Unfortunately, the apocalypse arrived earlier than expected. Superheroes can fight near-Nazi secret conspiracies, invade aliens and Android armies. But they are ill-equipped to fight the coronavirus. The superheroes on the screen have saved the world many times. But in this real-life crisis, the vision of empowering the MCU through a partnership to blow things up seems terribly inadequate.
The coronavirus has wreaked havoc in the film industry. Like most major releases, MCU films scheduled for spring and summer have been delayed until fall, or postponed until next year. Black Widow was moved from May 1 to November 6, and the new date will mean the longest break between MCU releases since The Incredible Hulk (2008), followed two years later by Iron Man 2.
The date changes reflect the logistical challenges of showing films at the moment. Beyond that, however, the genre of superheroes does not seem relevant in a pandemic. Superheroes have always received the punch and the whoosh, not by illness but by war. The first huge success in the superhero genre came soon after the start of the Second World War. In one of his first adventures, Superman, the first superhero, captured Hitler and Stalin to end the war. Other patriotic heroes such as Captain America and Wonder Woman dressed in red and white and blue regularly beat the Nazis and Japanese infiltrators on the home front.
Superhero comics in the war years could sell hundreds of thousands of copies per issue – a level of popularity that the genre never saw before the “war on terror” after September 11. Iron Man (2008) showed Tony Stark detonating evil terrorists in the eternal war in Afghanistan, while Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019 imagined that our hero was taking control of an even more powerful drone army than the United States’ own deadly stocks. In the 11 years between these two films, the MCU franchise has grossed $ 22.5 billion.
The appeal of wartime superheroes is simple. They are a fantasy of empowerment, violence and victory. The MCU storylines may be more or less intelligent, but the movies are based on images of muscular men and women who hit or detonate a large number of bad guys until the bad guys fall, or stand up to be hit. and dynamited even more. MCU stories, with their ceaseless crossovers and teams, speak of powerful people who band together to chase snot out of their enemies. They are popular in times of militarism because their approach to problems is militaristic. There are enemies out there, and you defeat them with a combination of unity and overwhelming force.
But overwhelming force is of little use against a virus, and teaming up physically is dangerous. Invulnerable superheroes race long distances to confront their enemies in an endless and glorious battle. On the other hand, our viral response involves immobilization, isolation and forced inactivity as the economy collapses and we look forward to starting coughing. Instead of giving power to punches, we are called to help others and ourselves by deliberate self-helplessness.
If there is heroism, it is heroism to persevere because everyone becomes less super. Disaster movies like Contagion or zombie movies are too hectic to capture our apocalypse of stillness. But they are much closer than the superhero stories. It’s hard to imagine yourself saving the world when you can barely imagine leaving home to visit your loved ones.
So, will the virus finally take the wind out of the superhero genre cape? The answer is probably no. It is true that even before the virus hit, there were signs that the superhero craze might be slowing down – DC’s Birds of Prey, released earlier this year, for example, was a financial disappointment. But the American wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East continue, despite the tentative peace proposals. And fans certainly remain excited about the next MCU sequels.
The coronavirus will not end the MCU permanently. But the forced break is a reminder that superheroes as a genre frame problems and solutions in a specific way, responding to specific historical conditions. Iron Man can snap his fingers and take out Thanos’ invading army. But there is little it can do when a bad government response exposes the public to a dangerous pandemic. It is normal for superheroes to be silent at this time. They were never designed to save us from it.