Blockbuster Wars: Revenge of the Zeitgeist

What Bruce Wayne and Anakin Skywalker can tell us about America's political mood

Notwithstanding Hollywood's lament concerning this summer's dismal box office performance in the U.S.—gross receipts were down 9 percent from the same period in 2004, while total ticket sales declined 12 percent—a few mainstream films have been commercial hits. Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, and Batman Begins are the top-three grossing films of 2005, bringing in $379 million, $232 million, and $204 million respectively, placing all three among the top 60 grossing films of all-time, with Revenge of the Sith comfortably in the top ten.

Given that two of the films were directed by a pair of cinema's most bankable directors, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and that two were "installments" in hugely popular movie franchises, the Star Wars and Batman series, the financial success of the three films was not entirely unexpected. Then again, not every Spielberg film has proven a sure-fire hit (remember 1941 and The Terminal?), and more than one Batman and Star Wars film has disappointed critics and fans alike. But given the number of big-budget dogs that limped out of the theaters this summer (Kingdom of Heaven, The Island, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D), I suspect that the success of the top-three summer releases cannot be wholly explained by the cinematic equivalent of Viagra: super-sized FX and A-list stars.

According to the controversial thesis of the revered film scholar and theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, film, as a uniquely popular medium, makes visible images of the deep undercurrents of the national political psyche. A member of the Frankfurt school of social criticism, which combined the thinking of Marx, Freud, and to a lesser degree Nietzsche, Kracauer insisted that the movies reveal the fears and desires of "the masses," even as they embody the conscious design of artists and craftsmen who seek the critical (and commercial) approval of the theater-going audience. While I am suspicious of Kracauer's claim that the movies foretell the future destiny of a people (he saw in the German Expressionist films of 1920s Weimar a prophetic anticipation of the rise of Hitler and Nazism), I would nevertheless suggest that each of this summer's three blockbusters, whatever its flaws, registers an ongoing shift in the popular psyche, a change in worldview that post-dates the events of 9/11 and responds to the continuing political reverberations of that fateful day.

Each of the three films portrays a violent, even cataclysmic attack on the heart of modern "civilized" society that is calculated to resonate with a (mainly American) audience saturated by media reports and images of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In Star Wars, ground zero of the catastrophe is the administrative center of Coruscant, capital planet of the old Republic (and the emergent Galactic Empire). Its most conspicuous public buildings—the Senate, the Jedi academy and temple, the administrative center of the Republic's military elite—are either seriously damaged or left a smoking ruin as a result of a violent coup, plotted in secrecy by the "hidden" Sith Lord.

When aliens launch their surprise attack on Bayonne, New Jersey, in War of the Worlds, crushing cars, incinerating buildings, and reducing its human inhabitants to ashes, Spielberg clearly expects his audience to recall the ghastly images of dust-covered New Yorkers fleeing billowing clouds of material and human debris as the World Trade Center collapsed. As the hero, Ray (Tom Cruise), attempts to flee the carnage with his family, his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) screams: "Is it the terrorists?" Still later, the family emerges from the ruins of Ray's ex-wife and husband's home where they falsely believed themselves safe: Slowly they pick their way through the wreckage of a commercial airliner (presumably brought down by the alien invaders) that has crashed into this upscale neighborhood. Still later, amidst crowds of refuges attempting a river crossing to evade the alien attackers, the beleaguered family sees hundreds of photos of the lost or missing that have been fixed to walls, hand-held signs, and notice boards by anxious friends and relatives.

In the climax of Batman Begins, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), the nominal head of The League of Shadows, a secret world-wide network of assassins and terrorists, commanders an elevated passenger train and attempts to crash it into the tallest building in Gotham City, the financial headquarters of Wayne Enterprises (in actual fact, the Chicago Board of Trade). The ultimate nightmare that Batman (Christian Bale) just barely heads off is Ducard's deployment of weapons of mass destruction—biological or chemical agents—against Gotham city. If in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the studios and networks scrambled to censor or delay the release of movies and TV episodes that evoked the specter of the terrorist attacks, this past summer marked a moment in which such images have come to saturate our popular films, have in fact become the iconographic currency of contemporary cinema.

It tempting to suggest that 9/11 has come to define a new epoch of American popular culture in much the same way that the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War might be said to have defined earlier periods. To be sure, these few crucial events in American history are not the sole touchstones of American cultural sensibility in any given epoch, but I think 9/11 might now be said to belong to those relatively few momentous events in American political history that have fundamentally shaped the popular culture and to which our collective psyche repeatedly and even obsessively responds. Just as one can find traces of a "Cold War sensibility" in films from the 1950s and 1960s as generically diverse as Dr. Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, From Russia with Love, The Ten Commandments, and The Searchers, so too can a post 9/11 worldview be said to animate not only the three above mentioned films, but also (to name only a few) The Incredibles, Kingdom of Heaven, Team America: World Police, and Fantastic Four. But what is perhaps most interesting about this recent shift in popular sensibility is what it suggests about our altered understanding of America's world status, national identity, moral authority, internal cohesiveness, and conception of heroism.

The three summer blockbusters all feature the ethically suspect and morally ambivalent heroes. Given that Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becomes, in the course of Revenge of the Sith, Darth Vader, it would be belaboring the obvious to insist that the protagonist of Episode III is not an unsullied paragon of republican virtue. It's still worth considering just exactly what Anakin does in the course of becoming the Dark Lord. In the post-9/11 world of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, of military tribunals, indefinite detention, and suspension of habeus corpus, Anakin's decision to execute Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) without trial or due process, and merely on the "orders" of the Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), takes on a sinister contemporary significance. Anakin is ultimately responsible for the wholesale massacre of the "younglings," the innocent child cadets of the Jedi temple (an act anticipated by his earlier massacre of a tribe of Tusken Raiders who held captive his mother in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones). The fact that Anakin later improvidently hinders the Jedi master, Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) from summarily executing the Chancellor (who is in fact the Sith Lord), and thereby succumbs to the power of the dark side, merely deepens the moral morass in which he flounders.

Is it only a coincidence that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) faces precisely the same moral dilemma in early scenes in Batman Begins? He makes plans to assassinate the murderer of his parents after the killer is paroled from prison because, in Wayne's world, the legal process fails to uphold true justice. Bruce then becomes a super-ninja in the remote mountainous redoubt of Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), an Eastern religious mystic cum leader of an international terrorist network (an allegorical stand-in for Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan). Wayne must prove his loyalty to Ra's Al Ghul and his chief lieutenant, Henri Ducard, by summarily executing an alleged "criminal."

Unlike Anakin, Wayne cavils at the demand and ends up fighting rather than supporting his mentor and former ally. But if Wayne, like another "W," is the privileged son of a former leading public figure of Gotham, his reintegration into polite society proves highly problematic. As Batman, he becomes the thing he fears (a bat), and more to the point, adopts the tactics and methods of those fanatics who threaten to destroy Gotham, which they pointedly characterize as a sink of moral corruption. (Given Wayne's affected playboy escapades in the fashionable restaurants of Gotham, which provide a welcome comic note in the film, the moral critique, however myopic, would seem to be a response to the social realities of big city life.) The consummate vigilante who refuses to be bound by the rule of law, Batman spends as much time eluding the police as he does breaking and entering, crashing into a great many occupied vehicles on the roadways, recklessly endangering the lives of civilians, cavalierly employing sophisticated forms of surveillance on the Gotham populace, wielding the most sophisticated battlefield weaponry within the "peaceful" confines of Gotham, and necessarily deceiving all but his closest confidante Alfred (Michael Caine) about his true intentions and actions. Given that Christopher Nolan, the British director and co-writer of the Batman screenplay, attends so meticulously to Wayne's discovery and transformation of the bat cave into Batman's command and control center, I might be forgiven for recalling President Bush's now infamous characterization of Al-Qaeda as those "fellows" who "burrow into caves."

To be sure, Jedi knights and comic book super-heroes are expected to commit plenty of mayhem if they're to pack the seats and sell popcorn at the cineplex, but even so ordinary a hero as longshoreman Ray Ferrier resorts to some pretty unsavory acts in the course of protecting his family: stealing a car, running over pedestrians desperate for a ride, threatening unnarmed refugees with a handgun, defying police and military authorities who try to prevent the overcrowding of a ferryboat, and most problematically, killing in cold blood Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), a survivalist who insists that Ray join him in violently resisting the aliens.

Ultimately, the moral ambiguity of these summer movie heroes reveals an unsettling dimension to contemporary American self-identity. It turns out to be increasingly difficult, even in the realm of comic book narratives, to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. In War of the Worlds, the aliens are the faceless terrorists of 9/11 and, if the film's screenwriter, David Koepp, is to be trusted, the "Martians" also "represent American military forces invading the Iraqis."

No doubt Koepp and Spielberg drew their inspiration from H. G. Wells' novel, which was only one among many wildly popular versions of the "reverse invasion scare," tales of the British Empire suddenly overrun by an alien military force. In Wells' 1898 novel the Martians appear to the hapless English citizens as the invading British imperial troops might have to the "fuzzies" of the Sudan or the Zulus of the Natal in the late 19th century: a technologically superior and apparently irresistible military force. And yet, they are defeated, just like the French colonial armies in Algeria—the very subject, incidentally, upon which Ray's son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is supposed to compose an essay for school. Koepp insists that one legitimate interpretation of War of the Worlds is that "the U.S. military intervention abroad is doomed by insurgency, just the way an alien invasion might be." Koepp's remarks help to explain why American resistance fighters engaging the enemy on their home soil resort to the desperate hit and run tactics of the Iraqi insurgents: Ray acts like a suicide bomber, clutching a satchel of hand grenades as he's seized by one of the alien tripods; the remnants of America's troops rely upon the equivalent of RPGs in their hit-and-run attacks to take down alien armored war machines.

Those who value their civil and political liberties might worry over the dark visions that have been on offer as light summer entertainment. Republics become despotic empires (Star Wars); the failures of incompetent and corrupt government incapable of upholding the rule of law or protecting its citizens give rise to a form of vigilantism nearly as lawless and destructive as the "foreign" enemies who wish to destroy Gotham (Batman Begins); the monstrous alien threat to American life, liberty, and property, which we properly fear and loathe turns out, on closer inspection, to be us (War of the Worlds).

Of course, from Captain Ahab to Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in John Ford's The Searchers and Pike Bishop (William Holden) in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, the history of American culture is littered with morally ambivalent heroes who have revealed the ethical contradictions and political self-doubts at the heart of the American political experiment. Not for the first time, popular narratives reveal a profound division within the national psyche. As in the age of the Cold War and the Vietnam era, today's blockbusters hint at deep and even violent tensions at work in the body politic.

Not coincidentally this summer's blockbusters insistently portray a city, nation, or galactic republic in which anarchy is loosed. The citizens of these crypto-American regimes are set fiercely and even murderously against each other. Each film ultimately pivots upon the efforts of a morally dubious hero to protect, revenge, or reconstitute the remnants of his family. His precarious familial attachment might be to a spouse (Star Wars), a child (War of the Worlds), or a parent (Batman Begins). Ominously, all of our summer heroes remain, at the end of their tales, conspicuously alone. (Even Ray Ferrier, heir to a typically sentimental Speilberg conclusion, though he manages to deliver safely his son and daughter to their grandparents' home in Boston, can only watch as his children rejoin a family circle—Ray's ex-wife, her new husband, and Ray's former in-laws—to which he can have at best a marginal relationship). Perhaps it will be the visible signature of the post-9/11 epoch that the political and social conflicts that beset the popular hero inevitably frustrate his profound and persistent desire for domestic tranquility.

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