By Stacey Roberts
Disaster movies can be a real downer.
Earth is in mortal peril. Some overwhelming force is on its way to enslave humanity, turn us into food, or terraform our little planet into a toxic alien vacation spot. Negotiation is out of the question. Submit or die. Or, more accurately, submit, then die. Or, more accurately, resist if you want, submit if you want, panic if you want, then die.
A meteor the size of Belgium is heading toward us, the humorless train conductor for Earth’s one-way trip back to the Stone Age. An unstoppable disease has escaped That Lab We Didn’t Know About But Someone Somewhere Surely Did, and bodies stack like firewood in the streets. Beloved characters we’ve only known for five heart-wrenching screen minutes sicken and die. Devoted doctors and nurses sprint between patients on gurneys until they themselves are overcome, sinking slowly to the ground in stained scrubs.
Hurricanes and fires and floods and dropping temperatures or skyrocketing ones, for those films that want to unsubtly lecture us about our dismal stewardship of the planet.
You know the situation has become dire when world governments set aside their now-petty differences and unite to tackle the threat. Old enemies give each other grim nods across conference tables or on monitor screens. Merged military forces take on the alien fleet or tumbling space debris but they might as well be firing blanks for all the good it does. Our inevitable conquerers shake off the mosquito buzzing of our weaponry and feed the world’s best soldiers and trillions of dollars’ worth of hardware into the abattoir of conquest. The giant rock resists our best efforts to detour it away or blow it to smithereens.
You know things have gone all the way downhill when nuclear weapons are brought out. This is it. If this doesn’t work, all is lost.
It doesn’t work.
So that’s it, then. Time to make your peace and prepare to die. But somehow no one is giving up, despite the laughably one-sided slaughters our soldiers suit up for or the combined might of the world’s arsenal coming to naught or the round-the-clock sweaty complex equations scrawled on whiteboards by our greatest minds that never seem to do the trick.
The President (played by a somber actor with a deep voice who seems to only have been elected to deliver humanity’s eulogy) broadcasts a Final Message from the Oval Office or some hidden bunker. He lays out our tragic situation, as if we couldn’t see it for ourselves, and tells us that the people of the United States (and the world, since we’ve spent five whole minutes standing side by side with those who were our mortal enemies six minutes ago) believe in important things, fight for what matters, and never give up.
So we don’t give up. Not because the inspiring last message from the First Citizen poured molten courage and icy resolve into our brains through our ears. We don’t give up because we know that someone will be along to save us.
At one minute before the last possible second, someone does.
A luridly-caped superhero or scrappy team of misfit gods swoops in and makes short work of the previously-unstoppable alien force.
That Scientist No One Listened To manages to persuade a desperate authority structure to try her idea now that all other attempts have failed and there’s nothing left to lose. And it works.
A Bunch Of Rogues We Would Otherwise Have Thrown In Jail uses their know-how and complete disregard for rules and other people’s feelings to go on one last desperate mission in which the Members Of The Group We Always Kind Of Knew Weren’t Going To Make It Back don’t make it back alive. Their complete disregard for propriety, rules, and their own safety saves us all.
Seventy seconds before the credits roll, we are spared. There is an epilogue of sorts—a relieved President wipes his brow back in the Oval Office, the sun shining through bulletproof windows. Small funerals are held for Those Selfless Heroes Who Gave The Last Full Measure Of Their Devotion. There are long shots of the wreckage of invading ships and closeups of patients recovering from the pathogen that nearly killed them. The superheroes, once again outcasts, return to their hidden headquarters, ready to come back when they’re needed.
There are five more feature-length films no one makes and no one will ever want to watch about the aftermath: destroyed cities abandoned or rebuilt. Wide swaths of the planet that are no longer habitable are deserted while mass migrations reshuffle the world’s population. Wrecked alien ships become monuments.
So. Many. Funerals.
We live out this movie all the time. No matter how bad things get, we let them get worse because we believe someone will come along and fix it.
Rising prices, skyrocketing debt, bankruptcy-funded healthcare, corrupt governments, flashpoint wars, natural disasters, senseless violence, the slaughter of innocents, the fracturing of human unity, and the unspoken belief that we are on the downward slope of the curve of civilization where gravity takes over and our decline gains real momentum.
No big deal, we think. This is the part of the movie where things have to get really bad before they get better. We look to the sky, and we wait.
Maybe it’s that politician we believe in or that charitable organization whose heart is firmly fixed in the right place. Rock-star billionaires who can write a check to end child poverty or a legion of celebrities with important causes. Rich and powerful globe-spanning corporations or conglomerates who make more money than most nations. Intrepid journalists who have pushed the rock of credibility up the media’s mountain day after day who turn our eyes to the problem and hint at a solution. Government stimulus or tax cuts or billions of borrowed public dollars spent in parts of the country we don’t live in. A new cure on the horizon for what’s killing us. A breakthrough in low-cost perpetual energy. A miracle pill to lose weight or stop aging. Lottery jackpots in the billions.
I hate to be that glass-half-empty character in the disaster movie who tells you that none of that is going to work, but none of that is going to work.
It’s not up to any government, any elected leader or candidate, any charity or business or celebrity or doctor or scientist or the fickle lightning strike of luck. You can surely wait and hope that those things pan out for you, but the clock is ticking.
Who is Superman? You are. And more to the point, we are. The previously-anonymous innocent bystanders running through the streets while hell and damnation rains down from overhead. The comatose hallway patients of overcrowded hospitals. The ones caught in massive car crashes and collapsing buildings and fiery explosions. The millions and billions who make up the body count.
We’re not just collateral damage anymore.
There are solutions out there, but we’re the only ones who are going to find them. Our governments and leaders aren’t going to have that cathartic moment where they set aside the pointless issues that have made their careers possible or strive in the face of unpopularity to do the right thing. No business will sacrifice their profits or stock price to anything like the common good. There may be magic pills and free electricity, but they will take years to develop. Very few people ever win the lottery.
So it’s us. We’re the only heroes here—or can be—if we summon the courage to go forth and meet the challenges of our age. If we’re the ones who can set aside our differences and deploy our essential goodness, our pragmatism, and our talents. If we can look at the one big picture instead of a million small ones. If we can stop reflexively supporting agendas and start supporting causes. We can reverse the decline of generations. We can persevere, and thereby overcome.
If you’re waiting for Superman, he’s not up, up in the sky.
Look in the mirror. It’s time to put on your cape.
Stacey Roberts is the author of “No One Left But All Of Us” and the founder and executive director of the Valley Forge Project. He can be reached at email@example.com.