They left us.
For the last twenty years, American pop culture has delved deeper into the worlds of superheroes. As Marvel and DC made stories that started with acclaim and ended with struggles (such as the first Batman movies, Spider-Man, and the X-Men), our appetites increased for these heroic figures. Once Marvel got its momentum right with Iron Man, the sky was the limit for superhero films.
In spring 2019, eleven years of built-up of storytelling culminated with Avengers Endgame, the biggest movie of all time and a cultural landmark. Fans would ask each other, “What did you think when Captain America held Mjolnir?” as if we all knew what a Mjolnir was before the first Thor movie came out.
This set the stage for more heroic action. Marvel set 2020 as the year for Black Widow and The Eternals. Meanwhile, for summer 2020, DC scheduled Wonder Woman’s triumphant return to the big screen.
They didn’t come.
Virus versus superhero films
By a bizarre global plot twist, a virus from one corner of the world proved the kryptonite for whole cinematic superhero universes. Repeatedly, Marvel’s Russian assassin and DC’s Amazon of Themyscira fell back under relentless attack. Finally, Wonder Woman decided to stand her ground on Christmas Day, having relinquished a stronghold in the cinemas for the company streaming service, trying to rally the fan forces even when so many theaters are closed. Meanwhile, Black Widow is holding out hope that May of 2021 will have better fortune.
In a year where people desperately looked for heroic inspiration, they couldn’t look to the silver screen.
Then something incredible began to happen.
Non-super heroes prove essential
It began when health care workers faced terrible strain, fighting coronavirus outbreaks in Italy and New York. People took notice and more often called them “heroes.” They saw life and death challenges—so common on the big screen—repeating in hospitals worldwide.
Then we recognized that many people who worked outside their homes did not have a choice of quarantining. These we labeled “essential workers.” Grocery store clerks had to stand strong in the face of an unseen enemy. Workers in meat and toilet paper factories had their secret identities exposed when society required their skills and training more than ever.
Throughout 2020, we’ve recognized many people in all walks of life whose faithfulness in daily lives keep our society running. Perhaps, if we had our typical distractions, we’d still acknowledge our neighbors’ sacrifice and hard work. But perhaps onscreen superheroes sitting out the year has allowed us to shine the light on the true heroes that walk among us.
Now in the new year, COVID-19 vaccines promise even stronger defenses against the foe. Life should begin a slow return to normal in 2021. However, even when we get to enjoy these escapist movies in a theater again, cheering for the latest superheroes from Marvel and DC, I hope we remember lessons from “the year we’d like to forget.”
True heroes serve their world, even when it’s hard, and the cliché is true: they don’t always wear capes.