It all started with The Simpsons, as most things of value do.
March 2020. We had all just been sent inside for our own safety.
We needed something to latch on to. Something familiar. A constant. Like Penny was to Desmond on Lost.
This isn’t really about The Simpsons actually. But Bart and Lisa and Homer and Marge and Maggie started it. They kicked off our quarantine. And for that I am grateful.
We didn’t know then it would be as long or as weird as it has been, but I did know then this was different, off, and that our world had shifted. And I knew I needed to find a way to mother my children as this other time began.
I have never been a super strict or structured mom. My husband is better at that than I am. I’ll sneak a flashlight after lights out so they can keep reading. Second dessert? Sure, why not? I’ll join you. I’ll forget the time if my child is actually willingly hanging out with me and watching a movie. Bedtime be damned. This became something my husband couldn’t really course correct during lockdown. Time has no meaning anymore.
So when my 10 year old asked that first week of quarantine if he could stay up to watch The Simpsons I immediately agreed because he is 10, a small boy, a child, and I would like his memory of this time to be silly and loving and safe, anything but the absolutely life altering terror that had come for us as a society. So, if it was actually possible, I got even more loosey goosey with rules and bedtime.
Thus began our middle of the night film club.
This club had one singular goal: comfort. That was it. That was essential.
So I let the 10 year old go to bed late until it just became habit. And I am talking late, like 11 or 12. And once he would finally find his way to his bed, the teenager would emerge. He’s 14. He does not normally want to hang out with his mom, or deal with the shenanigans of younger brothers.
But when he says, “Mama, watch a movie with me,” and it is the middle if the night, I say, “Which one?” No questions asked.
Doesn’t matter how tired I am. I take my place on the couch where I had probably just watched the same movie with the 10 year old but so be it. The 14 year old pulls up Thor or Iron Man or Captain America. Always Marvel. Because in addition to being a Simpsons household we are a Marvel family, thru and thru. Always have been, even pre-pandemic. (My cousin even hosts Marvel red carpet events.) Marvelous Midnights would be the name of our band if we could sing. We didn’t just discover these movies late at night. We chose what we knew. Over and over again. We marinated in the familiar, that’s how Springfield led to Ragnarok.
I did this as a child after my father died. I watched Funny Girl, My Fair Lady, and The Wizard of Oz on a constant loop, because sometimes you want to escape to a world where you know exactly what will happen. It provided a sense of comfort during a rather discomforting time.
It didn’t matter if I fell asleep on the couch or if mid scene my son got bored with hanging out with his mom and clicked it off and went back to his room. We always knew what was going to happen. And that’s what was so great. We had no idea what was going on in our actual world, with lockdown or curfew or protests. But Tony Stark, Hulk, and Thanos? Their needs and motives and actions were clear. Good and bad. Hero and villain. Magical powers and intellectual prowess. All intermingling for the ultimate goal, to save the world. The universe actually. Even Thanos thinks he is saving humanity.
I don’t get people who dismiss these movies. When I was a film student in college in London for a semester with limited funds, I would head to the bookstore around the corner from my flat and read a chapter a day about Scorsese. There in the stacks I would try not to mark up the book since I couldn’t afford it. But I was in awe and wanted to learn more about him. It hurt when he called these movies less than. No one is saying the Hulk is Raging Bull or Dr. Strange is Taxi Driver, but they aren’t drivel and they are important to many a little (and not so little) boy. They are clever, engaging, funny, and exciting. I mean the whole shebang. And they didn’t ask anything of us since we knew them so well. This was perfect as we had very little left to give. Our days were spent wiping down groceries in our foyer or wiping away tears from an over zoomed learning from home child. Frustration and fear loomed large.
My children know there is evil in the world, whether it is a pure power grab (Hello Hela) or Thanos’ misguided idea about saving resources. These movies can provide a jumping off point for most conversations about the world, story structure, how to use humor to diffuse difficult situations, depression (Fat Thor), sibling rivalry (Thor again), and most importantly, you don’t need magic and super powers to make a difference. Half of The Avengers don’t. Smarts are good too, like being smart is celebrated in this world. Intelligence, scientific training, PHDs — none are mocked among the muscles. I mean, how cool is Shuri? She’s running her own lab and creating never been seen before weapons and designs. You can be a regular person, like Jane or Natasha, and still be in the fight. And you can also be a woman.
That’s important to me that my sons take that in.
I got into a disagreement with my 10 year old about his belief that Hawkeye is the most important Avenger. I disagreed, like a lot, obviously. It feels I have failed him if this is what he believes. Anyway, but then I realized Hawkeye has no magic powers, like Captain Marvel or Spiderman or Dr. Strange, (all humans who accidentally fall into their powers). He’s just really good at something, on his own. No magic, just really really good aim. There’s no shame in training and studying to get good at something. I mean that’s so cool and my son is watching that.
So, I watched Scarjo prance around. I shared in debate which Chris is the best Chris (Evans, but he only topped Hemsworth because of Knives Out).
I wanted, no needed, not just a diversion, but comfort and connection. Watching Marvel movies in the middle of the night with my children gave me that.
I must have screamed when I looked at my computer because my husband and son came running into my room. “What?! What?!”
And before I could formulate or come up with the right way to say it, I just said, “Black Panther died.”
I could see my 10 year old take this information in as I explained the actor had died of cancer. That no one knew he had been sick. I watched the grief wash over his face. I actually wanted to vomit. This felt harder than if I were telling him someone he knew had died. If this were a scene in the movie of his life, this would be the loss of innocence, the end of childhood scene. I’d done my best to protect him from this awful year and here I was delivering life lesson 101, life finds you no matter what.
The teenager was asleep (remember time has no meaning anymore) but I didn’t want him to hear about it from his computer. Going online can be treacherous nowadays. I’ve tried to do this with other terrible news, to be the one to tell him, but often Youtube gets there first. So I stayed up and listened for him and at the first sound of rousing I went in. I sat next to him in the dark before the light of his lap top could take his attention away from me and I told him what happened.
His reaction was muted, as if he couldn’t really take it in because he couldn’t just believe it. His eyes said why are you lying to me. That isn’t true. And he went deep into his lap top signaling to me I could go. There would be no more conversation.
I thought back to when Carrie Fisher died. I am a Gen-Xer thru and thru. In 3rd grade. my whole class took the day off from school to go see Empire. When she died in 2016, we had just had the election and it didn’t go how I wanted or how anyone expected. Taking Princess Leia felt way too on the nose, like Darth Vader had won the battle for our souls that year, like I would give the writer notes that they didn’t need to be so obvious. And that’s how it felt when 2020 took Black Panther.
When I posted on Facebook about having to tell my sons, a good hearted comment came back about how I could explain to them that Black Panther still lives on in Wakanda. Wakanda Forever someone said. But that didn’t seem right to me.
I would much rather Black Panther had died than Chadwick Boseman. Black Panther is a character, an iconic and important character yes, but still just a character, not a real man with people who loved him, like Chadwick Boseman was. If we have learned anything from Marvel, it is that we can handle losing superheroes (Infinity War anyone? The Blip?). Marvel gave us good practice with that – Tony Stark, Vision, Black Widow, etc. But if I miss Loki I can just go back to a movie where he still exists wreaking havoc and mischief and I can still dream about Tom Hiddleston and wonder if he and Taylor will reunite. It’s still just escapism. Can’t do that as easily with Black Panther now.
I am honest to a fault when it comes to talking about death with my kids. Because just like I aim for silly and not being terrified during a global pandemic, my kids also know why I am working so hard to be so silly and to break the rules — to counter the scary in our world. I don’t keep the hard stuff from them. I just wrap it up in grand ideas of good vs. bad, of superheroes who stumble as well as save the day.
What I liked so much about Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is that he was discovering his own strength and power (not just physically but emotionally as well) as we were witnessing it. His journey welcomed us and we cheered him on to recognize his own worth, his humanity. I will miss that, I know my children will too. My concern is not what happens to a billion dollar franchise. Marvel will be just fine. My concern is managing when escapism itself needs escaping.
We haven’t watched Marvel since his death. It felt like our bubble of comfort and safety we had created for ourselves during a global pandemic had been pierced. But I think we just need a little time. I think we will find our way back and marinate in the complexities that is the human (and superhero) condition. I know it will be painful when we watch and see him for the first time. But pain is part of the game (I mean every back story of every character is about the pain of losing a parent or something equally awful). Marvel cushioned us as we needed protecting. But we can’t avoid every hurt in the world. I think this year has shown us that quite clearly. We haven’t watched since we got the news. When I think of this summer, I think of late nights and ramen and Disney Plus with my sons. That has changed. But it doesn’t change the good it did for us. It doesn’t change the time and space we created for ourselves. Bubbles can be pierced and repaired. I mean isn’t that exactly what The Simpsons movie was about? Or was that literally just a Dome placed over Springfield that Homer manages to crack?
Sometimes when things are really hard, really bad, you can’t even take it in. That’s why we see Iron man’s funeral and it feels so sad. And like that, this ripples of a singular loss. The Blip didn’t make as much impact because it was just too big, too much. Fat Thor is an image of despair that we who have gained during quarantine can recognize ourselves in. Riots, plague, systemic racism — it was easier to tune it all out and get lost in a version of the world where the good and bad guys announced their intentions clearly, unlike what was happening just outside our doors. Too much.
But the death of one man. One actor. This we could feel. This undid me. This we could latch onto. A constant. And so I will not shy away from experiencing Marvel or Black Panther again. I will not put him away so my children and I don’t hurt. He showed us we can do hard things. I know I’m not ready yet, but I am certain we’ll get back in the Marvel film Club game. Just hopefully at a more reasonable hour.
Rachel Zients Schinderman is originally from New York City. She now lives in California with her two sons, two dogs, two fish, and one husband. She writes a lot about motherhood and death, you know keeping it light. Her work has appeared in a variety of places, such The LA Times, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Manifest Station and she performs regularly in the show Expressing Motherhood. She is working on a memoir.