For a visceral indication of how much the world has changed in the past year, consider this: It has been less than one year since Avengers: Endgame hit theatres. The film, which would eventually end up earning $2.798 billion globally, came out in April 2019. Don’t the Avengers feel like they belong to the past? Don’t they feel completely irrelevant to the present? Who cares about the Marvel Cinematic Universe anymore?
This is an incredibly sudden and peculiar development. Understandably, global lock-down and social distancing measures play a major role. Millions of people need to be able to freely move around to make Marvel profitable. The first film of “Phase 4,” Black Widow, was originally set for release in May 2020, but is now postponed and without a release date because of COVID.
Also notable is the near complete absence of the MCU from social media advertising, at least from my vantage. Ads for the Disney+ streaming service have been ubiquitous on my Twitter feed, but they nearly all focus on Star Wars-related properties or the questionably titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. I don’t remember seeing a single ad for the roster of MCU films and series that supposedly live on Disney+.
Given the themes of the last two Avengers movies, it feels like there should be at least a few dark memes about Thanos and the “Snap.” Infinity War and Endgame were about an eco-fascist galactic super-villain’s pursuit of the power to exterminate half the universe’s population to ensure the security of the remainder. It is not a spoiler to say that Thanos was stopped by the Avengers, a team of super-heroes that now numbers somewhere in the high double-digits. Again, from where I stand, no such memes have gone viral, if they exist at all. Perhaps the idea of a cold, survival-driven organism erasing half of all humanity hits too close to home right now.
In a March 28 New York Times piece, the Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith points out that Shakespeare’s work barely makes reference to the plagues that defined his England. She suggests that the plague killed without regard to social, gender, and personal differences; in contrast, or perhaps in response, Shakespeare emphasizes individuality and the differences among people: his tragedies “underscore the significance and distinctiveness of the individual even as they move him inexorably toward his end. [Tragedy] does not defy death; it re-endows it with meaning and specificity.”
The MCU may not be Shakespeare for our times, but it could mark the vacuum into which one might appear. The appetite for apocalyptic stories is unlikely to fade, but ones in which superhuman saviours solve them will become unpalatable. Tony Stark’s talent for instant tech fixes are beyond complete fantasy next to the global respirator shortage and 12-18 month timeline for a vaccine. No amount of scrappy synergy between the Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy can ensure widespread compliance with lock-down protocols. If Captain America exists, he is drunk at the wheel and would have little to say about social distancing even if he weren’t. He’s always been most effective in close-quarters combat. If the Marvel superheroes once embodied hope for the masses, their powers now more than ever look like tools for ensuring the survival of the elite.
The MCU political philosophy has always been one of trickle down justice played out as public spectacle. The Marvel superheroes cannot be effective without a mass audience, both in-world and out. If nobody can go out to see the spectacle, then there can be no justice. Try to imagine Thor on e-mail, let alone Zoom. He becomes a joke. (“Send a raven!”)
The difference between Shakespeare’s plague and COVID-19 is that COVID-19 does not kill without regard for social, gender, and personal differences. By any measure, COVID has already had a staggering human cost. But for now, it remains common knowledge that COVID kills the elderly and infirm at a much higher rate than other groups. And as long as lock-downs and “social distancing” remain the preferred public health weapons against it, COVID will have a disproportionate effect on the poor while the more affluent can afford to get on Netflix and wait out the storm at home. (Read this horrifying Twitter thread about the worsening situation at the prison on New York’s Rikers Island.)
As a health risk, COVID seems to strike hardest within a narrow range. However, (if we define “universal” as the past global audience of Marvel films) COVID is a nearly universal social and psychological contagion. It has entrapped or threatens to entrap a significant proportion of the world’s population at home. The counter-move to this entrapment is the further intensification of digital social connections among these homes. Not only are we seeing homes turned into workspaces, but these homes are then put on display as both a sign of solidarity and of ongoing productivity. Tertiary industries have suddenly become cottage industries.
Post-industrial productivity, biological health, post-liberal morality, digitally-mediated social relations, and myriad forms of “home” spaces are imploding into a form, template, or diagram for “normal” social relations that is likely to persist in partial form post-plague. It is this diagram and not “bare life” in relation to which people will be coerced and incited to mold themselves as subjects.
Tony Stark’s wealth and genius are military-industrial rather than Silicon Valley-startup. Thor is immortal. Captain America is virtuous but in the style of the “Greatest Generation.” The Incredible Hulk is not as persuasive on Skype. This is why so many of these heroes feel a bit archaic already, and it’s why people will be looking elsewhere for escape.
If any of the Marvel Cinematic superheroes continues to flourish, I think it will be Spider-Man. Movie executives seem totally unwilling to leave Spider-Man alone. But in addition, I think he fits the new diagram. Yes, he has super-strength etc., but he is a normal geek kid with fairly normal kid aspirations and interests. In his most recent incarnations, Spider-man would be completely comfortable on Youtube or TikTok, and it’s likely that he’s headed towards a decent college and an unpaid internship. He also has a stable and happy home and is local. He is of New York. The others could be from anywhere—it wouldn’t affect their stories at all.
With the exception of Spider-man all of the Marvel superheroes are homeless. And if you’re homeless, where are you going to self-isolate?