The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the sprawling network of interconnected superhero films that is now the most lucrative movie franchise of all time, is a valuable argument in favor of how Americans responded to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. By contrast, the DC Comics superhero movies Zack Snyder made for Warner Brothers — the last of which was re-released last week on HBO Max — provide a grimmer, but further-reaching suggestion for an alternate history, one in which people respond to calamity by radically reexamining their sense of how the world works.
In the real world, the idea that a small group of fanatically committed terrorists could bring down a pair of iconic buildings and seriously damage the Pentagon armed with nothing more than boxcutters and suicidal determination was a shock. Being a superpower, it turned out, didn’t make a country invulnerable. But with the benefit of two decades worth of hindsight, it looks like that spasm went only so deep.
Lawmakers created the Transportation Security Administration. The military turned the same old war zones into the same old quagmires. The Department of Homeland Security was a new bureaucracy, but not one that represented a new idea of how to keep the country safe. But America didn’t radically reevaluate any of its core assumptions, at home or abroad.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the revelations that drive the plots likewise ought to have reverberated more deeply. If Donald Trump’s presidency can spawn something like QAnon, shouldn’t the news that superpowered humans, Asgardian gods and extra-dimensional aliens really do exist — and that they’re all going to slug it out here on Earth — have driven ordinary people to some sort of extreme reaction?
That isn’t what happens. Instead, new bureaucracies like the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, better known as S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division proliferate. They’re riffs on DHS, of course, with the fictional Hydra swapped out for al-Qaeda. Even the Blip, in which the supervillain Thanos magically eliminates half the world’s population is reversed after five years without much dwelling on such a global trauma.
The parallel isn’t hard to tease out. Both the vision that a lot of Americans have about themselves and the slick consistency that undergirds the Marvel Cinematic Universe depend on the idea that nothing will ever really change. The Marvel universe is the most dominant entertainment property in the world because audiences know exactly what they’re going to get from it: a world in which order is always neatly restored after catastrophe.
Compare that perspective to the worldview of Zack Snyder’s stranger, more disturbing and less successful trilogy of Superman movies, “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and the recently reshot and re-released “Justice League.”
In Snyder’s stories, the revelation of god-like superheroes is a fundamentally traumatic experience for Earth. The destruction wrought by their clashes is terrible. Billionaire Bruce Wayne tries to defeat Superman and then to replace him, while tech genius Lex Luthor takes advantage of a radically altered world to attempt to fast-track scientific change. And any peace the characters win is fragile: Superman’s existence made Earth aware of a wider universe that’s too big and dangerous for humans to master, or even understand, all at once.
If the details of the Snyder-verse are bizarre, the sense of dislocation is almost more familiar than Marvel’s cheery commitment to reassurance. The contagion that’s brought the world to a standstill over the past year looks a lot more like the threats conceived by Snyder than the ones quickly dispatched by Marvel’s superheroes. It’s still not clear where and how the novel coronavirus originated. Its power to wreak havoc on the human body is not yet fully understood. The virus is still changing, turning people into the laboratories where it perfects its malevolence and reach.
And like in Snyder’s movies, this calamity has called a tremendous number of things into question, from whether offices are truly necessary, to the forms of social supports our government can provide to citizens, to the extent humanity actually has dominion over the earth.
It may be comforting to imagine living in a world like the one in the Marvel movies. But the covid-19 pandemic suggests that Snyder’s unsettling vision may have more to say about our reality — and what it demands of all of us.