Since Superman showed up on the scene there have been “humanity at stake” stories in the superhero comics/movie genre. Because of their awesome powers, superheroes have simply had to face equally or more daunting threats to strike a balance in the storylines. Even so, such extreme storylines weren’t the norm in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s or even 80s. Most of the stories were based on a threat to the hero themselves, their city or country. Fast forward to 2016; more superhero movies today are about a battle for the future of humanity.
Whether it be due to environmental destruction, heightened awareness of external threats like a meteor strike or massive solar flare or political, economic or religious fervor leading to a third world war, doom is in the air. In our hyper-connected modern world there is a growing sense that the survival of humanity is at stake in any given year.
While the threat to our survival is greater should a third world war ignite in earnest (some argue it has already begun), I’m not sold on things being as bad as they seem. There have been threats to humanity in every age. Large meteors and massive solar flares are not something new. They’ve always existed. At the end of each year we can count our blessings that these haven’t ended us or fried our beloved smart phones.
Consider the threat of global disease; though access to tools for making weaponized viruses and bacteria have never been greater, our ability to counter such threats has never been better. The likelier Spanish-flu-type epidemic or black plague scenario is also more in our control to contain, despite our global commerce and travel, than ever before.
So what is it that makes us worry more? A big contributor is a negative bias in media reporting. That’s not a criticism, just a reality. Negative headlines get ratings. Happy headlines get lesser ratings. Our biological tendencies make us more attentive to threats than opportunities. The ease with which information flows today potentially makes any child abduction a national headline. Every sensational crime story feels like it’s happening in our back yard. Bad news sells, so paper, television and internet news sites delver it by the terabyte.
Did you know murder, rape and child abductions are far below the rates in the late 70s? You may remember the 70s…when kids wandered the streets of their neighborhoods until streetlights came on with nary a parent in sight. The risks were twice as high as today, but people’s fears were lower. One might argue it was a case of ignorance is bliss, but if so, shouldn’t we feel safer now? Objectively…yes.
But there’s more to it than that. We have grown more dependent on increasingly complex systems to perform our everyday tasks. Most of us may not dwell on how complex our lives have become, but this new, more-fragile reality rears its ugly head when there is a power outage. Living our daily lives without technology is becoming increasingly difficult.
Money has become so digitized, some never touch it anymore. It’s convenient to never have to handle cash, but it also means it can disappear faster than ever before. The 2008 financial crisis reminded us how quickly our hard earned savings can be lost and our financial livelihoods threatened. This too has added to our sense of fragility.
The latest Avenger ensemble movie, Age of Ultron, mirrored recent musings by Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and other scientists about the dangers of creating a true artificial intelligence. In Age of Ultron, our two super-genius superheroes, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, attempt to harness an AI found in Loki’s scepter for a global defense system and unwittingly unleash a power they cannot control. In research labs and computer rooms around the world there may be genies lurking in proverbial bottles. This is a new kind of threat to humanity; one that superhero movie makers have latched onto and raised to new heights.
Perhaps the latest fear to gain more credibility is that, statistically speaking, it is unlikely we are alone in the universe. Since H.G. Wells gave us War of the Worlds, we’ve entertained the idea of aliens coming to kill us and take our precious fertile planet, but in the past decade we’ve learned habitable planets are far more common. The far out idea of alien invasion as a risk to our survival no longer seems so far out. A perusal of recent Marvel and DC Comic superhero movies confirms they haven’t missed the opportunity to capitalize on the alien invasion theme as well.
I can’t guess whether we’ve seen the pinnacle of the superhero genre. The over the top special effects and paper thin plots of several recent big-budget films may be a harbinger of a decline in the genre. Regardless, superhero movies will continue to be a reflection of us.