In "Nazis, Nixon and 9/11: Comic Book Movies as the Film Noir of the 21st Century" I argued that filmmakers responded to the biggest revelations of corruption of the human soul in 20th century American history with films that seemingly sought to locate a better sociological and psychological answer to these revelations than terming them as merely evil. The film noir of the 1940s that arose in response to corrupting forces on all sides associated with World War II and the neo-noir of the American New Wave of the 1970s that was a response to everything from the Pentagon Papers to Mayor Daley's thuggery to Kent State to Watergate both presented ambiguous worlds that blurred the line between good and bad, between heroes and villains.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 are the 21st century equivalent of Nazi atrocities and the realization that one locked door may be all that separated America from the resignation of a President and that man becoming the most dangerously influential architect of power in our history. From the delusional hijackers of the planes to the deceitful men and women in the White House, those connected to the attacks of 9/11 represent a collective entity that together can most glibly be termed the real axis of evil in the 21st century.
History has taught us that when the morality of those who attack us from outside and the morality of those charged with protecting us from them are both put to question, something very interesting happens in Hollywood. Filmmakers respond by examining the nature of good and evil and training the eye of their camera on the shadowy lines that distort the stark outlines defining them. Such a response has not been the case this time around, however. Writers, directors, producers and audiences have worked together to make the comic book movie the premier genre that has risen as a direct result of the attacks of September.
Film noir focuses on criminal activities because what better narrative location is there in which to examine issues related to morality, virtue, vice and ethics? Comic book films can be read as a response to the 9/11 attacks because it has become the dominant genre for telling stories that in the past were the domain of the crime melodrama. Rather than the substantially more than 50 shades of gray that film noir utilized to examine the sudden social acceptance that this world is actually a place of considerable moral instability, comic book movies present lurid colors and costuming that symbolize the easily found distinction between the morally bankrupt and the ethically pure.
The message of film noir is that we have met the enemy and may well be us. The message of comic book movies is that it really isn't at all difficult to tell the difference between who is with us and who is against us. Film noir and 1970s American New Wave standard issue aspects like existential pessimism has been replaced by the glib snarkiness of Tony Stark and suspicion of authority has given way to blind obedience of the guy wearing the right uniform (cape, tights, unitard, etc.)
Or, at least, in most case. Comic book movies as a general rule have disposed of elements like disillusionment, cynicism and wholesale rejection of the myths of epic heroism. On that last score, in fact, comic book movies resemble Greek, Roman and Norse mythology far more than they do the American cinema of the 1940s and 1970s.
With the exception of two distinct cases, that is. And, in a case of exquisite coincidence likely to be confused with irony by the masses, one of the cases where the comic book movie actually fits within the film noir genre happens to be a story about a couple of mythological Norsemen.
But more on that tomorrow.
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