The superhero movie formula is simple. Hero appears to be riding high, hero is temporarily humbled by supervillain, hero regains the advantage and saves the day. Now, the real world has delivered a twist: The coronavirus pandemic makes these costumed heroes seem powerless.
Covid-19 has forced studios to postpone the release of some of their most lucrative movies and halt production on future installments of these ongoing series. Yet the threat the virus poses to superheroes isn’t limited to the immediate toll on the box office. When theaters reopen, will the fantasy that a few spandexed do-gooders can save us from disaster seem like a salve, or a sick joke?
This is a key question for Hollywood — or at least for its current business model — and it explains the industry’s reluctance to delay its spate of planned superhero movies even as China’s movie theaters went dark and it became clear the rest of the world would follow.
Given how profitable the superhero genre has proved to be, and the extent to which the profits from these movies underwrite the production of other, smaller movies, companies such as Disney were understandably reluctant to acknowledge the looming catastrophe. Delaying a movie, or shutting down a production that may employ hundreds of people, is no small financial sacrifice. Still, as the realities of the coronavirus’s spread and lethality became clear, and as movie theaters shut their doors in the name of public health, the studios retreated.
One question for Hollywood is how soon theaters can reopen; a related issue is whether audiences will have the confidence to sit in close proximity to strangers for an extended period of time. But there is a deeper question, too: After the recovery, will superheros, Hollywood’s most reliable breadwinners, still appeal to the moviegoers who once loved them?
Superheroes reliably come out on top in the movies in part because they tend to face off with the same kind of opponents over and over: brilliant individuals with diabolical plans who find a way to get a temporary drop on our costumed avengers before going down to ignominious defeat. Sure, some of those supervillains are bigger or badder than the norm — think Thanos’s desire to eliminate half of all life in the universe. But at a certain point, if the Avengers or the Justice League didn’t figure out how to beat the Red Skull or Lex Luthor, they’d hardly be worthy of their cowls and titles.
Viruses are very different from supervillains. They lack the ideological motivations that drive antagonists like General Zod, who squares off with Superman over their differences about how to treat humanity, or the charm of Marvel’s anti-heroic trickstergod, Loki. Pathogens have slightly more in common with the cannon fodder in the armies that constantly seem to be invading Earth in superhero movies, in that they are relentless, numerous and basically anonymous.
But even then, viruses can’t be Hulk-smashed into submission. They’re a different kind of enemy, more threatening and frightening than any of the fictional PG-13 threats superhero movies have offered us in recent years. And the skills and values necessary to defeat them, including scientific expertise, widespread community sacrifice and patience, aren’t the stuff of frenetic CGI spectacles.
There are pandemic stories in superhero comics that could be adapted for the screen, but even those parallels aren’t exact. These diseases are the creation of terrorists, or are personified by characters like Host, a mutant who can communicate with pathogens, all of whom can be defeated by conventional superheroic methods. Even stories that end with genius superheroes finding cures might leave audiences feeling bitter: The idea of a scientist like the Beast fast-tracking vaccine development is less a comforting fantasy than a reminder of a terrifying reality.
Maybe superhero movies will retain a kind of nostalgic pleasure as a reminder of a time when our greatest enemies were a small number of imaginary individuals with murderous agendas who could be defeated with a combination of detective work and force. But I suspect they’ll remind us of an innocence that is simply too much to bear.
In “Watchmen,” Alan Moore’s revisionist superhero comic, the disillusioned crimefighter Rorschach fantasizes about a day when ordinary people will ask him for the help they have refused, and he’ll be able to punish them by rejecting them in turn. Faced with a pandemic, it’s not so much that superheroes will look down on us and “whisper ‘No.’ ” It’s that, sadly, they never had the power to save us in the first place.
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