The world has settled into an anxious hush, with noise levels created by humans estimated to have fallen 50 per cent by early summer. Some cacophonies will obviously be missed more than others. Nobody is mourning a decline in car-horns or house bangers pumping out of mobile phones. But there is one sound many of us dearly yearn to hear again: the “biff, bam, pow” of a superhero movie playing out in a packed cinema over the gentle crunch of pop-corn and the hiss of fizzy drinks.
With so many vital parts of the economy in hibernation as a result of the coronavirus it may seem preposterous to lament the absence this year of the usual big, brash spandex-wrapped blockbusters. Yet for the past two decades superheroes have become bound up in the tapestry of our summers. When days are long and temperatures soaring, there is no better refuge than a cool, dark multiplex and 120 minutes of men and women in tights setting the world to rights
Superhero flicks have been around since the Fifties, and begin in earnest in the late Seventies. Yet their dominance is really a 21st-century phenomenon, dating back to July 2000, with the original $300 million Ian McKellen v Patrick Stewart X-Men film. This imperial phase has carried through, without missing a beat, to last year when Avengers: Endgame ushered in the changing of the seasons in April and Spider-Man: Far From Home swung to the top of the box office in July.
In 2020, by contrast, there have been no caped crusaders. No quippy defenders of truth and justice. No cackling villains trying to obliterate civilisation in an obscure yet ingenious fashion. And for some of us things have been that much duller and emptier as a result.
Cineastes will scoff – as they have all the way back to Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman. Martin Scorsese has said that the superhero boom fills him “with terrible sadness”. Jodie Foster compared franchises such as Avengers to “fracking”, implying devastation from which there is no coming back.
Well, now they are having their way. And isn’t life that little bit more joyless? Academics have knotted their brows for years attempting to explain our love for superheroes and one of the theories is that people are hardwired to thrill to the sight of good guys winning the day. A 2017 Japanese study published in Nature magazine found six-month olds “recognise heroic acts” and are “innately drawn to figures who protect the weak”.
So when you stood up cheering and spilling popcorn all down your front as Captain America lifted Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, at the end of Avengers: Endgame you weren’t being manipulated by Hollywood. Rather your innate faith in human decency and resilience had kicked in.
Superhero movies also help us make sense of the complexities of our lives, according to clinical psychologist and author Robin Rosenberg. In a 2013 Smithsonian magazine article, she argued “superheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to”.
The first is trauma. Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down in front of him (by an actor badly made up to look like a young Jack Nicholson). Yet he comes out the other side of his pain stronger, braver – and devoted to helping others.
The second “life altering force” is destiny. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer, bluntly informed she is the Chosen One. She didn’t seek this role. It is pushed upon her and she must grow up more quickly than she would have chosen. Yet she does so and thrives.
And then there is sheer chance. Peter Parker is randomly bitten by a radioactive spider, his world upended. Again, the ultimate message is positive. The unexpected happens and plucky Peter deals with it. Few of us are likely to find ourselves whizzing around Manhattan shooting webs from our wrists (not while the airports are semi-shuttered at any rate). Yet we can all relate to the idea of a random event forcing us to reassess our priorities.
There will be no swinging from the rooftops this summer. The closest we have to a tentpole release is Russell Crowe channelling road rage in Unhinged. In the place where our annual infusion of blockbuster optimism normally resides, there is instead a Captain America-shaped void.
That may yet change. The X-Men era officially comes to an end in late August with the belated arrival of Maisie Williams’s The New Mutants (delayed since 2017 and the final chapter in the saga ahead of its absorption into the Disney/Marvel universe). Wonder Woman 1984 is tentatively pencilled in for October, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow for November.
Until then we’ll have to find our own way. In the darkest days of the lockdown, through March and April, I found myself compulsively rewatching the Marvel films, chronologically from Robert Downey Jr’s original 2008 Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame.
They were bright and bouncy – often silly and cartoonish. The good guys always won (until Thanos’s finger-snap) and the zingers usually landed. As the world turned small, grey and scary, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and the gang let the sunshine in. That is perhaps their greatest superpower of all.