In the aftermath of 9/11, Wheeler Winston Dixon asked, ‘What effect will the events of 9/11 have on filmic genres?’ (2004: 2). Evaluate how far 9/11 has affected the processes at play in the film industry. Consider the production, and/or marketing, and/or distribution of certain films, and with reference to a specific genre and using close textual analysis in your response, explore how far 9/11 and post-9/11 terrorism has led filmmakers to re-orientate their approaches to exploit the genre’s visual and narrative tropes
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The connection between 9/11 and the superhero film is of particular interest because of the classic main protagonist. For decades, iconic figures such as Superman, Batman and Spiderman have been fighting evil and criminality in fictional worlds that re-imagine American society and offer clear and unequivocal ideas of justice. Superhero narratives allegorizing 9/11 possess the power to create fictional spaces in which reworked conceptions of terrorism, justice, and the notion of good versus evil can be examined and tested. This essay will investigate how far 9/11 has affected the film industry; referring closely to Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight and its accompanying viral marketing campaign as an example of filmmakers re-orientating their approaches to exploit genres visual and narrative tropes.
As Peter Coogan states, we are truly in the midst of a “superhero renaissance” (2006: 7). It would appear that 9/11 has had something to do with this revival, illustrated by Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which addresses the trauma and anxiety associated with the 9/11 attacks. Ultimately, the film works to establish the terrorist as a supreme form of evil, incorporating allusions to 9/11 to demonstrate the continued ascendance of good versus evil. To put it simply, the Joker (Heath Ledger) is a terrorist, and Batman (Christian Bale) represents the American response to 9/11. Douglas Kellner further comments on this, stating that the Joker is presented solely as the “spirit of anarchy and chaos of a particularly destructive and nihilistic nature. In a contemporary context, the Joker represents the spirit of terrorism and the film is full of iconography related to 9/11” (2003: 11). Furthermore, Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) overtly displays the same undertone of terrorism from the use of fear as a weapon, to the plot to destroy Gotham’s most iconic building – Wayne Industries. But not every superhero film that displays 9/11 imagery has the same impacting political statements as Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. For example, the final sequence of The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) evokes the 9/11 attacks but is not a film primarily concerned with overriding politics. Annika Hagely and Michael Harrison argue that the more collective action offered within The Avengers “unpacks each element of the collective American response to terrorism and shows a somewhat romanticised victory in which every identity did absolutely what was necessary to succeed” (2014: 123). Alex Harvey further states that it was directly after 9/11 that the superhero became the figure of some focus for those seeking to express their grief, anger and fear (2010: 120). Will Brooker agrees with Harvey, and notes that The Dark Knight engages with post-9/11 social concerns and “interrogates the relationship between terrorist and counterterrorist” (2012: 186).
Furthermore, Raymond Surette suggests that the media “can reduce inhibitions against the use of violence. They can offer models and provide technical know-how [and] can provide sufficient impetus in themselves to lead to imitative acts” (1998: 149). There have been real-life terror attacks, post The Dark Knight release that were carried out ‘In the name of the Joker’. For example, in 2012 there was a malevolent shooting at a cinema screening a Batman title. This alone draws parallels between film form and actual real-life disasters and shows how Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is only one example of a film villain whom is reflective of these psychologically twisted individuals who pose real threat to society.
Additionally, Samuel Huntington opposes that these superhero narratives became popular when “world politics was entering a new phase, where the primary causes of conflict would no longer be ideological or economic but civilizational” (1993: 8). For example, the harrowing images of burning fire-trucks and firefighters putting out the Joker’s fires. Nevertheless, if The Dark Knight held an overriding political undertone it would concern the blurring of boundaries; as Will Brooker notes: “The Dark Knight questions these assumptions, as demonstrated by the range of contradictory political meanings” (2012: 17). This can be demonstrated through the fundamental shift in this film that reflects the anxieties and displeasures that people have towards governing bodies. It also relates back to the initial marketing of The Dark Knight prior its release; the viral marketing campaign that accompanied the film was such high-profile that it caused a divide in the public through realistic government style elections and Joker style scavenger hunts. Ultimately, it questioned the assumptions many had on the film’s narrative.
Within his work, Sigmund Freud attempted to answer the question of whether, or not, people “re-enact traumatic experiences” (1922: 47). His work surrounding the subconscious repetitive behaviour of war soldiers and victims of abuse led him to develop the idea of the “death drive”. This idea fundamentally explores how humans have an “innate, primordial instinct towards an inorganic state- a wish for death” (1922: 47). To further investigate this idea, this essay will discuss the impact such traumatic events, like 9/11 have had on the superhero genre. Close reference will be made to Nolan’s The Dark Knight, as well as detailed discussion on how 9/11 and post-9/11 terrorism has led filmmakers to re-orientate their approaches to exploit the genre’s visual and narrative tropes. The overall tone of the film and its external influences are linked closely to themes of terrorism. The number of films adapted from comic books, have in recent years, become increasingly popular and because of the potential for such adaptations to be set in a post-9/11 cinematic setting, allows for more creative and authentic representations of such events. While there have been numerous filmic interpretations of 9/11, Nolan’s darker representation of the themes of chaos, violence and terror is a direct response to the terrorism that is ever-present in American society. The year of the film’s release reflects this message, with the US government sending soldiers overseas to fight terrorism, which may seem selfless and effective but considering the innocent lives affected and further violence caused, only leads to the questioning of the approach.
It could be suggested that, in a political context, Batman is a fictional stand-in for George W. Bush- who suffered criticism for the tactics his administration used to keep America safe. But a closer look at both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins shows that Nolan’s films are not polemics that favour one perspective over the other but instead, careful and unbiased explorations of American uncertainty towards the war on terror. While most superheroes are known for fighting crime, Batman is often involved in fighting terrorism. The reason is limited – Batman’s motivation is to conquer his own fear, which stems from the trauma of seeing his parents murdered in front of him as a child. “Generally, trauma is not locatable in the simple viewing or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its unassimilated nature returns to haunt the survivor later on” (Caruth, 1996: 4). The politics featured within The Dark Knight seem to suggest that American society wishes to maintain the myth of national innocence but secretly acknowledging that the extra-legal excesses of the Bush administration may have been necessary to fight the terrorism. Such interpretations of the film raise disturbing questions regarding the future of civil liberties and freedoms long cherished by America and suggests the failure of political campaigns to more directly raise issues of surveillance and torture which may place rights and liberties at jeopardy.
Generally, Nolan’s villains are agents of terror who want to bring down Gotham – the symbol of a greedy American empire. In Batman Begins, for example, Batman battles the League of Shadows, a centuries-old secret organisation whose mission is to ‘restore balance’ to the world by destroying empires when they grow corrupt and unsustainable. Opposingly, there are clear differences between the League and Al Qaeda; one aims to issue a new value system and theocracy, and the other simply wants to restore balance. However, the methods of the League are clearly written to evoke the 9/11 attacks. The League (in a similar fashion to the Joker) turn to the citizens of Gotham, unleashing a poisonous gas that amplifies their fears; their plan to unleash the gas involves crashing a train into Wayne Industries- the biggest building in the city and a symbol of Gotham’s success; this itself being a direct allusion to 9/11. Nolan’s Trilogy adheres to the subtext of- in fighting terrorism is America running the risk of expanding anti-American sentiment? Specifically, is America’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques destroying the idealistic image of peacekeeping and instead rallying more terrorists into groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS? This is reminiscent of the main interrogation scene featured within The Dark Knight– Nolan relates it directly to controversies over the Bush Administration’s harsh interrogation of terror suspects. The scene starts with a close-up of the Joker’s reaction to Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) leaving the room, the lighting is dark creating a menacing mood and the canted angle is used, creating a sense of unease for the audience. Batman begins the scene with a sense of moral ambiguity, and as soon as Gordon leaves the room, the overhead lighting brightens, and audiences are faced with a mid-shot of Batman towering over a seated Joker. The scene benefits from consistent uses of shot-reverse-shot and over the shoulder shots – Batman and Joker are sitting on the same level in this scene to show that the two characters are equally as helpless in the situation as the Joker is revealing where Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is. However, Batman quickly resorts to violence while interrogating the Joker. Pushed to the brink by the Jokers sinister actions, Batman’s anger takes control of him; he blocks the door to the interrogation room with a chair, pulls the Joker out from behind the table and begins to beat him violently in hopes of extracting information. The canted angle is used once again as Batman proceeds with this attack, again creating a sense of unease for the audience. This shot transitions from a medium close-up to a close-up as the camera zooms in on the scene. The frequent use of close-ups shows the power of the two characters are evenly matched despite the Joker refusing to fight back- while Batman’s physical strength is stronger than the Joker’s, the Joker has the ability to manipulate. Will Brooker comments on this scene taking a utilitarian approach to trauma. Brooker notes that the Joker acts out a key question in American culture: “In a ticking bomb scenario, are we justified in torturing one person to save many others? Nolan gives the Batman/Joker relationship a post-9/11 resonance” (2012). The Dark Knight creates the ultimate 9/11 allegory for the risk on terror. Ultimately, there are similarities between post-9/11 America and Gotham City, in the ways both societies handle risks and terror. In order to create this parallel, the analysis of Gotham through the use of various cityscape shots is necessary as it allows a development of familiarity with the environment. For example, crane shots of Gotham General Hospital after the Joker initiates his attack on it are reminiscent of 9/11 aftermath images portrayed internationally on broadcasted news. The same structure parallels the way the news uses images of 9/11 to depict the type of material that the media and the government want to promote as a means of propagating a sense of elevated terrorism; these institutions use such images to demonstrate the ultimate terror a society can experience.
Roger Ebert (2008) draws upon this further, stating:
Batman poses a more complex puzzle than usual: the citizens of Gotham City are in an uproar, calling him a vigilante and blaming him for the deaths of others […] the Joker is more than a villain. He’s a Mephistopheles whose actions are fiendishly designed to post moral dilemmas for his enemies (2008)
The Joker acts with full malicious intent and is rarely motivated by monetary benefit. Rather, he wants to instigate terror on the city to provoke Batman and reveal his identity. Frances Pheasant-Kelly further contends that Nolan’s “nightmarish version of the Joker […] and his displays of unpredictable and destructive behaviour suggest his capacity as an agent of chaos” (2013: 132). Nolan is continually advocating a liberal criticism of the war on terror through The Dark Knight. He gives credence to both sides by dramatizing a justification of unethical methods, most of which are represented in Harvey Dent’s fall. Dent, on the other hand, is a firm believer that working within the system and adhering to strict moral standards is the best way to confront organised crime and the Joker’s terror. As the public and legitimate face of law enforcement in Gotham, Dent fights the war on terror at first through conventional and legal means. However, when Dent falls, it is a failure of all those who seek to fight lawfully; it is a dark message that Nolan seems to be endorsing – militant action and operating outside of the law.
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The cinematography and narrative style continually operate to signify aspects of 9/11 allegories; this allows audiences to determine how the film mediates disaster. Even within the initial marketing of the film we see direct reflections of the 9/11 attacks – one of the main promotional posters for the film features Batman standing in the foreground in front of a high-rise building (comparable to the World Trade Centre), the top of the building is ablaze with clusters of debris falling to the ground. The tagline, which reads, ‘welcome to a world without rules’ draws abundant parallels between the film and the concerns of an already terrorism heavy society. Ultimately, the initial marketing of The Dark Knight draws parallels between film and real-world concerns of a post-9/11 society. Both the marketing, promotional trailers, posters and the theatrical release of the film seek to re-orientate the approaches of film post-9/11. Surette argues that the “emasculating trauma from 9/11 propelled us to escalate a similar violence against its perceived enemies” (1998: 495). The Dark Knight presents a cynical outlook on a narrative which features a hero in the wake of a traumatic event, the cynical preservation of order is ultimately what allows the film to avoid being representative of Freud’s ‘death drive’.
A longstanding film marketing technique is to increase advertising with a possible blockbuster to increase the chances of high-profits. Fundamentally, the film illustrates the significance of a well-calculated marketing campaign. Nolan’s reboots had to win over an already existing audience as well as a new fan-base. To do so, Warner Brothers employed elaborate and meticulously planned marketing campaigns which were predominantly online based and sought to reach a larch-scale audience. The release of The Dark Knight radically altered the viral marketing experience of film by turning it into a cultural event. This started in May 2007, when the official Warner Brother’s website for the film went live. The first piece of viral campaigning concerned Harvey Dent, with the film’s official website linking fans to a Dent campaign website – ‘ibelieveinharveydent.com’. The website featured a poster of Dent’s political campaign, displaying him in front of an American flag with the caption: ‘Harvey Dent for district attorney. I believe in Harvey Dent’. Later on, a second website was released – ‘ibelieveinharveydenttoo’. However, the poster was vandalised, similar to the characterisation of the Joker, Dent’s face featured blacked out eyes and red lipstick. As well, below the defaced poster was an email sign-up, this allowed fans to reveal one pixel of a new image that was hidden behind the defaced poster. A constant element throughout the viral campaigning of The Dark Knight was it narrative based content. For example, the campaign involved getting participants to support a character, whether the Joker who needs assistance for his heists or Dent, who needs to win the election. The events lead up to where the film narrative begins, and The Dark Knight consistently relied on the spectacle of the events that the viral marketing campaign created.
The Jokers clown accomplices are central to both the film narrative and the promotional marketing campaigns. During the mise-en-scéne an extreme long-shot is used as an establishing shot of Chicago city. Whilst panning in, the absence of dialogue with a non-diegetic sound-track begins to amplify, this initiates suspense from the offset. The soundtrack itself has connotations of peace and tranquillity, however as the camera pans closer towards the dark tinted windows of a high-rise building, this changes. Here the first piece of diegetic sound is used when the soundtrack is momentarily interrupted by a gun firing at a window and the sound of glass shattering. Following the mise-en-scéne, the audience are introduced to a close-up of a man holding a clown mask – this further supports the sinister connotations that are beginning to build. The first main scene of the film features these masked-clowns entering a bank, a steady-cam is used, following the clowns initiating conflict with the bank cashiers. The scene mostly uses medium shots in order to show both the bankers and the clowns in one shot. The same feeling of suspense and Batman’s moral ambiguity that is shown throughout the entire film is also reflected throughout the opening scenes – a power hierarchy similar to that of the Batman/Joker relationship is established between the bankers and the clowns. However, the power shifts from the clowns when the bank manager comes into shot – with the use of shot-reverse-shot between the banker and the clowns and close-ups of the bank manager firing shots back at the clowns creating a symbolic representation of America fighting back against attacks.
According to Kernan (2008), promotional film texts are “the centre to which they attempt to draw audiences – the narrative and promotional world of ‘Hollywood’ – is all the more compelling for the degree to which its lures are repeated and configured” (2008: 80). The film centred itself around high-end promotional partners, like Nokia, which were used in the viral marketing campaigns that predominantly included the Joker – such brands were not necessarily driven by the direct selling of their products, but more so the burnishing of their brands. For example, Nokia phones were an integral part of The Dark Knight’s marketing campaign. Fans were directed to a website titled ‘whysoserious.com’ where they found themselves encouraged to participate in a scavenger hunt. Instructions on the website led fans to various bakeries across America and after asking for an order left for ‘Robin Banks’ (the Jokers favourite activity) – they received a cake with a Nokia phone in it. The phone was set-up to send more clues, prizes and of course tons of nationwide media attention. The campaign continued in October 2007, with the re-activation of the ‘whysoserious’ website. The site now featured a countdown to Halloween and a jack-o-lantern with a bat-shaped mouth. As days passed the jack-o-lantern slowly rotted and after Halloween passed the image of the pumpkin’s candle virtually burned out and the image was replaced with a list of locations across America. In a similar fashion to the earlier treasure hunt, a new Joker recruitment game started with fans being sent on a scavenger hunt to discover letters displayed on buildings in each location. Once all of the letters were recovered, they spelled out a message – “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules”. After this message was viewed an image of the Joker appeared, starting another scavenger hunt which asked fans to take photos of themselves with clown-like face paint in front of public landmarks. These scavenger hunts became increasingly complicated and continued for the entire year leading up to the film’s release. While this inclusive campaign may have influenced subsequent film marketing, the extremist images often promoted in superhero films create a back-lash to real worldly events if promotional teams continue to go this extreme and invite real worldly individuals the opportunity to take part in dangerous activities, even if just for the sake of promotional means. However, despite criticism, the viral marketing campaign surrounding the release of The Dark Knight was one of the most innovative and interactive campaigns in history, turning The Dark Knight into more than a film, but a recognised event. Spanning multiple platforms, the promotional campaign was a concealed advertising campaign that took the film experience and filled it with activities, the various scavenger hunts, the offline versus online Harvey Dent campaign and even having fans submit pictures of themselves dressed as clowns; all contributed to creating the release of the film as a “multifaceted promo push [that] transcends marketing to exist as a standalone cultural event” (Chris Lee, 2008). Overall, the marketing campaigns surrounding The Dark Knight truly exceeded expectations of promotional material post-9/11.
Ultimately, the question of whether The Dark Knight endorses or critiques the actions of the heroes is not widely debated. Nevertheless, Nolan’s film form (unlike the characters he presents) situates itself in understanding the fundamentals of trauma. While the film re-enacts 9/11 traumas visually, it also reinvents the 9/11 narrative to confront the question of chaos presented in the Freudian idea of the ‘death drive’. The Dark Knight is imperfect in telling the story of trauma within its narrative and Nolan represents this chaos visually through the continuous use of the roll-shot. This occurs when the camera physically turns, sometimes completely upside down endorsing a feeling of vertigo and representing the unhinged nature of a character – like the Joker. When Batman finally captures the Joker, audiences are presented with a shot of the Joker dangling upside down, which produces a disorientating feeling that encapsulates the chaos that both Batman and Gotham have descended into by playing the Joker’s game. Nolan’s direction in cinematography gives spectators a reason to believe that the Joker is the film’s way of interacting with these understandings of a 9/11 terrorist. The Joker’s irrational behaviour, however, deals more directly with a fundamental fear rather than a politically driven terrorism – it draws on the terror embedded in life towards the idea of chaos. As indicated through the film’s analysis, The Dark Knight deals directly with issues associated with terrorism and the war on terror in a post-911 setting. The film provokes discussion and ideas on the war on terror, although it remains unclear whether the issues addressed within the film are intended to criticise real personnel, or just provide a narrative to help the viewer make sense of 9/11. The post-9/11 period, however, gave rise to a whole set of political motives and addressed the global war on terror and its subsequent consequences.
Fans are necessary components to the ultimate success of viral campaigns, as viral marketing only works if the content goes viral and this only happens with the participation of spectators. The Dark Knight campaigns set up sophisticated websites that were designed to guide fans towards specific images and information. The Dark Knight’s viral marketing campaign and promotional techniques did this to a higher degree, and ultimately re-orientated the superhero genre’s visual and narrative tropes.
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