By Andrew Bell
In this essay I will compare and contrast how films ‘The World Trade Center’ (TWTC) 1and ‘Avengers Assemble’ (AA) 2 represent 9/11 and Terrorism. Furthermore, contextually, it is important to delve into the relevance of such matters at the time of both films production. TWTC was filmed between October the 19th 2005 and February the 10th 2006, and was released on August the 9th 2006, whereas AA was filmed half a decade later, between the 25th of April 2011 and was released on May the 4th 2012 in America. Terrorism was very much considered a threat and was in the American public consciousness during both films production and release. In evidence, there were 9 terrorist related incidents in the USA during TWTC’s filming and release, including an event coinciding with the very day of release, where British authorities arrested 24 terrorists planning to use liquid explosives on airlines to attack US targets 3. This is not including the deaths of US military officers from conflict due to the American invasion of Iraq, an endeavour initiated by George W Bush and Dick Cheney in response to the 9/11 attacks, and in efforts to fight terrorism. The death toll reflects that terrorism was not just a otherworldly concept to the American people, but a real threat to their families and a concern for the future of America. In addition, the film was released a mere 5 years after the 9/11 attacks, one of the most significant events in US history, especially due to the death toll, as the death toll of victims reached 2977 4, making it the highest non natural, and costliest disaster in United States history. This naturally places importance on TWTC as a film that has to be careful to conform to moral code of depicting an unpleasant, shocking event in a non-offensive manner. With regards to AA, during 2011-12 the belief that terrorism should be fought against was firmly in the US zeitgeist, with the war in Iraq continuing and showing no signs of stopping. Therefore, Americans understood that after 9/11 terrorism had increasingly become a threat here to stay. However, on August the 31st 2010, a few years before AA”s release, President Obama declared an end to the 7 year US combat mission in Iraq, after Iraq, being a sovereign state, declined permission for them to stay. 5
With regards to my essays aim, Avengers Assemble (2012) is a superhero movie and sticks to the genre convention that the superheroes (who are morally righteous) fight and battle with the evil, Loki, who is a threat to the people’s freedom and survival. From this one can draw narratives with the American peoples battle against potential terrorism, from an American perspective. With filmmaking there are various realities and constraints that filmmakers have to conform to, which helps shape the films themselves. Furthermore, one of these constraints is film censorship. The argument for film censorship is that it protects the moral values that are prevalent in society, therefore it protects societies values. In this respect censorship relates to my chosen genre film, the action-adventure epic, ‘Avengers Assemble.’ (known in as The Avengers in America) The people who made AA, Marvel Studios, were purchased by The Walt Disney Company on December the 31st 2009, and on October the 18th 2010, Disney acquired distribution rights for AA from Paramount Pictures. Furthermore, Disney are a huge organisation in the world, and therefore hold a considerable amount of social responsibility. Their statement on corporate citizenship is as follows: “Acting responsibly is an integral part of our company. At Disney, we refer to our broad efforts to conduct our business and create our products in an ethical manner as Disney citizenship.” 6 Therefore, as acting responsibly is an integral part of their company, Disney are a company very much focused on providing content that is deemed appropriate for younger viewers, just as Disney theme parks are focused on attracting families with small children, and providing an appropriate, positive experience for them. In relation to AA, when Disney released the film to DVD in various European countries such as the UK (2012), it became apparent that they had digitally removed the spear that goes through Phil Colson’s chest, the big death scene in the film. What is interesting is that the the films still rated a ’12’ by the UK’s BBFC, regardless of the change, but it does reflect that although films such as AA have the intention to portray battle between good and evil, and the violence that comes with that, censorship constraints remove content that is deemed ‘too offensive’ such as the graphic death of Colson. Consequently, Disney, related a statement in reply, and “admitted the spear tip had been removed because it was “deemed inappropriate” for U.K. audiences.” 7 With regards to this, Disney as a company have an intrinsic desire to meet the customers needs, in order to continue to be successful, therefore have made a business-minded decision which interferes with a key scene of the film. A key factor that shapes AA is it’s large budget of $220 million USD, making it the 23rd most costliest film to produce in movie history. Due to their financial leverage, the makers of the AA were able to enlist the help of motion picture visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), who digitally recreated the majority of New York cityscape used in the film, as the films climatic battle scene in based in New York. However, practical realities meant that New Yorks 42nd street could not be used for filming, and Clevelands East 9th Street was therefore chosen as a double.
In contrast, slightly different constraints effect TWTC, naturally, as it is a different type of film compared to AA. As TWTC is a realist film, with the intention of faithfully representing real life events of 9/11, the production of the film has in mind that the 9/11 attacks, and terrorism are a sensitive topic. This is especially considering that in TWTC actors portray real life people, with families, who died. Therefore, these constraints lead the producers of the film to take special appropriate measures to ensure no offence is caused by those affected by the 9/11 attacks in real life, meeting with all relevant 9/11 victims groups before production began to inform them of their intention of the film. Additionally, the Port Authority police officers (in which the film is centred around) and their wives were involved with the writing of the screenplay and production, officer John McLoughlin’s wife Donna stating “We got involved because we felt it needed to be done accurately. We wanted to do the right thing and I think the filmmakers wanted to do the right thing too.” 8 However, the film received backlash from 9/11 victims and critics alike, with critic Shari Graydon stating that films based around tragedies such as 9/11 “tend not to increase our understanding or make us better equipped to deal with situations such as these in the future,”9 adding that “such films only serve to increase the ‘culture of fear’ in certain parts of the United States.”9 Wife of Dominick Pezzulo, an officer who died trying to free McLoughlin and his partner Jimeno, told the Seattle Times that Jimeno’s decision act as a close adviser to Director Oliver Stone, considering he earned over $200,000 for his services, was hurtful, saying “My thing is: this man died for you. How do you do this to this family?” 10 This case reflects one of the realities and constraints of making realist films about real life disasters, in the sense that the films producers tried to be as respectful as possible with regards to the way the story was told, allowing the film, in part, to be shaped by the people who the film was based on. Despite these efforts, there was criticism of the film, which is due to the topic covered. Also, the film received criticism for ‘whitewashing’ by casting white actor William Mapother as marine Sergeant Jason Thomas, who in real life is of African American descent, with Thomas telling reporters “If you’re going to tell a story, you should try to get it as accurate as possible.”11
Another reality/constraint that is applicable to TWTC is the reputation of the films director, Oliver Stone. Stone is well renowned for producing realist works regarding 20th century America (Platoon, Nixon) that are of a political tone. Another film of this ilk is 1991’s ‘JFK.’ The film was essentially a conspiracy fuelled look at the death of President John F Kennedy, and despite the film relying on countless fabrications to build its case, the American Congress pass The JFK Assassination Records Collection Act in response, as the Assassination Records Review Board State – “While the movie was largely fictional, the information that Stone conveyed in the movie’s closing trailer was true: the HSCA had reinvestigated the murder and issued a provocative report, but their records were sealed until the year 2029. Stone suggested at the end of JFK that Americans could not trust official public conclusions when those conclusions had been made in secret. Congress passed legislation — the JFK Act — that released the secret records that prior investigations gathered and created.” (Tunheim, J. (1998) Final Report of the Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board. Philadelphia: DIANE Publishing, Page 1)12 This unprecedented instance reflects that films, especially of a political nature, can have real world impact. Therefore, with this knowledge, and being aware of his political reputation in the industry, Stone insisted that TWTC was ‘not a political film’, a message shared by the producers Paramount Pictures, who marketed the film as a ‘human story.’ Furthermore, Stone will have been conscious that people viewing the film would be aware of his career, and the fact that he has never been afraid to tackle sensitive subjects of US history in a controversial manner with his films. And as TWTC was produced only 4 years after 9/11, with fear of terrorism firmly near the front of the American psyche, Oliver and the producers made efforts to make the film about interpersonal relationships between the characters of the film, set to the backdrop of the factual event of 9/11, and therefore refrained from any use of news footage of the planes colliding with the towers. This instance reflects how constraints helped shape TWTC’s portrayal of terrorism/9/11.
To conclude, both films share the basic principle that terrorism, being a threat to peoples lives and liberty, is evil, although that through co-operation, spirit and will, justice can prevail against evil. Furthermore, both plots feature American ‘heroes’ (AA with the Avengers themselves and TWTC with the police officers) who fight, and eventually succeed against an exterior evil and morally corrupt force (Loki in AA and Al Qaeda in TWTC). TWTC directly addresses the issue of terrorism, as it is a realist film centred around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, therefore able to be more effective in its message that terrorism can foiled, using the real life example of American heroism displayed by the police officers to project a powerful anti- terrorism and 9/11 message to the audience. In contrast, AA is less direct in its nod towards terrorism, due to the constraints of it being a superhero genre film, although certain deliberate choices made (such as placing the avengers climactic, and ultimately triumphant battle in Manhattan, the site of the 9/11 attacks) reflect their intention to make the readers subconsciously draw parallels between the mass carnage and destruction of 9/11 and the very same of AA. Crucially, however, through having a huge budget allowing the effective digitalisation of New York, and a powerful all star cast, whose characters place emphasis on being humane and righteous, director Joss Whedon is able to give the viewers an ‘American triumph’ on a ‘battleground’ where thousands had previously died due tot he threat of terrorism.
1 BORMAN, M. et al. (2006). The World Trade Centre. Hollywood, CA, Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
2 FEIGE, K., et al. (2012). Marvel’s the Avengers. Burbank, CA, Distributed by Buena Vista Home Entertainment.