It is possible that we reached peak super hero saturation in 2019 with the release of the Avengers: End Game movie, the climatic finale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that successfully secured Hollywood’s enormous investment in the franchise by breaking all sorts of box office records in addition to the near-infinite possibilities of spin-offs, toys, tie-ins, and really really bad t-shirts for dads.
People professed to have cried at the movie’s climatic scene where all the heroes teleported in to fight Thanos in a deus ex machina befitting the finale for some of the worst written shlock to ever be produced in American film. And we all ate it up by a combination of nostalgia, social media neurological poisoning, and the unquenchable boredom that pervades a world where everything is remade ad infinitum. Plenty of us knew these movies were absolute garbage but went to see them anyways because what other choices did we have in 2019 at the movie theater? “Marriage Story”? Who the hell makes “Marriage Story” in 2019? Who the hell wants to watch Adam Driver act like a child as if it were profound, and in this one he doesn’t even have a lightsaber to soften the blow?
One person has refused to watch the MCU movies who ironically is partially responsible for their entrance into the mainstream as he himself acknowledges. Alan Moore, witchy anarchist nerd and writer of comics like The Watchmen, nailed the substance of the MCU movies on the head when he stated in a 2017 interview:
I think the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum.
Moore went on to say that the smattering of non-white heroes in the franchise did not change the fact that the movies had a white nationalist ideology, and made the controversial claim that infamous racist film Birth of a Nation was the first superhero movie.
The United States in 2019, in addition to reaching a peak in superhero movies, was also peaking generally in the kind of self-imposed state of emotional arrest described by Moore. The country continued its long and unquestioned exploitation of the Third World, to the point that rich celebrities like Beyonce could be celebrated as woke heroes while relying on the most abhorrent sweatshop labor to secure their millions and billions of dollars of wealth. Rather than taking the Trump presidency as an opportunity to reflect on our lack of ethical and social development, we instead lied to ourselves that Trump was an aberration on some great march forward into our manifest destiny. The Democratic primary for the presidential election featured candidates, save one, running on the idea that America was great prior to Trump and removing him was all that was necessary to regaining that greatness. And Democratic voters not only supported this idea, they supported it in its most pure form by voting for Joe Biden, a racist imbecile and creep who ran, and won, entirely on his association with President Obama.
2020 has not been 2019, to say the least. It was only January 3 of 2020 that the United States assassinated General Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was a hero to Iran and its people in a thoroughly non-Marvel movie sense of the word, so much so that Iran was able to somewhat successfully use the assassination to rally its people after the “Bloody November” protests that had started a couple of months before and had continued up until that date. Unlike the U.S., which no one had invited to occupy and bomb the Middle East, Soleimani was an Iranian who had successfully fought against the brutal terrorism of groups like ISIS and al-Nusra. Whatever you may think of him, the reasons why many people in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere consider him a hero are far more tangible than the accolades of most American “heroes.”
While the U.S. political establishment predictably supported the illegal (under both U.S. and international law) assassination fully, the reaction of the American people was less enthusiastic. The righteous fervor of responding to the September 11, 2001 attacks has entirely dissipated. The reality of what it means to be a global super power acting as police of the world has never been more clear due to social media as well as key gains by the U.S. Left in elected office who actually speak out rather than falling in line.
And then of course for most of the year we have had the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic ruthlessly progressed by every failure of U.S. social policy, from the dysfunctional for-profit healthcare system to the bipartisan commitment to austerity politics even in the greatest moments of crisis. It made the truth unavoidable that our misfortunes have less to do with our own personal failures than with the cold and unfeeling attitudes of the rich and powerful.
There were no heroes to save us. Black Panther literally died, and our culture’s other heroes made obnoxious videos that were the subject of public scorn (though Hollywood is doing its damnedest to rehabilitate racist Gadot for their new Wonder Woman movie). The cynical candidates for heroism pushed by the liberal political establishment, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Doctor Anthony Fauci, were both culprits in the severity of the pandemic for their respective failures to act quickly enough in deference to our inhumane capitalist economic system (far more excusable in the case of Fauci given his role, but nonetheless a reason to question his ascent to heroism). Many of the wealthy people who had spent most of their careers trying to tell us how normal they were despite all of their money simply fled to private islands, both literal and metaphorical. The pandemic slaughtered the most vulnerable among us, the most exploited and oppressed, and the response was simply to somberly shake heads and clap for medical workers working themselves to death.
Suddenly the individualism of super heroes, the übermenschen notion criticized by Alan Moore, was plainly untenable. So it was replaced by an individualism that my fellow lapsed Catholics will likely recognize — the individualism of suffering. The individualism of suffering was imposed through a combination of actual restrictions (in its most gruesome form, those dying alone and intubated in hospitals) and social reinforcement. COVID-19 nagging became a norm even as what precautions should actually be taken were constantly shifting. Social media was flooded with memes and other posts that were increasingly focused on our anxiety, boredom, health, and precarity.
Even the few moments of triumph seemed to be only brief collective experiences of joy amidst the dreariness of our isolation. We danced in the streets of New York City when it was announced that Donald Trump had lost the election, but the following day the few who were still celebrating seemed callous and garish, the wealthy liberals celebrating that they could return to brunch rather than that less civilians in Syria may die and less of our immigrant friends may be deported. Few if any were celebrating that Biden had won, let alone holding him up as a conquering hero in the way that someone like President Obama was.
With socialization being impossible save when mediated by the screens that now occupy our lives constantly, we sated ourselves with reflections of our loneliness. The rapper Zaia stood alone against a blank sky blue back drop in the album cover for his release “VERY ALONE,” with the title track sounding like it recorded the MC musing about his predicament stuck at the bottom of a well.
The TV show Queen’s Gambit followed the prodigy chess player protagonist through her pervasively-lonely life losing two mothers, her childhood best friend, a lover, and so on, either from inescapable death or simply abandonment. Her exceptional abilities do not make her a beloved superhero but instead an outsider. And so on and so forth.
This is not necessarily an improvement on superhero worship. After all, a populace focused on its own individual suffering is not going to be very good at forming collective identities, much less the mass movement needed to adopt the political changes we need. But it could be a necessary precursor to something better. The recent reaction to the meager stimulus package proposals slowly crawling through Congress provides some hope as people realize that they are separate and apart from a political establishment that does not care if they suffer. The idea of a $600 stimulus check seems to be Marx’s proverbial “price of the necessary means of subsistence” — just enough to keep enough of us alive to keep the wheels of the capitalist machine turning.
But on the other hand, there is Dolly Parton.
Dolly’s appearance in 2020 is either the resurgence of superhero individualism or its death knell. Super Dolly arrived on the scene in April touting that she made a $1 million donation to the medical center that would first synthesize the Moderna vaccine. This contribution was quickly blown out of proportion, largely by the impressively powerful PR machine that is Dolly Parton, and it has only gotten worse as the vaccine has begun to be rolled out. One of the worst headlines was in The Guardian which read “Dolly Parton helped fund a Covid vaccine. This isn’t the first time she’s saved us.”
Dolly Parton of course did not save us with a donation that is 0.1% of her estimated net worth and that comprised less than 0.1% of the amount of the total funding for the Moderna vaccine’s development. Most of that money, as well as for the development of the other COVID-19 vaccine candidates, came from the public via federal government funding. The vaccines have come too late to save any of the 1.67 million around the world who have already died. The vaccines were created by the work of thousands of people around the world. That work was possible because millions of “essential workers” continued to work in hazardous conditions, often without protective equipment or in places that did not mandate proper precautions. Dolly Parton did not save us — she gave us the equivalent of a dollar while passing by us on the street. Ordinary working class people have saved us despite near-constant opposition and bearing the majority of the burden of the pandemic.
At this point it may be clear that I’m going to be a real killjoy, especially to the “let people enjoy things” crowd. And maybe if it ended at the vaccine development donation I would not pick on Dolly; after all, she is one of my favorite country musicians and songwriters in general. The problem of the media obfuscating that federal funding does far more for us than private charity, especially the private charity of a handful of millionaires and billionaires, is a problem far older and broader than Dolly, so much so that 19th century lush Oscar Wilde wrote his own killjoy piece criticizing it.
But then we had the round of media to declare Dolly Parton the woke white auntie ally of the Black Lives Matter movement. Oh god did it get cringe. And it was especially concerning given that the Black Lives Matter protests this year were arguably the largest social movement in our country’s history and a rare pushback against the pervasive individualism of capitalist modernity. The movement managed to harness the collective power of ordinary people to effect major changes, shifting large amounts of funds from police to social services in cities and counties throughout the country. To make anyone a hero for just saying “Black Lives Matter” in 2020 was insulting to the millions who risked their lives on the streets facing down violent police forces to say with action that Black lives matter.
And of course, there was the Dixie Stampede. Oh Lorde there was the Dixie Stampede. But to talk about the Dixie Stampede we need to first talk about Dollywood. For those unacquainted with Dolly Parton’s landmark to herself, Dollywood, it is a theme park that holds up a mix of the antebellum South and hillbilly entertainment popularized by country musicians like Dolly as well as movies, TV shows, and so forth. Often touted by neoliberals as an example of the ideal solution (outside of learning to code of course) for other dilapidated Appalachian and rural areas, income in the area is less than half the national average despite having the highest sales in Tennessee, exceeding $4 billion in 2018.
The Dixie Stampede was an attraction at Dollywood aptly called “the Lost Cause of the Confederacy meets Cirque du Soleil.”
The attraction was changed in 2018 to just “Stampede” and threw out the Confederate references. It wasn’t the sole instance of Lost Cause romanticism in the park though, despite what might be apparent to an outsider relying on Google searches that just turn up a million cheeky results for petitions to replace Confederate statues with ones of Dolly Parton (which itself is pretty racist). Super Dolly’s greatest superpower may be her ability to push down any of the negative stories about her so that in a world dependent on search algorithms, her revisionist history appears unblemished.
And as brought to my attention by the great and equally curmudgeonly podcast Trillbilly Worker’s Party, 2020’s Dollymania that first was tragedy has now become farce with the fantastical claim that Super Dolly saved her 9 year old co-star. As bad as U.S. media is, it can at least be counted on to treat such claims coming from politicians with healthy skepticism, as seen by the quick unveiling of Governor Cuomo’s alleged hand sanitizer manufacturing. But of course as a country music star, the media feels no such responsibility towards Dolly Parton and will willingly republish the most laughably PR-written stories as if they were unequivocal fact. NPR asks if Dolly Parton’s role in her Christmas movie is simply Dolly playing herself. The answer to that question of course is “Are y’all just not even pretending to be real journalists anymore?”
Now let me address the aforementioned “let people enjoy things” haters directly. I proudly and vocally enjoy Dolly Parton. And not as a guilty pleasure, not as a cheap thrill, but as a musician who does sing about class and poverty in a very real and visceral way (and not just in “9 to 5” either). Regardless of Dolly Parton as a ridiculously rich millionaire full of herself, her music stands separate and apart as meaningful as well as enjoyable. But why does enjoying something always have to become so blown out of proportion? Why can’t we accept superheroes as a fiction, not to mention a fiction that often serves a very oppressive ideology? Why do we have to keep attempting to recreate them in real life by ignoring the very real flaws that everyone has?
Whether you’re a divorce-dad scared of transgender people hoping to be saved by Captain Crenshaw or a liberal Twitter activist hoping to be saved by Dolly Parton, you’re clinging on to a quickly collapsing edifice of the U.S. ideal of the individual.
The lesson to take out of our long solitudes in 2020 is how much of our lives consist of and depend on other people. These other people aren’t super heroes: they are all flawed and have their own unwarranted biases and bigotries. They aren’t super heroes: they cannot singlehandedly defeat COVID-19 or save 9 year olds from cars with superhuman speed. But they are the ones who can save us from an economic and social system that privileges a handful of people at the expense of everyone else. Because unlike super heroes, they are real, and their collective power is greater than anything any person, superhuman or otherwise, could do on their own.