The Superhero Apocalypse Problem

Superheroes are a problem.

Well, actually, they cause lots of problems (the biggest complaint being that they’re inherently silly), but the one that concerns me most is their intersection with the Post-Apocalyptic genre.

These two genres don’t mix. They can’t mix. The whole purpose of a superhero is to save the world, or at least some part of it. By their very nature, they mitigate against an End of the World scenario.

But at the same time, the genre invites the apocalypse to its door, again and again. Superheroes who save the world need to save the world from something. And therefore every superhero universe is constantly flirting with disaster. The apocalypse is permanently looming just over the horizon, far closer than in a sane and sensible world like ours (well, okay, a relatively sane and sensible world like ours).

But it never actually happens. At least, not for long. This is not to say that dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories haven’t been told in the superhero genre, it’s just that there’s always a way to hit the reset button, and it always gets used. The basic structure of some of these stories have been used so many times that they’re instantly recognisable. Here’s a classic example:

The hero or heroes are propelled forward into the future, and discover that something went horribly wrong at about the time they left, and now their world is a horrible wasteland/dictatorship/playground for alien invaders/whatever. They fight the enemies in the future, ally themselves with the last surviving heroes who didn’t get zapped into the future, convince them to help them get back to the past, and then make sure the problem never happens when they get home.

Every now and then someone tries to buck the trend – for example, the Wildstorm Universe had the above happening and then showed what happened when the superheroes failed to solve the problem, but even that’s about to be wiped away as the last bits and pieces of the cancelled Wildstorm imprint are folded into the DC Universe. On those rare occasions when an apocalypse does last, it’s always off on the side somewhere, like the Marvel Zombie world, or “Angor”, a world that suffered nuclear destruction mainly so that various survivors could cause problems for the Justice League. And even that one was rebooted a few years ago.

The superhero genre flirts with the apocalypse, but never marries it. Which is strange, given the attitude of the superhero genre to most others: one of utter inclusivity. It grabs bits and pieces from fantasy, science fiction and horror as and when it needs to, and is flexible enough to plunder almost anything else. Perhaps most delightfully, the Justice League was once turned into a situation comedy for a few years, both acknowledging the inherent silliness of superheroes and revelling in it (who can’t love the idea behind the one-shot Justice League Antarctica: getting rid of some annoying incompetent supervillains by placing them in a position where they can do no harm – protecting a virtually empty continent. Until they get attacked by penguin-piranha hybrids, of course...)

There’s one thing most superhero stories can’t do: come to an end. They go on, month after month, year after year, changing and modifying and telling the same basic stories to each generation as it comes, rebooting whenever things get too complicated. And because they never end, there’s one genre they can never really get hold of: Post-Apocalyptic. This is a strange paradox, because a superhero universe is, as I said above, constantly on the brink of apocalypse. Aliens are always ready to invade. Other universes hold worlds full of potential genocidal maniacs. Mad scientists are always inventing ways to end the world, even if only by accident. Brooding villains plot against the world. Disillusioned heroes can go off the rails at any moment. And let’s not forget how horrifying normal people can be when confronted with a wave of superhumans in their midst: the parallels between the Holocaust and treatment of “mutants” in Marvel comics are intentional and deliberate.

There are more than enough ways to achieve an apocalypse even in our world: how on earth do they manage it in a superhero universe when there are so many more, even given all the people trying to prevent it?

The short answer is: because the story must go on and must keep selling, or else all those people who work for Marvel and DC will be out of a job, and the shareholders of their parent companies won’t get the benefit of the constant reselling of these properties into other media. On the level of the story itself, there’s a strong impetus to show the good guy beating the bad guy, and morality winning out, however tenuously. Because, y’know, kids read these things.

This leaves an uncomfortable status quo for the superhero genre, at least for those of us whose interest has outgrown the youthful fascination with people in costumes hitting each other. Many of us are driven to look at stories outside the mainstream universes, which have the opportunity to come to a conclusion. But even then, they have a tendency towards a hopefulness that I don’t think reflects the true nature of a world that must suffer the presence of superhuman beings. Watchmen and Miracleman/Marvelman are probably the most obvious of these, both of which end up showing streets washed with blood and spattered with corpses. Despite this, both stories end on a more or less hopeful note as the terrible massacres provoke a response of rebuilding and co-operation. Both stories are, in different ways, inversions of the superhero-saving-the world story, but nevertheless, the world is saved. I think the fact that the number of superhumans in these stories is relatively small helps bring this about; a world with a wider flowering of superhumanity – such as in the mainstream superhero universes – would be in a lot more trouble.

So what might a world constructed upon the basic premise of a superhero universe be like if it actually happened? What is that premise, anyway? I think it’s this: A world roughly like ours begins to see superhumans created on a large scale, by some uncontrollable and random means; some superhumans use their powers to help people, and some use them for more selfish ends.

(note that this isn’t the premise of a superhero story; it’s the premise of a superhero universe. Also, there will be variation depending on how long ago this started happening, but I’ll leave that to one side for now as it complicates things unnecessarily)

I think that if you have enough superhumans in the world, it ends up being doomed, simply because the kind of power to destroy that we normally reserve for parliaments and presidents is given quite randomly to ordinary human beings to use and abuse at will. Of course, the world will do its best to prevent this – I expect there would be pogroms and genocides in some places, intensely strict legislation in others, and at the very minimum a registration process for anyone with a superhuman ability – but in the end, it’ll be like trying to hold back the tide.

I doubt that it would necessarily be some massive cataclysm that ends it all in some sudden way, but rather a series of smaller disasters that erode the capability of the world to sustain life. Say, for example, a melting of the icecaps. Or a disease that wipes out a huge part of humanity, or makes them sterile. Or something that wipes out the crops that feed millions. Or disperses the ozone layer, letting in a UV flood. Or wipes out a nation with grey goo. Or the destruction of the moon, wrecking the normal tidal cycle, destabilising the earth’s spin and causing multiple asteroid strikes from bits and pieces of the smashed moon. All of these things can probably be moderated or contained, and maybe even reversed in the long term, given the power available to those trying to save the wold. But it’s easier to destroy than create, and with enough people carrying these kinds of powers, I don’t hold out much hope for a world suffering the affliction of superhumanity as it's usually depicted in a superhero universe.

As much as I still love the genre, this is one reason why I haven’t read a lot of it lately. Like most people who were alive at the time, I survived the Cold War, although I had a residual and constant fear of apocalypse. Living in a superhero universe would be like this, but vastly magnified: you wouldn’t know where or how the end of the world might happen, let alone by what method. A world that could kill itself in so many ways would be a world of constant nervous terror, even among the wonders that superhumanity could bring about. Plus you’d be witnessing the constant erosion of the life you knew as more and more of it was destroyed by calamity after calamity. Definitely not somewhere you would want to live.

Which would make it an excellent place to tell a story. If I ever get round to doing it properly...

(astute readers of my work have doubtless already recognised such a world. Astute readers of the reviews of my work will likely realise this is an oblique response to some (perfectly valid) criticisms of the work. I suspect that the above is something I did not make entirely clear in my novel. Either that or a) I'm completely wrong, or b) some people don’t like superheroes at all. Oh, well...)