Business As Usual: The Post-Apocalyptic Relief of Superhero Movies

The theologian Karl Barth is cited by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben as a way of explaining how humanity can remain adaptable in conditions such as the concentration camps of World War Two. Barth noted in 1949’s Church Dogmatics¬†that ‘on the morning after the Day of Judgement – if such a thing were possible – every cabaret, every nightclub….would resume business to the best of its ability..’.

Which got me thinking about The Avengers, obviously.

In 2012’s The Avengers movie, the tentpole installment of the ever-continuing Marvel movie franchise which has taken over the cultural zeitgeist and sees no sign of stopping, the city of New York is laid to waste in the third act. Fine, it’s not exactly building-collapsing, there will be more of that later, but alien invaders come out of a wormhole and try to blow up New York. Which couldn’t be more on the nose as a wish-fulfillment alternative history for 9/11.

It didn’t make me entirely uncomfortable when I was watching it, because this idea of 9/11 and superhero films didn’t cement in my mind until the jaw-dropping finale of 2013’s Man of Steel,¬†where the lantern-jawed Superman pummels his way through Metropolis, a stand-in for New York and every major city, before finally snapping the neck of his arch foe General Zod, who is also an alien invader of sorts. I mean, really. This time we had buildings crashing about everywhere. I was supposed to leave the cinema full of hope, not PTSD flashbacks.¬†

What gives? Most, if not all superhero films before 9/11 had a villain threatening to blow up the city, yes, but I don’t recall entire city centres being levelled to dust. You don’t see a single body crushed under the dirt and rubble, but in their fun and frolics beating up the bad guys, it’s fair to say both Superman and The Avengers were responsible for the deaths of a few million people.

What is the price we’re paying, and why are we so numb to this distraction? Sure, we’ve had sequels where the titular superheroes navel-gaze mournfully on whether they’re doing more harm than good, but half an hour in, they’re armoured up and ready for the next beat-down, and of course we’re all cheering. These movies are not going away anytime soon.

The answer does seem to lie, I think, with Karl Barth, and specifically with the serialised aspect of these movies. We could perhaps argue that as a society we are now numb to the effects of urban destruction from an outside threat, for example, and I think that is partly true. Who cares if The Joker is standing on a giant cartoon bomb you know he will never set off, if in real life an arena full of children can be targeted for destruction, and a child himself is the one pushing the detonator? We know the reality of violence, and it’s been framed within the buildings we inhabit and venerate.

Back to Barth, however, and the nature of sequels. As he argues, what we want is for life to go on. It doesn’t matter that Superman levels the city, with a few million nobodies disappearing in the process. Lois Lane is okay, General Zod is disposed of, the city rebuilds itself bigger and better than before, and Superman can continue to protect us. We know from reality that not everyone can be saved, that buildings will fall, but the important part if we continue to see what happens next.

Perhaps that’s why dystopias are so sexy right now too. The world doesn’t really end, we still survive to tell a story and vanquish the villain. Who cares about the collateral? It’s interesting to see Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games as a role model. Who wants to be Katniss? Not me. That world looks awful. Except being Katniss places you at the centre, selfishly, where the world may be going to shit around you but you can be good-looking, save the day, and star in the sequel.




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