AFTER SEPT. 11, 2001, we were told that irony was dead. There would be no more raised eyebrows, tongues in cheek or knowing looks. A national catastrophe had made us all plain speakers and more direct in our emotional responses.
That high seriousness didn't last too long. Popular culture soon went on its way. On the television show "Friends," the twin towers were first airbrushed out of New York's cityscape so viewers wouldn't be reminded of what happened, and then put back in, perhaps to make sure they remembered. "Sex and the City" paid its tribute to 9/11, then moved on to more adventures of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, Miranda and Mr. Big.
During the Cold War, by contrast, pop culture had a deeper, if occasionally disguised, relation to what was happening in the world. Aliens from outer space were easy stand-ins for the Soviet enemy. Cold War anti-communism, with its pervasive suspicion of infiltrators, fifth columnists and other underhanded villains, spawned numerous films in which a terrifying monster lurked under an ordinary facade. If you were attuned to hidden messages, there wasn't much difference between "I Was a Communist for the FBI" and "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," or between "I Married a Communist" and "I Married a Monster From Outer Space."
Other shows were explicit, but satirical. In the 1960s, Maxwell Smart of the intelligence agency Control battled the evildoers from Chaos. On "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show," the villains were not disguised at all: Who could doubt the nationality of Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale?
But five years after 9/11, what effect have the attacks had on American popular culture? If you count only explicit works about the terrorist attacks, the answer is not very much. The movies "United 93" and "World Trade Center" only arrived this year.
Perhaps it's still too early to gauge 9/11's real effect on TV and the movies. James Jones' "From Here to Eternity," about the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, wasn't published until more than 10 years after Pearl Harbor. The film version, which won the Oscar for best picture, was released a few years later. Although some Vietnam War films — "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now," for example — appeared within five years of the signing of the Paris peace accords that ended the war, it was not until more than 15 years later that there were a sizable number of such films and that "Platoon" took the best picture Oscar.
A more important reason for the absence of a more visible 9/11-spawned pop culture may be that the two most memorable events of that day — thousands of innocents dying in New York and a group of randomly thrown together people on a plane finding the capacity for self-sacrificing heroism — don't easily fit pop culture story lines. The disaster genre, as in "The Towering Inferno" or "The Poseidon Adventure," comes closest. But works in that genre typically involve moral rewards and punishments. Although it's not always the immoral who die, immorality or lack of faith definitely ups your chances. Such an allegory of divine retribution is totally out of place in a post9/11 world, in which events often underscore the arbitrariness of what happens to innocents.
Politically, the Bush administration is fond of defining the war with radical Islam as an absolute conflict between good and evil, a kind of Cold War Manichaeism. "The Lord of the Rings," with its barely hidden religious subtext, certainly reflects that apocalyptic perspective.
But even in "The Lord of the Rings," something vital has changed from the way such either-or battles were staged 50 or more years ago. Now there are many villains and many heroes, including one who must struggle with others and with himself before he succeeds. It's not much of a leap from Frodo to what is perhaps the only lasting post-9/11 hero — Jack Bauer of "24." Both characters have survival skills, and Bauer is especially good at improvisation in the most dangerous of situations. But there is also an inescapable ordinariness about them. Whatever Bauer gains from technology (and it fails as often as not), he is vulnerable. He has family, he has friends, he has problems.
Bauer is no James Bond — the quintessential pop cultural hero of the Cold War era — with a license to kill, always whipping out one of Q's fancy gadgets at the right moment and always ready for a bit of quickie romance while the villain cools his or her heels. And what villains Bond had! Dr. No, Goldfinger and Pussy Galore, all bent on conquering the world.
Bauer, by contrast, is constantly on the brink of being destroyed, only to rise like a phoenix, coming back from one seeming deadly catastrophe after another, bruised, battered but still going. If he has any pop-cultural predecessors, they are the heroes of 1930s serials, when the hero was always in dire straits at the end of every episode but lived to be heroic again.
Fallible heroes and superheroes, like Spider-Man, are the vogue in the pop cultural world today, and they less often stand alone than step out hesitantly from the crowd or vanish into it. In Steven Spielberg's remake of "The War of the Worlds," Ray Ferrier, the Tom Cruise character, has two children, and he can hardly protect them. In the 1953 version, Gene Barry's Clayton Forrester only had a girlfriend to deal with. In the post9/11 world, survival or death with honor seem to be our main choices, and the strongest memory we carry away from Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" is how nothing in the vast U.S. arsenal, and no one in political or military authority, can stop the dreaded aliens. In part, this was the message of the 1953 film and H.G. Wells' original story. But Spielberg's version, in the context of hot wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, concludes that survival is a matter of dumb luck.
Perhaps the disconnect between the events of 9/11 world and pop culture is in part caused by the fact that we are constantly told that the war on terror is just like the Cold War. Turning Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden into a Stalin-type mega-villain has its consolations: There is someone running things and, if we just get that person, all will be solved.
Last year's Oscar winner for best picture, "Crash," has a Cold War flavor to it. The film ends by revealing that there is a pattern beneath the seeming chaos of individual lives, although that pattern is personal rather than political. But even though a more realistic film such as "Syriana" looks for explicit political patterns, there is no one in charge, just interlocking and endless relationships.
The 9/11 attacks may have dethroned irony, but complexity cannot be dismissed as artful sophistication. Even heavily used cinematic technical devices, such as morphing, imply that a hard-edged view of reality may not yield the best answers. The attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon opened up a world of vulnerability and interconnectedness for Americans. And we are still picking our way through the labyrinth. So far at least, even un-ironic stories haven't been very persuasive.