Twenty years after September 11, 2001, the superhero movie has become a dominant form of entertainment and collective therapy.
Both New York City's 21st century revival and Disney's 21st century revival were a result of this phenomenon.
The pandemic may have brought an end to the era superhero movies as group therapy.
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Twenty years ago, New Yorkers were stunned by the calamity. Manhattan's skyscrapers were witnesses to the tragedy unfolding.
Then, a super hero saved the day.
This is how it happened in the famous scene from "Spider-Man 2" (2004), when Tobey's wall-crawler stops a runaway subway car from collapsing. It's what happened next that makes it so famous. The exhausted hero collapses and grateful New Yorkers lift him to safety, posing Christ-like.
Although the scene is striking on its own, it was originally set in context of the recovery from September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks. The fictional New York City was being saved and it was expressing gratitude to its savior. This urgent emotional need, twenty years after the attacks on 9/11, has been met again and again with superhero movies.
The "war on terror" shaped American foreign policy in tangible terms, and American political culture in intangible ways. As a result, superhero movies dominated Hollywood, with New York-centric stories that dealt with the sacrifices necessary to defeat an existential threat.
Warner Brothers' 2008 film "The Dark Knight" was an allegory of the Bush-era scandal regarding warrantless wiretapping. Batman decides that the best way to defeat terrorists is to illegally monitor Gotham. Marvel's first Iron Man film, which was released in 2008, stars a billionaire arms dealer. He builds an armor suit to help him escape from a terrorist den.
The American superhero took control of the American imagination and Disney took over film production, starting with the acquisition of Marvel in 2009. The redemption of New York City was the theme of the early aughts movies. This established a close relationship between Disney and Disney dating back to the 1990s when the company collaborated on the rehabilitation of Times Square. (Disney didn't respond to a request of comment.
The success of Disney's superhero focus after 9/11 led to a dramatic increase in its market cap over the next 20 years. It also bought Lucasfilm. The company's share of the Hollywood movie box office grew from 10% to a full-third in 2018 to around 10% in 2008. These acquisitions have made Disney's lucrative business of theme parks a success. It restructured its operation in late 2010s to be more focused on creating blockbuster Marvel movies and less on Mickey and Minnie.
The cinematic destruction of New York City by Disney in 2012 was already setting box-office records. This was a clear indication that the psychological cost of 9/11 still drives blockbuster entertainment. Even years later, the collective trauma of 9/11 remains a source of pain for many.
"Avengers: Endgame", the film that made the most money in 2019, was an exploration of group therapy. Cultural critic Tom Breihan argued the case on the AV Club. The film then became a exercise in group catharsis, as the good guys traveled back in time to undo the damage. The audience still wants to see things restored to their former glory 18 years after 9/11.
As a Disney-favorite theater district lost its gritty image, NYC's tourism boomed and the fortunes of Disney and NYC became intertwined, this period was a turning point in New York City's renaissance. It was led by the dominant financial services sector, making it one of only a few American "superstar" cities.
The New York metropolitan area was relatively flat in terms of GDP over the past two decades. At around 9%, the NYC financial services sector steadily rose from about 5% to about 6% between 2011 and 2019. This represents billions of dollars flowing into NYC along with huge numbers of tourists often with "Lion King' tickets.
NYC's superhero is itself a success story. Abraham Riesman, comic-book journalist and author of Stan Lee's "True Believer" biography, argues that Marvel's founder editor-in-chief saw himself and his co-creations to be the true successors to Disney's empire.
Comics' outsider status allowed for the creation of a violent, new mythology. The Marvel work of Jack Kirby (legendary artist) and Steve Ditko (legendary artist) specifically elevated New York City as a main character in this mythos. Kirby's Fantastic Four lived at a Midtown Skyscraper, and Ditko’s Spider-Man was from Queens. His Dr. Strange lived in Greenwich Village, on Bleecker Street.
With the superhero superpowers well-enshrined at box office, Richard Brody of The New Yorker analyzed the genre in 2018 as a kind of "secular faith," referring to parables that are almost identical to Catholic saints.
Twenty years on from 9/11, cracks are beginning to appear in this secular canon. The pandemic ended all of the cathartic in person experiences in which Disney was specialized, from packed movie theatres to theme parks.
It could lead to a new type of superhero narrative that focuses on the civil-rights movement that exploded during the Trump years, particularly the George Floyd protests in the summer 2020. This is exactly what Disney's 2019 surprise hit, "Black Panther", was about.
In the largest purchase of its imperial post-9/11 period, Disney bought exactly this property: 21st Century Fox. Also, the film rights for the X-Men. Perhaps it's time to start a new story.