When I discovered comic books I was already in college, but their influence was present in my life far before that. I had seen all the Batman films (Burton and Schumacher’s work) and the venerable Richard Donner Superman films. Also, debuting in the summer twilight of my high school years, was the much distained Superman Returns film, but it remains one of my favorite films. (My father is a film fanatic, always an early adopter of new A/V technology, hence my unmediated access to the Hollywood glamour of the ’90s. Name the film; I’ve seen them all.) I saw all the Warner Bros animated universe serials, including the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. If it had DC’s name on it, even if I didn’t know it yet, I enjoyed it. They were very much responsible for constructing the morality of my formative years.
This confirms really, at least to myself, my suspicions that superheroes have largely been a boys’ club. But women have made a lot of vocal progress recently, and there is no sign of the wheels of progress ceasing. The naysayers, who covet boyhood fantasies of masculinity, are in an uproar, of course. After all, Superman is a man, and what business does he have becoming feminized? (At least this amounts to the logic of some of the arguments I’ve heard so far.) Critics on either side have focused on issues surrounding the depiction of women, and maybe that’s why my Superman hypothetical made you wonder where I was going with that argument. While male characters and an outlook have dominated, we haven’t often examined what sort of masculinity is being portrayed.
Comics have shaped me in my adult life, their ancillary franchises in my youth, but the myth of Hollywood masculinity runs through all of them. I’ve seen many films where men are conquerors of nations, sports, women, and attachment issues. Rarely have I seen films where men are vulnerable, shattered creatures. I am a vulnerable, shattered creature (per my inclinations) and I am in awe that none of my fellow males have written about men who struggle with masculinity. This is a huge generalization, I know. But why haven’t popular films tapped into these issues that men feel? As a married man, I am self-conscious about my ability to provide for my family. I worry about the kind of father I will be. Frankly, there are moments when I feel humiliated because I live in a culture that celebrates men in victory, but never those under trial. (And it’s hard to feel victorious when you earn $12 an hour and have a college education.) Sure, the protagonist is required in a narrative to undergo an arc of challenges and obstacles—the hero’s journey, as it is called. However, the function of the journey is to ultimately succeed and reach escape velocity from the gravitational pull of mediocrity. The sad thing is that many men never escape—not to say that the end of life is to live a power fantasy engrossed in sexual conquest; far from it—they feel useless alongside the few that have made it. So the hero’s journey is a false construction of a man’s life that defies the reality of what so many men face. I can share, with pride, that one of the greatest lessons in life that was ever taught to me was to suffer through failure—my own failure. This indeed is what afflicts many men, but no one speaks about it. We men have been taught to be victors and not creatures of humility and perseverance through trial and error.
Superheroes probably constitute the male fantasy more than any genre of media out there. I think this is the case because, up until recently, men have dominated the industry’s limelight. Naturally, struggling men yearning to stand out, to be heard, express themselves through the actions of mighty men, men greater than anyone they will ever be or meet. Alex Ross and Jim Krueger’s Justice miniseries painfully captures this. Every superhero is white, chiseled, and virtually indistinguishable from one another. They are talented, witty, and filled with charm and bravado. And, of course, they win and go home to their loved ones, once again fulfilled. Surely it’s a phenomenal comic, a brilliant work of art and prose, but it’s also the product of the mad power fantasies of the pre/post-war Golden Age. Men past, present, and future eat this shit up. I know because I did! I continue to. The male superhero doesn’t lose, which is the secret sauce that Marvel seems to have discovered in Spider-Man. Peter Parker’s origin story is one centered around responsibility, indecision, failure, and complacency, which explains why Spider-Man continues to be a successful title. Men see in it some honesty and fundamental truths that we, frankly, don’t like exploring often. We read about it, but focus on the bright, silly costumes. But under the leotard is shame, and male readers cope by reading about Peter’s.
It sounds anticlimactic, but male superheroes are in need of losing, of failing. Robert Kirkman’s Invincible #110 depicts the male protagonist being raped by a woman, which is frighteningly uncomfortable, but a reality that indeed does happen. Another prime example is the Superman story featured in Superman: Peace on Earth, written by Paul Dini, wherein Superman rises to save the world from hunger and fails. Despite the mixed success of the story cycle, which features the whole of the Justice League being humbled by their own super-stature, it shows that superheroes are not saviors. They cannot save people from being themselves. Superman shrugging in humility is one of the most powerful frames in the whole sequence because the posture is characteristic of Clark Kent’s vulnerability and sheepish nature. Seeing this nature juxtaposed onto Superman, the victor, is unsettling. As rare as these stories are, they hardly comprise even a slim margin of most superhero tales. In fact, I was surprised that some of the stereotypical depictions of women, to me, look more like men with large breasts. Has anyone considered the possibility that men secretly desire to relate to women, so much so that they juxtapose their own values (sexual dominance, power, allure, etc) upon female shell characters and then will their male saviors to fall in love with them, thereby affirming their own worth as men?
Imagine a story where Superman watches one of his own friends die of cancer. Imagine how powerless he would feel. Make a clear picture in your mind as Superman wheels his weakened friend around a hospice wing in a metropolitan hospital, celebrating in the minor joys amidst the daily pain of receiving chemotherapy. Watch as a man who could carry the world on his shoulders weep for his friend as his major organs begin to fail, and there’s nothing he can do. See the Man of Steel by his friend’s bedside as that friend flat lines and passes on.
Heroes always save the day, but what happens when they lose? What happens when men lose? Hopefully, it causes them to think and to reevaluate life. Men need real stories to latch on to. And I hope that any creators reading this can come to terms with their own fears and let their idols condescend and know what it means to be truly alive.