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Superheroes abandoned us amid the pandemic. Will they still matter afterward?

As our world changes, superhero movies will need to change too

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Movies are different now. 

Everything is different now, to be fair, from a trip to the grocery store to what's considered a night out on the town. (Take out pizza and Skip-Bo? Score!)

Scarlett Johansson in "Black Widow."

But movies, especially, are being seen through a new lens, and that's something that the studios that are holding on to their big blockbuster titles until everything settles down have perhaps not considered. Movies are a reflection of our hopes, dreams, fantasies and fears. And right now our fears, as we're living inside a raging pandemic with no end in sight, are pretty high.

Prior to COVID-19 and quarantine, mask wearing was mostly done by superheroes on the big screen. The Marvel Cinematic Universe enjoyed an unprecedented run atop the box office, hauling in more than $22 billion worldwide over the last 12 years. Superhero movies, for all intents and purposes, replaced baseball as America's national past time. 

But will we still flock to superhero movies after the pandemic? Marvel has "Black Widow" on deck, and when audiences finally get their eyes on it, it will go one of two ways: It will be seen as a sheer escapist delight and a much-needed break from reality, or as a dated relic of a pre-COVID world. 

The same goes for "Wonder Woman 1984," which at least has the benefit of already being set in a simpler, more innocent period — ah, the bliss of the 1980s — but it will face similar hurdles that all pre-COVID holdovers will face: through no fault of their own, they were made at a different time for a different audience.

Superhero movies weren't always our go-to form of escapism. It wasn't until after 9/11 — when America was facing new, unknown enemies and feeling more vulnerable than it had in generations — that fantasies and comic book movies took over at the box office, and a superhero other than Batman was able to draw an audience. 

Since then, superhero movies have topped the yearly box office eight times, including five of the last 10 years. But when we've needed them most, where have our superheroes gone? Turns out they're all in hiding. (I had hopes that "Black Widow" and "Wonder Woman 1984" would be released for at-home audiences on VOD services and would go head-to-head, like the time Kanye West and 50 Cent released their albums on the same day, and let the public decide who wins. Alas, it never happened, and I think the window for that to be a culture-shifting event has passed.)

Some movies, meanwhile, play better during the pandemic, whether through clairvoyance or sheer coincidence. One such example is the trippy psychedelic nightmare "She Dies Tomorrow," released this weekend on VOD services, which taps into current feelings of isolation and dread in a way that's downright eerie. It's a virus thriller, in the sense that the virus being spread is fear. Gee, sound familiar?

Kate Lyn Sheil plays Amy, a troubled woman who's worried she's going to die tomorrow. She shares her vague yet oddly specific premonition with Jane (Jane Adams), who then begins to worry that she, too, will die tomorrow. And so on. It's an existential crisis-turned-pandemic of its own, and who knows how it would have played before our present situation, but right now it's the kind of movie that screams "current mood."

Which is not to say that "She Dies Tomorrow," an experimental arthouse picture with limited commercial appeal, is the future of movies. But it's a good snapshot of the now of movies, at a time when the future as uncertain as ever. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama