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Column: You can often tell what is troubling America by looking to the blockbusters

Movies are often a reflection of current affairs what’s going on in the world, and even the unlikely genre of mass-market US action movies can deal with the fears and uncertainties felt by the American people at any given time, writes Darren Mooney.

Darren Mooney

THE RELEASE OF Iron Man 3 last weekend officially opens blockbuster season for 2013. It’s the time of year when gigantic action-packed epics sweep into the multiplexes, occupying them for the summer.

I can’t say I’m not a little intrigued by the changing of the cinematic seasons. In a way quite different from the work of indie visionaries or auteurs, these mass-market movies offer their own glimpse into the American subconscious, one that feels relatively filtered or unguarded, uncluttered by notions of sophistication or pretension.

A glimpse at what is going beneath the surface

You can often tell what is troubling America by looking to the blockbusters. It has been frequently noted that several similar concepts will enter production at the same time, leading to two very similar movies released close together: 1998 seemed to be the year of the asteroid, with both Armageddon and Deep Impact positing the possibility that Earth might be destroyed by a random chunk of rock from outer space.

I’m willing to credit the two concepts evolving simultaneously, perhaps reacting to the same concerns or information or even zeitgeist as each other. In 1998, the decade after the Cold War and before the War on Terror, it seemed to be an existentialist horror, the realisation that – although Earth itself might be peaceful – everything could so easily be destroyed by even the slightest unforeseen development.

Jumping forward to the summer of 2013, what do we see? “It’s time to spread the word,” Liam Neeson boasted at the climax of Batman Begins. “And the word is… panic.”


(Via YouTube/M r Hunter)

Terrorist have always been a popular source of villains for summer blockbusters. Particularly in the nineties, when using Russians as villains became unpopular due to the end of the whole Cold War thing, terrorists provided a handy go-to adversary. Indeed, Air Force One opted for the best of both worlds to combine the tropes, giving us Russian terrorists.

Post 9/11 extremist terrorists emerged

However, in the wake of 9/11, a shift took place. Movies tended to veer a little bit away from extremist villains in the immediate aftermath, as if the concept might hit home a little bit. Gradually, in the middle part of the last decade, blockbusters began to reintroduce terrorist antagonists, albeit relatively gently. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was the most high-profile (and probably the most successful) example.

Ra’s Al Ghul was a decidedly Westernised terrorist in Batman Begins, launching a chemical weapons attack on a major Western city. The Joker opted for the iconography of terror (recorded executions, improvised explosives, insurgency) while offering a more philosophical examination of the concept (his motivation amounting to a bold philosophical statement about why terrorism is such an appealing tool.)

In recent years, it seems like blockbusters have begun to engage more readily. Although far from an excellent piece of film making, GI Joe: Retaliation read like a Freudian exploration of post-9/11 anxieties. American troops complete a mission in the desert. However, after completing their objective (and during a party that is only missing the “Mission Accomplished” banners), they find themselves ambushed and undermined.

The film takes a decidedly less comfortable turn at that point, when it is revealed that the President of the United States is a terrorist. Played by the wonderful Jonathan Pryce, the character looks more like George W Bush than Barrack Obama, but there’s a rather uncomfortable subtext.


(Via YouTube/CieonMovies)

The revelation that the President of the United States is really a secret terrorist can’t help but feel like the worst sort of pandering, playing out the sinister conspiracy theory lurking beneath the surface of Donald Trump’s absurd “birther” movement. Just last year, a survey revealed that 17 per cent of American voters still thought that Barrack Obama might be a Muslim and a year earlier one in four still thought he was not born in the United States.

Fearing attacks on home soil

The White House secretly being under enemy occupation seems to be a cinematic theme in 2013, with two movies released in rapid succession exploring the possibility of a terrorist take-over of the White House. Olympus Has Fallen has already seen a release over here and White House Down is due out shortly. It seems like the American subconscious is bubbling over with fears that the White House might fall into enemy hands.

It seems that American blockbuster cinema is becoming a little more comfortable with the iconography of terrorist attacks on American soil. Last year, the climax of The Avengers featured destruction in downtown Manhattan involving flying large objects into buildings. The impromptu memorial walls and the presence of the emergency services seemed designed to evoke comparisons to 9/11. This year, Iron Man 3 features several suicide bombings on American soil.

Of course, there is still some tetchiness, some reluctance which suggests a lingering discomfort with 9/11 imagery. It’s telling that many of the movies featuring terrorist attacks this year focus on targets outside of America. Star Trek: Into Darkness features an early terrorist attack on London, which seems to be the destination of choice for modern movie villains.

There’s also some reluctance to commit to Islamic extremist villains. Although they were readily used on the television show 24 (on average at least once every second season), and occurred quite frequently in the action movies of the nineties (like Executive Decision or True Lies), Hollywood has shied away from using those kinds of terrorists in block buster movies.

The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 resonates with Bin Laden

Iron Man 3 allows the Mandarin to use imagery associated with terrorism in the Middle East, including footage designed to recall Bin Laden’s famous videos, but the movie is careful to categorise the villain as international.


(Via YouTube/avindustries13)

Similarly, the terrorist responsible for the atrocity at the start of Star Trek: Into Darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch playing “John Harrison.” Cumberbatch’s villain feels like that safest of Hollywood villain clichés, the smooth-voice evil Briton. Alan Rickman eat your heart out.

North Korea: the new go-to bad guys

This year, it seems like the North Koreans have drawn the short straw and have been characterised as Hollywood’s go-to foreign bad guys. The villains in this year’s remake of Red Dawn were originally designed to be Chinese, before somebody working on the film decided they might want to sell the movie there in one of cinema’s growing markets. So all the flags and imagery were changed in post production to make them North Korean.

Olympus Has Fallen features a North Korean terrorist infiltrating and capturing the White House. He holds the American President hostage and appears to brutally murder the leader of South Korea.

While Gerard Butler has conceded that the timing of the release of the film, with North Korea’s recent posturing, was fortuitous. “It’s almost like we had a crystal ball,” he quipped. He also conceded that the choice of villains does play on the American psyche:

You make a movie based on what’s going on in the world. If we made a movie about Spanish terrorists, it wouldn’t be particularly relevant. Nobody would go see the movie. Or a bunch of Jamaicans strolling in, smoking pot, trying to take over the White House. It’s what’s going to make an audience connect with the story. You have terrorism, national security, the vulnerable society that we live in right now that is so at the forefront of people’s psyche.

Our relationship with our institutions and the people who want to protect us and represent us… In my country and Britain and here especially in America, that’s been instilled in your every brain cell and your blood from the second you grow up. So it’s deep in your psyche and your heart and your stomach, so you have a very visceral connection with that.

Financial crisis movies will probably surface soon

I’d be expecting blockbusters about the financial crisis to appear over the next few years, but it is very hard to reduce the deficit into a film starring Bruce Willis and a bunch of witty one-liners. Although there are signs of genre cinema dealing with those fears and uncertainties. The haunted house genre – classified by Stephen King as “economic horror”.

None of these films offers particularly insightful observations or especially sophisticated insights into these concerns. Those looking for a thorough probing of the moral concerns of liberal democracy might be better served to look elsewhere. However, blockbuster cinema does serve as a rather interesting (albeit lightly distorted) mirror that allows us a glimpse at what is going beneath the surface of the American collective psyche. It’s also fascinating, sometimes uncomfortable, viewing.

Darren Mooney has a movie blog, them0vieblog.com . You can get in touch with Darren here. To read more articles by Darren for TheJournal.ie click here.

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