Post-9/11 Rhetoric and Pop Cultural Dissent Through Billionaire Superheroes

Estimated Reading Time: 48 minutes

A friend convinced me to take my “fake PhD” and actually apply to a Media Studies PhD program. I discovered that I had a woeful lack of suitable material for a writing sample. My brilliant idea? To write a new article completely from scratch. The following is my 9000+ word piece written in one month with only public library database access and an actual mental breakdown thrown in there for kicks. For future purposes, consider this a draft version of any subsequently published material. First completed December 1, 2015.

Spoilers for: Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and basically the entire MCU. Additional warning that this is in serious academic-speak.

spoiler warning


The official Bush Administration rhetoric contextualized the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a large-scale battle between the forces of good and evil, and freedom and oppression. The American public was content accepting that narrative for a time, but as doubts began to form it increasingly processed the national trauma of 9/11 through fantasy and popular culture. During the 2000s, the superhero film genre flourished, breaking box office records and providing a platform for both complicity in the official good vs. evil narrative and dissent from such a simplistic worldview. Two of the most popular and complex characters to launch into the public consciousness were DC’s famous tycoon Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel Studio’s answering billionaire arms dealer: Iron Man. Nolan’s Batman films religiously adhere to the heroic traditions of moral simplicity and a battle between good and evil while rigidly maintaining the comic book conventions of lone men, hyper-masculinity, and secret identities. The Iron Man films intentionally toy with and discard all of these conventions, preferring a more nuanced narrative that exposes the underlying imperialistic intentions of the American capitalist and questioning the demonization of foreign peoples. Both film series are in dialogue with the prevailing political narrative, offering audiences the chance to process the 9/11 attacks while also providing an avenue of dissent in a cultural climate that had silenced all objection to nationalistic war.

The Black and White Imag(in)ed World, Post-9/11

A brief, critical summary of post-9/11 political rhetoric and the cultural climate is useful for understanding the pop cultural response to the rhetoric in question and the importance of mass media in shaping public perception in the early 2000s. At the simplest level, George W. Bush’s speeches spin a narrative of good and evil that precludes any public dissent with his post-9/11 oratory. To maintain this black and white worldview, it is necessary for Bush to other ‘Orientals,’ specifically Arab peoples, using racial overtones. All of these rhetorical backflips mask the underlying imperialistic aims of the American ruling class.

Bush’s simplistic narrative is best summarized by Phillip Bratta in his study of “Flag Display Post 9/11”:

The American public is presented with Al-Qaeda as evil and America as good. The implication and evocation of good and evil create a binary narrative around 9/11…. The good versus evil narrative is continually reinforced by Bush when he states ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’ (240).

In exploring the racial overtones of Bush’s rhetoric, Jason Thompson offers an analysis of Bush’s post-9/11 oratory in comparison to the rhetorical techniques employed by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf (352). Thompson argues that Al-Qaeda’s attack was launched against “global capitalism, as embodied by the World Trade Center Towers,” yet Bush replaces the perpetrators’ symbolism with his own, insisting that what was truly under attack was “our very freedom” (358-359). Thompson also notes that omitting any mention of the United States’ capitalist exploitation of Middle Eastern resources is necessary to make Bush’s “rhetorical magic” work—for Americans to believe their way of life is under attack, the imperialistic atrocities perpetrated by the United States government in the Middle East must be erased from public consciousness (358). Andrew Norris suggests that the American public was largely ignorant of “America’s militaristic interventions in foreign governments,” and hence more readily believed a narrative of racial hatred (Holland 291). Bratta further notes:

In Bush’s rhetoric, the details of the whole situation—the relationships between the United States and Middle East countries, the United States’ relationship with some of the terrorists, the history of the United States in Afghanistan, the United States’s policies in the Middle East, etc.—are ignored, and he enforces a simple clarification: the terrorists hate our freedoms (specifically freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom to disagree) and democracy (240).

Bush must also work to contextualize an entirely abstract menace, with “the very naming of ‘terrorism’ and the USA’s identification of an ‘axis of evil’ work[ing]… to territorialize the terrorist threat” (Boulton 377). He accomplishes this through othering Arabs and Muslims with brutally racist insinuations (Parenti 34). “This binary oppositional worldview for the Occident becomes justification for any actions taken and provides militant, political, economic, and cultural domination over the Orient” (Bratta 240). In a 2008 lecture, Michael Parenti noted the imperialistic tendencies of the United States in appropriating the resources of Third World countries (31). Parenti’s claim is that the Bush Administration rhetorically exploited 9/11 as the catalyst to “get the U.S. Public committed to… a policy of global intervention” in line with a right-wing plan for war profiteering (32). Parenti states:

The view in the major media is that the Islamic terrorists attack us because we are prosperous, free, democratic, and secular and they are just jealous or they just don’t like that…. If we actually bothered to listen to what the the terrorists themselves say we would know that they hate us not because of who we are but because of what we do to them and to their region of the world (34-35).

While Bush deliberately obscures this fundamental reasoning in his oratory, it is the perception-shaping power of “the major media” that is of particular note.

Because 9/11 was nationally and internationally experienced as an event mediated through television imagery, the deliberate production of meaning, iconography, and symbolism in the news media was nearly identical to the tactics used in fictional television and cinema. “For Americans and European citizens, who were only accustomed to perceiving catastrophe through the media or as a viewer of entertainment, the intrusion of terror into their everyday world broke the barriers between fiction and real life to introduce phobos [panic] as a fruit of a tangible threat” (Sanchez 11). Bratta’s exploration of patriotism and flag display notes that “[television] provided a rapid dissemination of the cultural mythologies…. The flag depicted an imagined nation that believes in the patriotic narrative” (Bratta 234). Narrative coherence is as important to a non-fictional broadcast as it is to a fictional one. Hence it was natural that Americans not only accepted the narrative of good and evil presented by Bush through the context of narrative television, but that the citizenry then turned to popular culture to help digest the national trauma.

Thomas Riegler remarks that “Hollywood was the main cultural apparatus for coping with 9/11, which had left Americans struggling in the ‘desert of the real’” (103). Following the invasion of Iraq in October of 2001, Hollywood saw a huge box office boom in war films such as Black Hawk Down (2001) and We Were Soldiers (2002) . “None of these war movies engaged with the topic of terrorism and instead re-enacted clear cut battlefield victories” (Riegler 105). Hollywood as propaganda machine was nothing new—because of cinema’s direct-line to the public consciousness, the government made “strategic pacts” with film studios in 1941 to churn out pro-war films supporting World War II (Riegler 106). However, post-9/11 Hollywood took a different tack, with a resurgence of science fiction and fantasy escapism, favoring stories with morally clear-cut heroes and villains. No films addressed the actual events of September 11th until 2006’s United 93, which “fared poorly in domestic box office returns, suggesting that Americans were not ready to view such a blatant recapitulation of the tragedy, even five years after 9/11” (Holland 301). To cope with such a large-scale national trauma, audiences turned to allegory, metaphor, and narratives that provided definitive heroes and villains with messianic characters like Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins pitted against monolithic evil in figures like Voldemort and Sauron in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises. These narrative preferences demonstrate that “the power of film lies not only in its apparent ubiquity but also in the way in which it helps to create (often dramatically) understandings of particular events, national identities, and spaces where ‘commonsense’ ideas about global politics and history are (re)-produced and where stories about what is acceptable behavior from states and individuals are naturalized and legitimated” (Dodds 1621). The wounds of 9/11 were too raw, and exploitation of 9/11 as a plot device considered too gauche for virtually any direct representations of the event to make it into mainstream culture. “The intention [was] to avoid alienating audiences by addressing a concrete event such as 9/11 by association rather than directly. Audiences are thus left to ‘work’ contemporary political parallels into the film” (Dodds 1625). In films such as Lord of the Rings or television shows like Battlestar Galactica (2003), “there is a hypothetical discourse of contribution to the political debate, and often solutions are suggested to alleviate the social fractures, but always in the guise of entertainment” (Sanchez 11).

Fiction provides a safe space to process traumatic events and thorny political topics, especially in a cultural climate that “silence[s] all dissent” (Bratta 241). “Popular understandings of geopolitical issues are mediated by popular culture products” (Boulton 382). Because media is ubiquitous in modern society, the default way that society processes complex, troubling events is by representing, distilling, and discussing those events through popular culture texts. Examining pop culture trends since the turn of the century, it quickly becomes evident that no genre has experienced a more staggering explosion in popularity and cultural resonance than superhero films.

The general argument for the meteoric rise of superhero stories in post-9/11 America is that “the simple narrative of the superhero myth” was a form well suited to the “new belief in the need of lone and all-powerful individuals rising up to the challenge” (Riegler 106). Superhero comics originate in the 1930s and 1940s, when they supplied wish-fulfillment power fantasies for children in an era of economic hardship and international conflict. Their popularity throughout the 20th century is a testament not to the escapism of the stories but to the cathartic agency that superheroes provide over the troubles of their times. The slate of early 2000s superhero films showcased “monumental struggles between the forces of light and darkness” (Riegler 106). Jeanne Holland provides a case study focusing on Spider-Man 2 (2004) as “the first Hollywood blockbuster to enact a nuanced, indirect engagement with 9/11,” stating that it “deals with national trauma through an allegorical narrative” (289). Allegory and melodrama were well-suited to a nation suffering from post-traumatic stress, and Spider-Man’s struggles came to symbolize the struggles of the national consciousness (Holland 291). While this simplicity was necessary at the time, with Americans taking comfort in the closure that allegory could offer, the period of cultural naivete did not last. Yet, even as the population grew more cynical and questioning of the War on Terror, superheroes became more popular than ever. Joe Queenan expressed the appeal of superheroes to a post-9/11 public dealing with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis most succinctly in his 2013 review of Man of Steel, stating that superheroes “are made for a society that has basically given up. The police can’t protect us, the government can’t protect us, there are no more charismatic loners to protect us…. So let’s turn things over to the vigilantes.”

The Dark Knight trilogy and Iron Man series complicate the simplistic view of superhero films as mere allegorical melodrama. Because they both feature affluent arms manufacturers as protagonists, and because both series of films instituted paradigm shifts in the superhero film genre, comparing them reveals a snapshot of post-9/11 pop cultural complicity and dissent. The 2005 version of War of the Worlds, by featuring a catastrophe on American soil and portraying the resulting public panic in a pessimistic light, signaled Hollywood’s shift from complacency with the official political viewpoint to one where a “critical position toward the war in Iraq” could be presented without fears of political backlash (Sanchez 17). Batman Begins, released two weeks before War of the Worlds, could not expect to benefit from the new critical permissiveness allowed to science fiction and fantasy films. However, Iron Man, released in May 2008, and the Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight released in July of the same year both position themselves against the morally simplistic views expressed in the political rhetoric and pop culture media of the time. Functioning as both commentary and public catharsis, The Dark Knight trilogy and the Iron Man films use this permissiveness to full effect: the former by questioning the politically constructed ideas of the source and purpose of terrorism, and the latter by refuting the Manichean assumptions of post-9/11 political rhetoric while implicating the American ruling class as warmongers.

Why So Serious?

The Dark Knight Trilogy and the Iron Man films are so different in tone and purpose that comparing them in a vacuum would be fruitless. A brief look at the history of comic book adaptation to the screen offers context, with particular attention paid to Batman’s cinematic predecessors and the 2000s deluge of poorly-received Marvel film adaptations.

Historically, Batman is one of the most popular and recognizable characters of all time, largely because of his constant presence through screen adaptations. The 1960s Batman television series, while high-camp and mocking of its subject matter, was also what launched the character into the mainstream (Uslan). Batman saw his filmic debut in a set of typically-atmospheric and whimsical Tim Burton adaptations in 1988 and 1992. Burton’s Batman was immensely popular, but the director left the franchise after two films. The Batman adaptation immediately preceding Batman Begins was Batman and Robin (1997), largely considered “one of the worst [films] of all time,” which “nearly killed the Batman franchise,” and was intended to be “family friendly” in order to sell merchandising to children (Agar). Transforming Batman from an easily mockable, high-camp figure into a subject whose films could engage in political discourse was a monumental undertaking (Sims). Viewed in the traditionally ridiculous continuum of screen Batmen, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins reads as a reactionary attempt to legitimate Batman as a serious subject for a serious film. The narrative painstakingly grounds Bruce Wayne’s bat costume in symbolic and ideological purpose. His trademark gadgets are cast-offs from Wayne Enterprises’ military research and development department. The villains of the trilogy keep their iconic features yet adapt them into a more realistic aesthetic. The Joker, for instance, has facial mutilations in the appearance of a smile, rather than his perpetual grin being the result of a magical acid burn as in the comic books and previous adaptations. Everything about Nolan’s Gotham is rationalized as a defense against Batman’s campy past, positing what it would be like for a character like Batman to exist in reality.

Marvel’s troubled history producing adaptations left the studio with a cleaner canvas. The hugely popular early-2000s X-Men and Spider-Man trilogies, from Fox and Sony respectively, were single-handedly responsible for the boom in superhero popularity. While the X-Men films portrayed superpowers as fraught at best, Spider-Man opted for the traditional, moralistic, allegorical view of superheroics common in the mid-20th century source material. The resultant explosion in superheroes’ mainstream popularity saw a plethora of critically lampooned, financially unsuccessful films based on other Marvel properties such as Daredevil (2003), The Fantastic Four (2005), and later entries in the Blade series. Publicly annoyed with the low-quality representations of their properties, and financially eager to achieve box office success with characters to which they wholly owned the rights, in 2008 the newly formed Marvel Studios released Iron Man as its first offering. Iron Man was arguably a B-level hero compared to Wolverine or Spider-Man. A crucial member of the superhero team The Avengers, Tony Stark was largely unknown outside of the comic book fandom (Howe 425). Iron Man’s relative obscurity meant he was free from the associations that Nolan’s Batman was required to battle, but this obscurity also allowed him to break free of all superheroic expectation. Hence, Tony Stark romps the world in his metal suit, spinning sarcasm and wit at every opportunity in a film that deliberately punctures the major tropes of the superhero genre. Tony Stark has no grand moral crises about the nature of good and evil. Neither does he maintain a secret identity. Iron Man satirizes the genre’s conventions while taking full advantage of how fun and lighthearted superhero stories can be.

Genius, Billionaire, Playboy Philanthropists and the War on Terror

One of the primary differences between Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the Iron Man films is the use of allegory versus the use of realism. The heightened allegory in Batman films forces them to make more abstract points regarding the universal nature of good or evil. Iron Man, by contrast, is free to comment more directly on real-world events because the narrative positions itself—if not in our universe—at least in the universe directly next door.

Batman Begins (BB) unabashedly embraces its allegorical construction, carefully establishing that Bruce Wayne adopts the Batman persona as a “symbol” to “shake [people] out of apathy.” The allegorical underpinnings of the Batman mythos build the vital link that allows Gotham to stand in for New York City as a community besieged by hopelessness and terror. Gotham City is a version of New York with heightened goodness, heightened evil, and heightened decay. This elevated moral dichotomy is what lends credence to the League of Shadows’ plot to destroy Gotham as a symbol of decadence. The League of Shadows is an international organization which “stands for the combination of virtue and terror, for egalitarian discipline fighting a corrupted empire” (Žižek). Yet if Gotham City represents the ultimate in corruption, the Wayne family is the ultimate in moral purity. Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, was a doctor in a public hospital, who devoted a huge chunk of his fortune to a public transportation system during an economic depression. The Wayne family represents the 19th century Dickensian myth of the “good capitalist”—benevolent businessmen who share their wealth with society (Žižek). Once the film makes it clear that we are watching a New York melodrama elevated to mythic proportions, it has set the stage for its commentary on the nature of fear, terrorism, and terrorist organizations.

BB addresses terrorism and the widespread paranoia of post-9/11 America by building its narrative around the theme of fear. Because the film functions as a comprehensive, legitimating origin story for Batman, the first hour details the defining moments of Bruce’s childhood. BB grounds Bruce’s bat iconography in a childhood fear of bats, intertwined with his guilt over his parents’ death. This leads him to seek training and guidance from the League of Shadows in the Himalayan mountains. The League of Shadows weaponizes fear in the name of an idealistic battle against corruption to ‘restore balance.’ What this balance entails and who they are attempting to empower is irrelevant to the film—it is only necessary that the League have a plausible ideological agenda from which to launch their terrorist attacks. The League uses a chemical compound that induces wild terror in its victims, unleashing it as a toxic gas on an unsuspecting Gotham borough. The utilization of fear itself as a terrorist’s weapon is a further deliberate allegory for a post-9/11 New York City, confronting the audience with its own paranoia. It is not so much the attack that poses the most danger to citizens, but the irrational reaction to the constant fear it causes. Dodds notes that “the action thriller is not only capable of ‘thrilling’ but also of providing resources for critical reflection on… the precariousness of human life” (1635). Rather than directly address the real events of 9/11, Gotham, Batman, and the League of Shadows are hyper-concentrated allegorical representations through which the audience can process its anxiety.

The attacks in BB expose terrorism as not an assault on “freedoms” or “the American way of life” but as a manipulation of symbols. Attacking first the Narrows—a low-income area of Gotham—and ultimately aiming to destroy Wayne Tower recontextualizes the acts from a battle between good and evil (as Bush Administration rhetoric would have us believe) to an ideological and symbolic gesture. This mimics Al-Qaeda’s original intention of attacking the World Trade Center as symbolic retaliation for global capitalism’s exploitation of Middle Eastern resources (Thompson 358). This narrative ploy exposes terrorism as a mechanism through which a society tears itself apart out of paranoia and fear. It suggests that, for the American people to heal, they must regain a rational perspective rather than giving in to fear-mongering rhetoric. Batman establishes himself as a symbol “meant to inspire good,” embodying this rationality by terrorizing the institutions that use fear to manipulate the population. BB does not so much question post-9/11 rhetoric as address its effects. This theme continues throughout Nolan’s Batman series, yet what BB offers in addition to a demystification of terrorism’s purpose is Batman as evidence that symbols have as much power to inspire as they do to terrify. Bruce claims that “as a man I’m flesh and blood I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol? As a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” Because Gotham City itself is a stand-in for New York City and representative of the height of civilization’s decadence, it is fitting that Bruce Wayne chooses to play into the transcendent power of symbols to further his own crusade for justice. Yet in being so heavily symbolic, Nolan’s Batman films are more moralistic and didactic than Marvel’s Iron Man series, which also tackles terrorism, fear, and personal accountability.

Iron Man (IM1) was not the first film to dissent against the Bush Administration’s simplistic black-and-white morality. It was, however, the first fantasy film to directly represent Middle Eastern conflict and the war in Afghanistan. IM1 positions itself directly in a close version our reality, rather than in a symbolic representation. The film opens on a military convoy in Afghanistan, immediately establishing that the War on Terror will be addressed. Weapons manufacturer Tony Stark is caught in a firefight with an extremist group known as the Ten Rings and severely injured by what he notes is one of his own weapons. Before the title card, Tony is centered in the middle of a terrorist hostage video presented to the audience with familiar amateurish production values, signaling that this is a world grounded in reality. Where BB addresses terrorizing tactics and the politics of fear, IM1 deals directly with the modern notion of terrorists and the politics of war. The shift from allegory to realism is notable, not just because it allows IM1 to make a finer point, but because until IM1, only the most solemn of war films and dramas had dared address 9/11, the military-industrial complex, or the War on Terror directly (Riegler 105).

Where BB has the League of Shadows as an obliquely foreign representation of virtuous terror, IM1 offers the Ten Rings: a deliberately ethnically and culturally diverse terrorist organization in the mountains of Afghanistan. It is particularly noted that they speak an enormous variety of languages and come from many places. On top of this presentation of an international, decentralized face for terrorists rather than a local and racialized one, the audience learns that Tony Stark’s cellmate in captivity is an Afghan scientist named Yinsen who serves as both his assistant and his conscience. It is Yinsen who saves Tony after his injury, Yinsen who supports Tony through his emotional crises, and Yinsen who inspires him to not only mount an escape but to live a more socially aware life. Tony, rather than becoming an incorruptible symbol, develops his superpower out of necessity as a direct result of his vulnerability. It is precisely his human frailty that allows him to become heroic, rather than becoming heroic to erase all trace of vulnerability. Bruce Wayne’s stay amongst terrorists is voluntary whereas Tony’s is not, lending the film further realist sensibility.

IM1 is remarkable in that it recognizes the Western influence in an unstable Middle Eastern situation. Most notably, Tony Stark must confront his own culpability in the death and terrorizing of innocent civilians when he discovers his weapons in the hands of a terrorist group. Tony is brought down by his own negligence, peddling weapons in “a system that is comfortable with zero accountability” and reaping the benefits of war until he is forced to confront the consequences (Iron Man). Initially, Tony creates the Iron Man suit—the source of his superheroic powers—to escape captivity. Yet once he returns to his privileged life and makes a more refined version of the suit, he uses his powers to redress the suffering that his negligence has caused. Watching the Ten Rings terrorize an Afghan village on his television screen, Tony accepts responsibility and flies to the small town, killing the Ten Rings cell and leaving their leader to the mercy of the citizens. Tony’s direct intervention in the terrorists’ activities does not so much position him as a Western savior as it negates his unwitting negative influence. Thompson’s study of rhetoric notes that Bush’s “alignment of ‘us,’ ‘America,’ and ‘freedom’ invites the first-world racism that Žižek identifies when he asks whether America will make ‘the long-overdue move from ‘This shouldn’t happen here!’ to ‘A thing like this shouldn’t happen anywhere!’” (359). IM1 directly addresses this willful American ignorance by first removing the cultural blinders from Tony’s (and the audience’s) eyes and then forcing him to recognize that his position of privilege is only supported by causing the suffering of others. Tony’s mentor Obadiah, parroting contemporary political rhetoric, claims that weapons manufacturing “keeps the world from falling into chaos.” Tony’s immediate response is: “Not based on what I saw,” an overt statement of dissent with the official version of events.

It is the mentor figure in both films who is the perpetrator of violence against the heroes, yet the worldviews expressed by those betrayals are vastly different. Batman is betrayed by Ra’s al Ghul, the leader of the de facto terrorist organization the League of Shadows, who trained Bruce Wayne in martial arts and fighting tactics. Ra’s trained Bruce with the intention that he bring about Gotham’s destruction. Yet when Ra’s reveals his fanatical ideology Bruce rebels, defying his mentor and ultimately saving Gotham from the League’s plot. Tony Stark’s betrayal comes, not from terrorists or an “othered” foreigner, but from his replacement father figure, Obadiah Stane. Stane is behind the illegal sale of Stark weapons to the Ten Rings, and it is ultimately revealed that Stane hired the Ten Rings to murder Tony rather than kidnap him while he was in Afghanistan. Stane’s duplicity underscores the culpability of domestic weapons contractors in stoking war and terrorism to increase personal profit—a theme that the Iron Man films return to repeatedly. In rejecting the black-and-white notion of “good American, evil foreigner,” IM1 first deconstructs the official narrative of 9/11 and then exposes the ulterior motive that that narrative is intended to conceal.

In these first installments in their respective series, BB examines the effects of fear, insisting upon the full agency of the vigilante hero in combating the wild paranoia of terrorism, while IM1 implicates the Americans’ apathy as the source of terrorism, questions the simplistic narrative presented by the political rhetoric of the time, and recontextualizes the United States’ true motives for war.

Privatizing World Peace

The second entries in both superhero series continue their investigation of terrorism and harshly delineated morality, while introducing the notion that social systems are maladjusted to addressing radical violence. The Dark Knight (2012), released two months after IM1, takes full advantage of its newfound latitude to make more overt references to 9/11 and to critically examine the official narratives of terrorism. Iron Man 2 spends a large portion of screen time building out its fictional universe, yet still manages to question the role of American arms manufacturers in perpetuating eternal war.

The Dark Knight (DK) explores the complicated interdependency of extremist anarchy and a hyper-vigilant state. Like BB, the film is heavily allegorical, set in a Gotham City with gangsters and domestic terrorists as the main threat to citizens, and presenting the dual narrative of the Joker and Two-Face as representatives of different yet equal reactionary threats. DK is more politically overt than BB, returning to the mode of 1980’s action-thrillers which concerned themselves with “society’s psychosis of insecurity, lack of protection, and uncertainty” through “plots in which the threat does not come from external agents but from the very heart of society, either through terrorist sleeper cells among the population or uncontrolled factions of the administration itself” (Sanchez 14). DK provides both, with Slovaj Žižek’s astute analysis of the film concluding that, while the Joker is the most visible of villains, it is Harvey Dent’s progression from District Attorney into vigilante killer Two-Face—representing a rogue state—who is Batman’s true foil.

DK takes pains to establish itself as a post-9/11 text. Gotham is under siege, consumed by paranoia of both organized criminals and the Joker’s reign of terror. The police, particularly in the figure of Jim Gordon, are presented as heroic figures who sacrifice themselves in the line of duty. The film is rife with the rhetoric of panic, including phrases such as “vigilance is the price of safety.” DK also deliberately recreates “iconography related to 9/11,” with Batman standing among the twisted metal and destruction of a destroyed building as the most notable example (Kellner 11). DK even takes the post-9/11 panic one step further, with the Joker disrespecting the rules of engagement by targeting hospitals and civilian transportation.

Both Dent and the Joker co-exist in DK as opposite forces acting on the same problem: crime and corruption in Gotham City. Batman’s influence from BB pushes both the official system and organized crime to extreme lengths. Dent and the District Attorney’s office act on behalf of the system, “actualising the temptation to break the law that Wayne was able to resist” in seeking justice and rooting out corruption (Žižek). Organized crime hires the Joker—a man with no name, no identification, and a fluid unknowable origin story—to act on their behalf. The Joker’s complete lack of locality makes him an idealized representation of terrorism. Combating terrorism when it lacks a concrete origin—particularly a foreign location or an extremist ideology—is impossible. As such, the Joker is a true symbol of chaos and anarchy. In Nolan’s allegorical world, the Joker symbolizes “the spirit of terrorism” in its purest form (Kellner 11).

By contrast, Dent is the paragon of patriotism and justice. His post-9/11 machismo[1] is on full display when Dent punches a violent defendant in the courtroom, taking the man’s gun and admonishing him to “buy American.” Dent embodies an aggressive and unattainable ideal of justice, going to extreme lengths to attack the organized crime of Gotham City. Between Batman’s extra-judicial force and Dent’s official pressure, the two push organized crime to desperation and eventually push Dent over the edge. Žižek argues that:

Batman’s true rival is not his ostensible opponent, the Joker, but Harvey Dent, the ‘white knight’ the aggressive new district attorney, a kind of official vigilante whose fanatical battle against crime leads to the killing of innocent people and ultimately destroys him. It is as if Dent were the legal order’s reply to the threat posed by Batman: against Batman’s vigilantism, the system generates its own illegal excess in a vigilante much more violent than Batman.

It is noted that Dent, with his hard-nosed stance against corruption, represents hope for the beleaguered people of Gotham. “When, at the end of the film, Batman assumes responsibility for the crimes committed by Dent to save the reputation of the popular hero who embodies hope for ordinary people, his act is a gesture of symbolic exchange: first Dent takes upon himself the identity of Batman, then Wayne – the real Batman – takes Dent’s crimes upon himself” (Žižek). That the judiciary system itself generated Dent’s extra-judiciary fanaticism underscores the modern futility of attempting to address radical violence with anything other than radical violence. For DK, seeking official justice through the system and eschewing violence is impossible and hence justification for war.

It is when the Joker presents chaos to Dent as “fair” that Dent’s penchant for justice pushes him over the Nolanverse moral event horizon into murder. It requires both the Joker and Dent’s villainous persona Two-Face for DK to intentionally blur the line between anarchic terrorism and state-sanctioned violence, questioning not simply the anxiety of the populace as BB did, but the Draconian official measures instituted to keep people “safe.” In the end, it is Batman—outside of the law, yet adhering to it—who ultimately represents true justice. The system is only saved by police commissioner Gordon and Batman lying about Dent’s crimes to keep the illusion of fairness intact, suggesting that if the system cannot self-correct in the face of adversity then that system is deeply flawed. The flawed system of Gotham City is held together only by the money and integrity of Bruce Wayne. The conclusion that societal security is only attainable through the actions of unaffiliated individuals of uncommon integrity is the base assumption from which Iron Man 2 (2010) launches.

Whereas DK can focus fully on its complex internal narrative, Iron Man 2 (IM2) is tasked with expanding the boundaries of the fictional universe in which it is set. Elements of the plot function less to advance the film’s specific narrative and more to advance the narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) series at large.[2] In addition to laying a framework for future films, IM2 also establishes itself more firmly in a version of our reality with cameos by real-life billionaire tech geniuses Elon Musk and Larry Ellison and an Iron Man version of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama “Hope” poster from the 2008 presidential election. Despite this eclectic exercise in world-building, IM2 still manages to question the imperialistic legacy of the United States’ 20th-century war machine and the ongoing consequences of Cold War militarism.

IM2 opens with a summary of Tony’s achievements as Iron Man, featuring clippings with titles such as “Iron Man Stabilizes East-West Relations,” positioning Tony as the panacea for post-9/11 aggression. In a Senate hearing to determine whether the Iron Man suit is a dangerous weapon that should be turned over to the government, Tony mouths off about being the world’s “nuclear deterrent” and “successfully privatiz[ing] world peace.” All of this rosy posturing is problematized because it is experienced as a media montage by Soviet criminal Anton Vanko while he builds his own weaponized suit. The media coverage serves not just to emphasize Tony’s realism but also to illustrate his success and visibility, particularly in contrast to Vanko who seeks vengeance against Tony for crimes that Tony’s father committed against Vanko’s family. As with DK there are two villains in IM2: inept weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer and Vanko, the son of a Soviet scientist whose scientific breakthroughs Tony’s father Howard allegedly stole. Tony may have single-handedly resolved the active political strife of the world, but the amoral attitudes of the Cold War arms race continue to reveal unforeseen consequences that need to be resolved. Tony, as the strongest defense in the world, must take full responsibility for any violence or consequences that arise. As Iron Man, he individually inhabits the interventionist role usually associated with the United States military, policing even minor transgressions and blood feuds that cross international jurisdictions. In this way, rather than redressing the wrongs caused by his willful ignorance as in IM1, Tony is positioned to become a perpetrator of authoritarian ‘justice’ in later films.[3]

However, IM2 cannot leave Tony’s father, Howard Stark, as a simple war profiteer. Howard is vindicated of all immoral implications by the revelation that he was a founding member of the international spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D.[4] Howard intended S.H.I.E.L.D. as an altruistic protection force against the extraterrestrial, paranormal, and strange scientific occurrences that the public was not psychologically equipped to deal with. In a series of world-building monologues from Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a set of Howard Stark’s old film reels, it is revealed that Vanko’s father sought to profit from the clean energy arc reactor technology the two co-invented rather than use it to altruistically better the world as Howard intended. While the section functions largely to establish S.H.I.E.L.D. as an important element of the MCU, it also establishes the members of the Stark family as moral paragons, similar to BB’s insistence that the Waynes are philanthropic capitalists. IM2, of all the Iron Man films, is less stringent with its political commentary, choosing instead to portray arms manufacturers as posturing, emasculated buffoons in the figure of Hammer and to normalize the cutthroat violence of the Cold War era without examining it in-depth. Yet it is through the world-building of IM2 that The Avengers (2012) and Iron Man 3 (2013) can make bolder, balder statements on terrorism, war profiteering, and post-9/11 rhetoric than any genre film to date.

The final entries in each series underscore the difference between their political approaches by diverging in purpose and making their ultimate points: The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is concerned with the domestic implications of income inequality and civil unrest, while Iron Man 3 (2013) boldly confronts the symbiotic relationship between organized terrorism and weapons manufacturing head-on, scrutinizing the international geopolitical ramifications of superheroes’ existence.

Occupy Gotham

Directly addressing the irony in relying upon costumed billionaires to protect the interests of the working class citizen, The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) is the most overtly political of Nolan’s Batman films. Released during the 2012 election cycle, the film notably drew criticism from right-wing pundits, charging that the villain Bane was a direct attack on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s former financial-services firm Bain Capital (Loinaz). In addition to the political controversy surrounding the film, a midnight screening on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, CO was the target of a domestic terror attack when a gunman killed 12 people and wounded 70 more (CNN Library). While DKR is equally if not more allegorical than BB and DK, the events surrounding its release retroactively lend the film additional contemporary relevance. Nolan’s Batman series is never as politically overt as the Iron Man films, yet DKR gains authority from the external events surrounding it.

DKR moves from examining terrorism and the rhetoric of fear towards questioning economic inequality as the root cause of nearly all of Gotham City’s problems with corruption and crime. BB briefly touched on justice for the poor by using economics as a “weapon” and staging the League of Shadows’ terrorist attack in the low-income slum known as the Narrows. Holland notes that films were “reflect[ing] a growing sense of American powerlessness and injustice as the Bush Administration’s debt spending squeezed more tightly the middle and lower classes” as early as 2004 (294). DKR takes this pressure and actualizes it by referencing the appearance of organized protest groups—most notably the Occupy Wall Street movement. DKR is able to move beyond the film series’ oblique flirtations with 9/11 themes because Marvel’s The Avengers, released two months before, revels in “images of urban destruction” and is cited as the moment when Hollywood “tackle[d] 9/11” (Riegler 110). “The Avengers demonstrates how completely 9/11 has been superseded by another catastrophe, namely the financial meltdown of September 2008” (Hoberman). This combined series of Marvel and DC superhero films moved audiences from fear of an unknowable Other bent on destruction to addressing the realities of economic hardships caused by Bush Administration policies. DKR most succinctly summarizes the latent fury of the public when cat burglar Selina Kyle whispers to mega-rich Wayne at a charity benefit: “You’ll wonder how you could ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

The radical push for income equality in DKR is presented in the figure of League of Shadows ideologue Bane, who directly attacks the economic and social systems of Gotham and insists on the empowerment of a downtrodden underclass of workers. DKR’s addressing income inequality was widely noted as a reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011. However, the Occupy Wall Street protests “are the opposite of Bane [who] stands for the mirror image of state terror, for a murderous fundamentalism that takes over and rules by fear, not for the overcoming of state power through popular self-organisation” (Žižek). David Graeber insists that, because superheroes can only exist as a check against the revolutionary overthrow of existing political systems, DKR “is a piece of anti-Occupy propaganda.” Before discounting Bane’s uprising as an attempt to discredit the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is important to reiterate that Nolan’s Batman films are highly allegorical. A peaceful movement addressing a societal rupture over income inequality would, by narrative necessity, erupt much more violently in Gotham City than in New York. The heightened allegory represents any threat to the system as violent opposition. Although this does not absolve DKR of accusations that it is “anti-Occupy propaganda,” the film seamlessly fits into the political spectrum of BB and DK by reaffirming the existing social system as flawed yet necessary in order to prevent chaos. While Nolan’s Batman films address the societal implications, both of post-9/11 political rhetoric and their contemporaneous cultural climates, they constantly reaffirm the party line that justice is only achievable through force.

“I Just Needed a Reason to Kill You That Would Play Well On TV”

Iron Man 3 (IM3) is the culmination of themes introduced throughout the first two films in the series, particularly the heavy usage of mass media as a weapon of terror and the culpability of domestic corporations for international extremism and terrorism.

Between IM2 and IM3, Marvel Studios released three additional films in the MCU: Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and The Avengers (2012) which combines all of the heroes into one film. The Avengers introduced an in-universe catastrophic event to rival 9/11, allowing the characters and their society to directly experience trauma in front of the audience.[5] While The Avengers does not directly present 9/11, the film involves the complete destruction of lower Manhattan by an invading extraterrestrial force bent on world domination. Where IM1 and IM2 are centered around Tony, he does not truly become a hero until his ego is subsumed into the collaborative Avengers superhero team. Tony’s willingness to sacrifice himself to save New York City from a nuclear missile establishes him as genuinely heroic, but he barely survives the conflict. Events in The Avengers leave a profound mark on Tony, who spends IM3 dealing with his post-traumatic stress from the Battle of New York.

The majority of the MCU’s in-universe world experienced the alien invasion of New York through their televisions, expressed by the montage of clips and interviews at the end of The Avengers. Tony’s heroics played out as an international media event, rendering him one of the most visible people on the planet. A large portion of his psychological vulnerability is not just from his post-traumatic stress but because of his exposure as a public figure.

Continuing the in-universe usage of media as a tool to experience trauma and enact terror, IM3 features the Mandarin as a 21st century, tech-savvy terrorist who takes claim for violent acts after the fact by hijacking American television broadcasts and displaying his frenetically edited propaganda videos. Presented as the true leader of the international terrorist organization the Ten Rings, the Mandarin utilizes the same media machine that once nurtured and now haunts Tony Stark. The Mandarin’s videos co-opt the tone, technique, and atmosphere of real terrorist propaganda videos so effectively that they are hyper-realistic. Inserted in such a way that the videos interrupt the film itself, the audience is forced to experience the same visceral terror as the ordinary citizen in the MCU. IM3’s Mandarin is a deliberate figurehead, ultimately revealed to be a red herring that weapons developer Aldritch Killian uses to divert attention from his unsavory research projects. Through Killian’s insistence on anonymity he becomes a direct foil, both for Tony’s altruism and for the dangers of his public exposure. Killian stokes the world to the brink of war for his own profit while deflecting attention by manufacturing his own terrorist threat, experiencing Tony’s IM1 character growth in reverse.

The Mandarin as a completely false media presence constructed to mask Killian’s agenda is not so much backing away from hard commentary on terrorism as exposing the culpability of war contractors in fueling extremists and terrorist organizations. This theme is present as early as IM1, yet it is IM3 that baldly equates war profiteering and weapons manufacture with terrorism itself. Killian exploits the notion of terrorism and the terrorist mastermind to mask his failed experiments and cultivate paranoia to a point where citizens are willing to relinquish their civil rights “in order to feel safe” (Lyman 17). Notably, Killian utilizes symbols as empty vessels through which to achieve his means, including “the manipulation of Western iconography” in the Mandarin videos and a related plot to kill the President of the United States on live television in a false environmentalist ploy referencing the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. When the President questions Killian’s motives, Killian replies “I just needed a reason to kill you that would play well on TV,” citing only financial and egotistical motives behind his Mandarin scheme. In IM3, terrorism becomes the face behind which weapons manufacturers hide, inciting paranoia and anxiety for their own profit.

Department of (Strategic) Homeland (Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division) Security

Because every entry in the MCU is so deeply intertwined, it is worth examining the continuation of the post-9/11 rhetoric in at least one relevant work which does not feature Iron Man as a character. While the Iron Man films deal directly with terrorism, arms dealing, militarism, and the military-industrial complex, the MCU saves its overt political commentary for the Captain America franchise. 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Cap2) adopts the mode of a 1970s Cold War spy thriller, with a modern surveillance twist. The co-opting of 1970s genre markers is no accident, as “Ross Douthat argue[s] that after 9/11 Hollywood returned to the ‘paranoid, cynical, end-of-empire 1970s.’ There are indeed many similarities between the 1970s and the 2000s: Both were decades of political and social crisis, producing, among other results, a pessimistic cultural outlook” (Riegler 107). The film casts Robert Redford as a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. official secretly in charge of a massive sleeper-cell of Hydra agents within S.H.I.E.L.D. Hydra, first introduced in the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger, was founded as the fantastical science division of the Nazi Party and countered by the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), the organization that later became S.H.I.E.L.D. Cap2 banks on Redford’s long film career playing the All-American hero to question the proto-fascist mentality of vestigial Cold War ‘security’ tactics and their relevance in modern international affairs.

The film takes to task the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war and mass surveillance that treat every citizen as an enemy of the state. S.H.I.E.L.D. itself is first introduced in IM1, the first entry in the MCU. Notably, the S.H.I.E.L.D. acronym is updated in the films to stand for “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.”[6] It is the deliberate inclusion of the term “homeland” which imbues S.H.I.E.L.D. with its rhetorical force. In his 2014 article, Josh Marshall expresses discomfort with the word, finding it “totalitarian” and noting that “implicit in the ‘homeland’ terminology is an imperial vision of America’s role in the world. There’s defense – which is something safely beyond our borders but operating in areas of our control and dominance and then there’s us proper – the homeland.” It is fitting then that S.H.I.E.L.D.—an organization founded with the explicit purpose of protecting “homeland”[7]—has been undermined since its inception by a fascist agenda bent on world domination. That an organization ostensibly founded on the principle of protection is suborned by the empire-building intentions of a fascist sleeper cell casts aspersions on the intentions of those who found such departments in real life—most notably the Department of Homeland Security, the government agency founded in 2002 at which S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “homeland” intervention is an intentional jab.

S.H.I.E.L.D. institutes a mass surveillance system called Project Insight to monitor and eliminate ‘potential threats’ before they can do harm. Project Insight recalls the 2013 revelations that the NSA, CIA, and other government intelligence agencies collect mass surveillance data on all citizens. In Cap2, Steve Rogers, in the literal role of All-American hero, insists that pre-emptive war and mass surveillance violate civil rights, stating, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” Hydra’s co-opting Project Insight to kill not those who threaten “security” but those who maintain stability demonstrates how swiftly and easily a climate of fear leads to totalitarian rule. Steven Spielberg summarized this phenomenon when he stated that in 2002 “people are willing to give away a lot of their freedoms in order to feel safe” (Lyman 17). Project Insight is presented as an act of state-perpetrated terrorism against the world’s citizens, punctuated by the fact that even though the intentions were well-meaning, pre-emptive wars are costly and misguided, and mass surveillance is so flawed as to be rendered little more than a totalitarian tactic for achieving world domination.


Ultimately, Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Marvel’s Iron Man films provide a safe space for audiences not only to work through the trauma of 9/11, but also to actively question the official narrative. Where the Batman films are highly allegorical and myopically focused on the microcosm of Gotham City, Iron Man movies take genre convention to task, resulting in more realistic explorations of international issues and much more lighthearted films. One of the major distinctions between the worldviews of Batman and Iron Man is that the Batman franchise believes that the current social systems do not work because they have been corrupted from their pure intentions, while Iron Man films posit that the social systems do not work because they were sabotaged by those who created them in order to lend those creators some benefit or profit.

Iron Man, Batman, and the slew of other popular superheroes are individuals who provide agency rather than simply spouting rhetoric and spinning narrative. They affect direct change on their worlds, providing a sense of security by enacting justice. It is through these pop culture figures that Americans have most successfully healed from the trauma of 9/11, because these figures not only present a fantasy landscape on which to project questions, fears, and anxieties; they also provide closure. Superheroes, whether they are espousing a simplistic morality or refuting a simplistic view of the world, present an appealing alternative to ineffective politicians and policies when society is faced with the seeming impossibility of one person effecting change against a corrupt and broken system.

Works Cited

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[1] The differing presentation of masculinity and machismo in the Batman and Iron Man films is too vast a topic to fit within the scope of this paper. Nolan’s Batman films maintain a position of victimized femininity, presenting Rachel Dawes as the lone woman in The Dark Knight and having her murdered by the Joker explicitly to wound both Wayne and Dent. By contrast, all Iron Man films present Tony’s assistant Pepper Potts as Tony’s equal, frequently allow her to save the day, and include other women in the roles of both allies and opponents. Iron Man films refuse to pigeonhole women in the traditional roles reserved for them by superhero tales, while Batman films remain loyal to even the problematic elements of their source material.

[2] Again, there is not space within the scope of this paper to do justice to the heavily intertextual, transmedia nature of the MCU. As of December 2015, the story includes 12 films, 2 multi-season traditional network television series, 2 Netflix original series, and multiple “one-shots” or short films included as DVD extras, with a total run-time of over 93 hours.

[3] Most notably in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and potentially in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War (2016).

[4] Howard Stark is revisited and further vindicated in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger and the television series Agent Carter (2015- ), which detail his services to the government during and after World War II.

[5] While this is the first direct catastrophe represented in the MCU, 9/11 did occur, as evidenced by Tony Stark’s selling weapons for an American war in Afghanistan and the missing World Trade Center towers in The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers. Additionally, a September 2015 episode of the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (3×01) references “extremists” implied to be ISIS/Daesh, a group stemming directly from U.S. involvement in Iraq.

[6] The original S.H.I.E.L.D. acronym from the August 1965 Strange Tales #135 stands for “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division.” This was updated in 1991 to “Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage Logistics Directorate.” The name was again modified in the comic book continuity to reflect the new acronym from the films.

[7] Because S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded as a multi-national agency to protect Earth from extraterrestrial threats, this complicates the MCU’s conception of “homeland” by implying that “homeland” rhetorically applies to the entire Earth. As of 2015, no Marvel Studios work directly addresses the formation of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, neither does any work set before 2010 directly deal with aliens. This leaves ambiguity as to whether “homeland” refers to an Earth which must be protected from (highly classified) extraterrestrial threats, or whether the term refers to an international collective pitted against a shadier international collective, abstracting the word to the point of absurdity. It is simpler to presume the inclusion of “homeland” in the updated acronym was a rhetorical reference to the Bush Administration’s obsession with the term, and an expression of dissent against the legalized surveillance state represented most potently by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.


To Cite This Article:
Brand, Dana Leigh. “Post-9/11 Rhetoric and Pop Cultural Dissent Through Billionaire Superheroes.” Rayguns Must Be Disabled At All Times. 29 Jan. 2016. Web.

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