What do two recent movies, “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” have in common (besides superheroes)? Hint: It has something to do with one of the mainstays of popular culture over the last half century.
The correct answer here would be “the bomb.” Both movies in their climaxes illustrate a metropolis threatened by the possibility of a nuclear explosion. Both cities are saved (in the knick of time, of course) from the horrors and terror of a nuclear detonation. And both movies are a reminder that more than sixty years after the first atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear threat still dominates our collective, popular subconscious.
The question is, to what extent? The presence of a nuclear weapon in both movies highlights the very real threat we still face twenty years after the end of the Cold War. But both movies add more to the debate than just the usual nuclear narrative of “weapon threatens city, superhero/government agent/individual stops weapon in knick of time”. In “The Avengers,” a nuclear weapon is the most imminent threat to New York City even when the movie’s characters are battling an energy force (the “Tesseract”) that is supposedly far more powerful and dangerous, in addition to the fact that the US government (in the movie) is secretly attempting to weaponize this new energy source. Perhaps some observers walked away from the movie feeling thankful that a power like the Tesseract isn’t real. But the real lesson is that we don’t need the Tesseract (or a similar energy force) to be afraid. We have that frightening, weaponized energy source already, and we’ve had it for over sixty years.
“The Dark Knight Rises” introduces a different but equally urgent realization: nuclear terrorism is a very real (and very frightening) possibility. Bane and his accomplices might not waltz into New York City (or any other populated area) tomorrow and transform a source of peaceful, nuclear energy into a (literal) time bomb, but there are real individuals out there who are dedicating time and resources to the acquisition of nuclear materials. The grim truth is that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have vocalized their desire to obtain a nuclear weapon or fissile materials like highly-enriched uranium and plutonium. The even grimmer fact is that it would not take the theft and delivery of a nuclear weapon on US soil to make nuclear terrorism a reality. Any act of nuclear terrorism anywhere could cause chaos. A dirty bomb—a non-nuclear explosion that causes minimal direct damage or death but also disperses radioactive material—would be enough. The real point of a dirty bomb isn’t to cause damage or death (though hundreds or thousands would succumb to radiation poisoning, and those people and buildings in the immediate vicinity of the explosion would suffer according to the strength of the blast). The real point of a dirty bomb is to terrorize—to create fear and trauma and to shatter any illusion we have of being safe and secure.
If a dirty bomb can cause so much fear, then what would an actual nuclear explosion do?
It’s a question that shouldn’t have to be answered by example. It shouldn’t take an act of nuclear terrorism to finally alert governments and citizens to its dangers and possibilities. Yet few people outside of the policy world(and even some inside) remain unconvinced of the threat from nuclear terrorism. Yet the fear of a nuclear event is certainly engrained in us. All it takes is a look at “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” to know that the fear of a nuclear explosion is still very much at the forefront of our collective subconscious.
But how do we pull that fear from our subconscious and place it squarely in our everyday consciousness? Has pop culture, in a way, desensitized us? We are trained to remember that movies are just movies, especially when they are superhero movies. Batman doesn’t exist. Iron Man and Captain America don’t exist. Therefore, their worlds don’t exist. Even if the directors, writers, and actors of these movies seek desperately to send a message to the audience—This world and it’s problems are real! They’re right outside your theaters!—the message seems to get lost on us, especially those of us too young to remember the Cold War.
But if pop culture is the problem (or part of the problem), then what could be the solution? Might the solution lie in a different approach to the popular culture of the bomb? There are no easy answers. If pop culture were to be part of the solution, it would do well for us to learn from the popular culture of the past. It also seems necessary for us to change the way we use pop culture. Superhero movies, for all their popularity, are too fantastic—too unrealistic—when it comes to issues that this world faces everyday. People go to the movies to “escape” their everyday lives. In believing that these movies and their subject matter are an escape, moviegoers in turn begin to believe that nothing in these movies can be real. Many people—especially those in the younger generations—have seen a computer-generated nuclear explosion on the silver screen, but how many have ever seen footage of an actual nuclear explosion? What would happen if we started playing the films of actual nuclear tests in theaters? Would people begin to realize that we don’t need a Tesseract or a Bane to feel fearful for our safety and our way of life?
This question can’t be answered now. It is likely that raising awareness of nuclear threats will not be so simple as revamping our popular culture. But when politics (and even news media) can’t do the job, pop culture could step in. This is not just a thought for future policymakers but also for future artists—for future comic book artists, novelists and directors. Most people don’t watch C-SPAN after a long day of work or school (or both), but they may watch a movie or read a book. We cannot afford to ignore the powerful role our popular culture plays in educating us about international security, just as we cannot afford to ignore the fact that nuclear threats don’t end when the credits roll.
(To get a brief understanding of the threat of nuclear terrorism, read this fact sheet compiled by the Fissile Materials Working Group.)
Audrey Williams is a political science student at the University of Iowa. Her studies and extracurriculars have focused on issues of international security, particularly on nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear material security, and counterterrorism. You can find her twitter activity here. She is the founder of This Nuclear Age.