection against destruction, became targets of nuclear onslaught. Especially as crime rates became truly terrifying during the 1970s, American attitudes toward cities changed. This especially reflected changing transportation technology: as people could afford to live further from work, they did. “White Flight” drove the wealthy from cities, which made predictions of urban decay self-fulfilling.
This peaked during the 1990s Militia Movement. Self-proclaimed survivalists holed up in mountaintop cabins and prairie ranches, believing isolation gave them added security. As sociologist Barry Glassner notes, runaway fears often strike after the actual threat has passed; the Militia types (who have seen a recent, but smaller, resurgence) were essentially reacting to threats that were, by that time, twenty years old. Conveniently, they also separated themselves from law-abiding neighbors.
Cities have the illusion of target-rich environments. 9/11 created the impression that terrorists would seek major urban centers for mass destruction, particularly since the attackers chose a target they’d attempted to demolish eight years earlier. Fearmongers claimed that terrorists, or inside agents claiming to be terrorists, would turn American cities into images of Beirut’s legendary Green Zone. The fact that this kept not happening never discouraged the professional soapboxers.
|This picture doesn't serve my theme; I just really like that it exists (source)|
Alan Moore emphasized this in Watchmen, when one of the enemies the “heroes” targeted was black revolutionaries. That world had become so immune to change that it featured President Nixon’s sixth term in office. That world needed some destruction, some anarchy. Moore’s thesis, that a world dominated by comic book superheroes would probably be pretty awful, shouldn’t have inspired much imitation among the longstanding titles. But it did.
Now the movies are dominated by primal fears of massive destruction in the places citizens move seeking work. Filmmakers will destroy New York, Manhattan, or anywhere else, because they don’t realize how terrible their world has become. They tacitly market defenseless timidity. Comic books, and comic book movies, supposedly foreground their wonderful, heroic characters. But their real theme is more subtle: you are completely helpless.