The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From the debt ceiling and the shutdown to Superman and Pacific Rim, our apocalypse problem

Thank heavens you’re here! We almost defaulted! (Warner Bros via Associated Press)

We have an apocalypse problem.

Nowadays, it seems as though any time people want your attention, they threaten to destroy the world. You can’t have a simple movie in which a villain comes from outer space and threatens, say, a library in a non-capital city. No, no. It’s always the world. Look at last summer’s blockbusters: Man of Steel, the Avengers, Star Trek. Gone are the antagonists with concrete, achievable objectives, such as replacing Detroit with a big shark or defeating Captain America in the Pan-Galactic Concerned-Looking Spandex Hunks Charity Calendar Dance-Off. Gone are the heroes who want to accomplish anything other than keep the entire dang place from vanishing in the blink of an eye. Never mind saving small children from wells, or rehabilitating the space whales, or even saving the cat. Fly up there and destroy that mothership, now. Don’t mind the collateral damage. Do what you have to do to keep the world from ending.

This could not be a more blatant metaphor for the Debt Ceiling/Shutdown Fiasco if it tore off all its clothes and danced naked through the streets shouting, “I AM A BLATANT METAPHOR FOR THE DEBT CEILING! KONY 2012!” But still.

I don’t like the apocalypse trope in my movies. I like it even less in my government. Just once I want someone to set a manageable goal and reach it without fearing that a class-four dinosaur monster from another dimension is going to devour Alaska and render Earth uninhabitable. Is that really so much to ask?

Apparently, yes.

I understand, in theory, the High Non-Election-Year Drama appeal of a struggle in which Total Default Worldwide Economic Meltdown looms on one side of the horizon and The Pale Invidious Doom-Bearing Rider Of Obamacare towers on the other, but if I wanted to see Hideous Apocalyptic And To Some Degree Fictional Monsters battle it out, I’d rewatch Pacific Rim. That film was okay.

And maybe we dodged it this time. Monday night found the Senate Democratic and Republican leaders in an optimistic position for a resolution on the debt ceiling and the government shutdown.

Apocalypse, perhaps, averted.

But at a certain point, high drama stops being drama. It’s not the end of the world if it’s always the end of the world. Oh, no, we say. Not this again. If apocalypses get threatened every Tuesday without fail, you start to feel blasé about them. I go to superhero movies and sometimes find myself rooting against the Earth. “Just blow it up,” I say. “That’ll really send a strong message to the markets.” No, I’m sorry, that’s not me. That’s Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.).

That’s the real trouble with this constant state of Doom and Chaos: the risk of apocalypse fatigue. You cry enough times about the horrible, hideous, unthinkable damage that the wolf is going to do, and finally someone says, “Okay, bring on the wolf.” One of our most unshakable beliefs is that the world won’t end. Even the people who actively prepare for the Apocalypse, parting with and stocking up on worldly and canned goods, respectively, don’t imagine that the world is actually going to vanish. If that’s the case, you don’t need bottled water. Sure, a spaceship manned by Ancient Maya might show up, but you’ll live, and you’ll be glad you bought those refried beans in bulk. How bad can it be? You construct your ark and wait.

But then the world doesn’t end. Someone mans the dike. They resume negotiations. The cloud passes. By hook or by Hero-Flying-Off-Somewhere-With-An-Atomic-Bomb-Clutched-To-His-Person, we avoid the cataclysm. And every time the predicted End of Things passes without incident, you can’t suppress the creeping notion that well, it might not have been so awful after all. A little default might be salutary. Maybe the radiation of a nuclear apocalypse would have given us all superpowers!

And that’s a dangerous place to be.