In the 2016 film X Men Apocalypse, the villain, actually named Apocalypse, recruits a cadre of disgruntled mutants to destroy the world. As anyone may guess, the X Men set out to stop him and there follows a climactic battle between disgruntled and gruntled mutants. Apocalypse is enormously powerful, as are the mutants arrayed against him, and he easily disposed of the world’s nuclear arsenals and then nearly wipes out all life on the planet. This plot has become a familiar one, but this movie in question is a particularly blatant example. The scale and the stakes involved are ramped up to the highest level possible. The issue is the eradication of all life on the planet, and yet the struggle is kept between the two parties of mutants alone. Despite facing their own extinction, none of the leaders, governments, or armies of humankind take any part in the fight, and stopping Apocalypse is left to the superheroes. Everybody who isn’t enhanced is strangely and unpardonably passive throughout. This passivity shows itself in the X Men and the Avengers movies, and it has become one of the principal features of the whole genre. These movies make it clear that ordinary humans are hopelessly overmatched and it’s best for everyone that the world’s militaries and law enforcement agencies stay out of the fray and leave the work to beneficent superhumans.
In the final acts of these films, the laws, courts, governments, and armies of mankind disappear for all narrative purposes, while the demigods fight it out. The stage is emptied of everything except famous monuments which are left to be wrecked in computer generated spectacles. This void is conspicuous and it precludes any interactions between the superheroes and their ordinary allies. The series of Marvel comics shows on Netflix seem aware of this drawback and they try to avoid setting their final acts in a global vacuum. To keep some sort of context, they’ve scaled back the scope of the conflict and the stakes involved. The amphitheater is now one neighborhood in New York rather than the entire globe, and the villains aren’t out to destroy the world. Kingpin wants to run Hell’s Kitchen, not unleash Armageddon. KIllgrave wants to eat at fancy restaurants and play house with Jessica Jones. This allows the show writers to keep the institutions, players, and settings of ordinary life: courts, politicians, lawyers, journalists, prions, and they all can play an integral role in the story, which can then be more complex and be made up of more moving parts. Kingpin’s empire is threatened by a newspaper reporter. Jessica Jones can’t simply assassinate Killgrave because she needs to exculpate the girl he made kill her own parents. Netflix has cut down the stories and made them smaller, but by doing so, they can tell stories where crooked politicians, district attorneys, cops, journalists, and lawyers can be prominent in the action. The whole world doesn’t need to vanish during the final act, and the ending can unfold in the same world we ourselves inhabit.
This restriction in scale seems to be worth the sacrifice if the payoff is a more complex and interesting narrative. Yet is the reduction really necessary? Must the setting become parochial, and the struggle lessened in its importance? Can’t a larger superhero story keep its human context and not become a saga of titans battling in an empty firmament? There is an approach that will achieve all of this but the narrative vehicle isn’t found in comics but instead in the HBO series Rome. Like Matt Murdoch and Jessica Jones, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are formidable without being invulnerable or all-powerful. Yet the actions is spread over a wider scene, and Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Antony are fighting for control of the entire known world. And like their Marvel counterparts, they must contend with rules, laws, and figures of authority. And like their Marvel counterparts, they’re citizens rather than demigods. Matt Murdoch went to university, took and passed the bar exam, argues cases in a court of law, rents offices in one building an apartment in another. Jessica Jones is arrested by the police and is held pending trial. They have Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, credit histories, bank accounts, and the myriad other connections with the organizations and institutions of the modern world.
Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are members of the Thirteenth Legion, and as such they are subject to military discipline and regulations. On the social ladder, they sit near the bottom and they are far below many of the other characters. Not only in their dealings with Julius Caesar, but even in interactions with lesser characters, they must remain deferential and obedient. Dangerous men and capable killers, they are nevertheless figures of little importance. In the very first episode, they come to the rescue of a very creepy Octavian, a boy with the mind of Tywin Lannister in the body of Joffrey, winning themselves the gratitude and patronage of his reptilian mother, Atia who herself closely resembles Cersei. When taken out of the urban setting and marooned in the wilderness, these constraints of caste and birth are removed. Pompey is surpassingly and unquestionably their social superior, but far from Rome, away from its mores and its laws, acting on their own, they kill his captors and set him free. Yet once they return to the world and report back to Caesar, they must confess their effrontery in taking it upon themselves to save and then release his archrival and suffer the consequences. In their lowly station, they must be humble and biddable, doing as Atia bids and defying her only at the behest of someone yet more powerful than she.
Not only must they obey their aristocratic betters, the two men are also at the mercy of forces more powerful than they are. Vorenus follows Mark Anthony out of duty but he’s incapable of deciding or even of significantly influencing their shared fate. He sees his leader giving way to dissipation, losing his fighting skills, and leading them both down a path that will end in their death but he’s powerless to do anything about it. He doesn’t have the rank or the power to alter the outcome and he can only keep his word and faithfully attend his master as Anthony sets about getting them both killed. Neither he nor Pullo are in control and they’re borne along by irresistible tides of history and destiny. They aren’t strong enough to save the world all on their own.
They’re not simply spectators, but they’re also actors in the greatest events of their time. They stand at the elbow of the high and mighty, and they are pulled into the biggest happenings of their age. In this respect, they’re much like Forrest Gump. Like the affable Alabaman, they’re in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they’re in the thick of things as history is made all around them. They encounter and serve JFK, John Lennon, LBJ, Elvis, Octavian, Caesar, Cicero, and Pompey. Rome shows us both ends of the social spectrum, queens, imperators, and consuls, and their lowborn bodyguards and assassins.
One of the earlier episodes is entitled “How Titus Pullo brought down the Republic” and it recounts how one small action of Pullo’s has enormous repercussions. Pullo didn’t set out to bring down the Republic but he inadvertently touches of a series of events that change the world forever. He doesn’t turn the course of history because he has godlike powers, but through the butterfly effect. One step leads to a cascade of mistakes, chances, and accidents which results in the collapse of the Republic. This was one deed of one small actor among many, rather than the colossal heroics of a tiny number of nearly omnipotent saviors. Titus Pullo inadvertently destroyed a system of government, and in much the same manner a protagonist might save a life, avert a disaster, or diffuse a crisis and end up saving a country or the world.