The 9/11 Summer Blockbuster Machine

tmnt-560This poster, is by the usual standards of Hollywood graphic design, fairly mundane, but for its perspective: the viewer looks up from the base of a glass tower, toward its apex, which has been displaced by a burst of fire and smoke and glass. Four bodies are hurtling from the top of building, away from the fiery void, toward the ground. You didn’t have to an employee of the Port Authority’s PR office, an overly sensitive New Yorker, or even a mild-mannered concern troll to feel like you’re huffing esters from the ashes of the World Trade Center by looking at this poster—even leaving aside the film’s Australian release date in bold, white lettering: “September 11.”

But even before the apology had been drafted and finished winding its ways through various level of corporate at Paramount Pictures Australia, ensuring that its mea culpa’s edgeless empathy and grave concern were precisely calibrated to produce an effect of genuine censure, one writer said, “Evoking the tragic events of the World Trade Center attacks in New York 13 years ago was certainly not Paramount’s intention.”

But wasn’t it? As Manohla Dargis wrote in her review of Iron Man 3, “Sept. 11 and its aftermath have been colonized by the movies” in order “to tap into the powerful reactions those events induced,” even as these films tend to “dodg[e] the complex issues and especially the political arguments that might turn off ticket buyers.” And while Iron Man 3 trafficked in largely generic terrorism flash cards, the trailers and poster for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, like The Avengers and Man of Steel before it, follow the spec sheet for post-9/11 9/11ish imagery close to the letter, in both its setting and specificity.

The locus of the threat’s gravity in the Turtles trailer—the way it shows that the Foot Clan, a terrorist cult of sorts led by a charismatic cipher, are a real threat (THEY EVEN WEAR KEFFIYEHS EVEN THOUGH THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO BE RIVAL NINJAS IN THE CARTOON WHAT THE FUCK)—is the exquisitely choreographed disaster porn of iconic New York skyscrapers crashing into each other and the ground, while NYPD officers try to protect wide-eyed tourists. While the “visionary director” Zack Snyder can claim with a straight (if stupid) face that his images in Man of Steel, of mass death and crowds of dazed people covered in ash, scurrying in all directions to escape falling buildings, are intended to lend the film a “mythological feeling,” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a movie for kids—it has a PG rating!—about man-sized turtles who can perform ninjitsu and enjoy eating shitty pizza that is primarily designed to sell action figures to the spawn of the original purchasers of Ninja Turtle paraphernalia. And, while the iconography used by the Turtles movie to incite terror and anticipation about climactic resolution is just specific enough to be haunting, like all high-end disaster porn, the results of that carnage are whitewashed plastic: There are no bodies under that rubble, no viscera-smeared glass, no red concrete. CGI dolls don’t bleed.

To answer a question that Kyle Buchanan asked over a year ago—”is it possible to make a Hollywood blockbuster without evoking 9/11″ in a virtually meaningless way?—apparently not? Captain America: Winter Solider destroyed chunks of D.C. in all-too-familiar ways; Transformers: Age of Extinction is almost restrained for a Michael Bay movie but features no shortage of exploding buildings raining down on civilians; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes topples a totemic skyscraper in its finale; and Godzilla levels San Francisco, producing some almost-too-evocative imagery of people fleeing, though it probably gets a pass because it has a sense history and that was the whole point.

This isn’t to say that filmmakers shouldn’t traffic in the imagery of 9/11—there are plenty of people out there cheaply profiting from it, so why shouldn’t they get theirs? Just like, don’t pretend it’s not on purpose? Because it is! And that’s fine. Be shameless about the shamelessness. But maybe cut the Port Authority a check, eh?