The Folly of Male Supermasculinity

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.

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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  1. Brent Holmes says:

    The Death of Captain Marvel deals with the Kree Marvel hero in a way I suspect you would find resonant. The whole ‘era’ I see as beginning with Jim Starlin’s Adam Warlock work and continuing through much of Marvel’s Epic line often asked uncomfortable questions.
    Elektra: Assassin certainly turned the typical male power structures on their head.

  2. ...David Whittaker says:

    Wonderful Stuart, Wonderful.

    I’d argue the first Fight Club, or the movie at least, explored the idea of a vulnerable, shattered male in the Narrator and the Supermasculine in Tyler. But yes, it’s time that sentiment was felt again. I’m tired of pretending to be some invincible hero. My life, like that if any fictional character, gains depth and meaning when I acknowledge and process its flaws and mishaps. With any luck I can then forge myself with flexible resilience rather hypermale absurdity.

  3. I really enjoyed this article Stuart. I thought your points were well made and quite valid.
    To me the Hero’s Journey (according to my own definition) is not so much about Hero dominating others and succeeding in life by buying a big house and a shiny car, to me it is more about accepting the challenge of being who you are, living your values, it is more about inner integrity than external appearances, some examples I think of are people like Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Marten Luther King etc.

    But I still find value in inspirational character like Superman, and I would rather Superman continue to be an inspirational figure than see him in depressing comics where everything goes wrong.

    I”ve read and love American Splendor, there is a time and place for social realism, and I don’t think Superheroes are the place for it. Let them be inspirational examples of strength, power and moral values.

    Whether they serves humanity or are imperial conquerors is up to the writers and the audience. But I don’t think the lack of deep and meaningful stories that address men’s genuine needs means we should tear down the superheroes to suit us.

    The whole point of superheroes is that they are bold fantasy figures. They are not us, nor meant to be like us.

    I have some other thoughts on this topic if you would care to read, but it does ramble of for several thousand words. I mentions some of the same Superman stories you commented on also.

    • This is interesting to read and think about John. Thanks for the feedback. My thing is that I believe that super-heroes can still be inspirational and fallen simultaneously. I think the last issue of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run gets that across; what I was thinking most. His point there was that super-hero comics are continuous cycles of absurdity, where the hero swoops in to save the day whereas, in real life, that scenario doesn’t exist. People just get by.

      Again, I don’t think portraying these kind of heroes is “tearing down” the genre itself. I’ve always experienced Superman as a Christ figure, whom I resonate with because I am Christian. If you look at Jesus’s life, it was fraught with turmoil and misunderstanding. He was estranged from his family, one of his friends died, and he was betrayed and tortured to death. Yet, I know my savior is sympathetic. I know that when I am having a day day, I know that he had his own share and perfectly worked through them. That’s a real example to live by, knowing that your hero was challenged and rose to the occasion, but still felt that struggle and temptation to succumb to failure. MLK and Gandhi were human beings too, and they didn’t lead perfect lives. Super-heroes have the luxury of being fictitious, and can be perfect among imperfection, which makes them all the more inspiring because we respond to these characters as if they were real. So it’s one thing, in my opinion, to read comics for their fantastic aspects as a means to escape, but that dualism only goes so far.

      My argument really only applies to DC because Marvel’s universe seems to operate on Aristotelian models. DC wields perfect heroes, but their lives don’t really possess much enduring struggle. Sure, Lois Lane was injured in Final Crisis, and you see Superman at her bedside, but we all know she’s going to get better. Even if she dies, she’ll be resurrected by the next fiscal quarter.

      So rather than read comics as conceptual escape pods, why not let super-heroes grow up, watch some people die, have kids, and get old? That’s what happens in great literature. Why can’t the super-hero genre be elevated to the level of great literature?

      • Hi Stuart,

        Thanks for responding.

        I don’t see why we can’t have both.

        If we can have 50 alternate world batmen, if superheroes can exist as animation, films, games, kids books, comics, novels and fan fiction simultaneously, then I don’t see any reason that Superheroes can not be tired old monthlies, while ALSO being great fiction.

        Whether that is in the monthly comics themselves, or more likely in mini-series and true graphic novels (not trades but actual self-contained graphic novels that don’t link to anything else).

        I don’t see any major changes as likely happening at the with the major corporate icon characters.
        The graphic novels that sometimes used those characters tend to be more progressive.

        However, creator owned titles are free to evolve or die.

        Larsen’s Savage Dragon moved over and let his son become the main character.
        Kirkmans’ Walking Dead is not afraid to kill off characters and have “real world” consequences, emotion and trauma, he also applies the same ethos / pathos to Invincible.

        Perhaps the closest thing to what you are talking about – that is mature superheroes who grow and evolve in a realistic fashion while also being iconic and timeless without being stuck in an anti-agin machine would be Busiek’s Astro City.

        Perhaps in great literature characters do evolve, live and die. I am the last person who is going to argue for arrested development or de-volving characters.

        But the ones around long enough do end up getting recycled like Sherlock Holmes, and not really growing or evolving beyond the initial stories by the original authors.

        I am all for the conscious evolution of storytelling, character design etc. But myths tend be myths by the simplification and retelling of timeless tales, and in that sense I think the Superhero’s do fine job as is. Stories have no age, and as such Superheroes serve their purpose as both cheap (well not so cheapo today) disposable entertainment, while also being stand ins for mythology, gods, deities etc.

        We can grow as individuals all we like, but to me it is unrealistic to expect fiction I enjoy to grow with me, although great fiction no doubt is enjoyable at different levels as we may grow older and wiser, that is really dependent on the quality of the writer at the time they wrote the story.

        Comics not so much, however my appreciation for the medium – the art, stories, production, unique method of expression, iconography etc is certainly much different than my ten year old self’s impressions and understanding while reading comics.

        A unique aspect to comics is the Multiverse where simultaneous events play out that may or may not happen in Universe A, but do happen in universe B, and I don’t know any other fiction where universes frequently expand and contract, are wiped out of existence and then are reborn in ever new permutations and infinite possibilities spiral off into new stories.
        Sorry, I’m off track here. I’m all for new ideas and new possibilities, but I guess what I am saying is, don’t take away what already works for the sake of making superhero comics into something they are not.

        At then end of the day I love fantasy.
        Tell me a story, whether real or imaginary, whether simple or complex, if it engages me, if it enthralls me – well then I am there.

  4. You are definitely not looking hard enough for movies that explore this concept if you have not found any. Some of the most famous movies of all time have this as some of their main themes: Citizen Kane, The Big Lebowski, Taxi Driver, Fight Club, Scarface. More recently there have been popular films that explore this concept in depth, Birdman and Gone Girl quickly come to mind.

    Honestly I don’t think you’re looking very hard in comics either.
    I think there are a lot of comics, even Superhero comics that deal with these concepts.
    Almost all of Garth Ennis’ comics address the concept of masculinity and the male/female dynamic, the ones that do it best are probably Preacher, Hellblazer, Punisher MAX and Hitman.
    Grant Morrison’s Batman talks about this in the manner of what is means to be a good father, and a good male role model, but also what it means to fail at doing so. His Animal Man explores the same themes.
    David Michelinie’s Iron Man deals with the stress of working in a male dominated business world, and the American male’s problem of sharing their emotions and problems. It also deals with how toxic masculinity can lead to other issues in people’s lives like substance abuse.
    The Immortal Iron Fist deals with the concept of the male legacy, the concept of a man needing to follow in the footsteps of his father and father-figures.
    Fear Agent by Rick Remender is the ultimate story of masculine failure and the depression and substance abuse it causes some men to fall into. It is also quite possibly the best sci-fi story of all time.
    52 has Ralph Dibny’s handling of the loss of his wife, Booster Gold’s handling of the death of his best friend as well as what is like to be considered a joke by your male peers, Black Adam’s struggle to open up emotionally and form a family, Will Magus’ struggle with mental illness and the inadequacy it causes him to feel, and Vic Sage’s struggle with cancer.

    • I agree with that you have so eloquently expressed here Ryan, but are those movies (all of which are my favourites particularly Lebowski) not the exception rather than the rule?

      Perhaps you could list some more examples.
      Glancing at the movies listed, do we get more than one or two films like that a decade?

      I am not disagreeing with you so much as asking if you could expand your answer more with examples of other movies.

      • -I think most of Pedro Almodovar’s films deal with these issues, but more in relation to sexuality and gender identity.
        -Ingmar Bergman definitely includes these themes, especially in the Seventh Seal and in Wild Strawberries, with both generally analyzing how a man lived his life.
        -Clint Eastwood has the idea of how a macho man should grieve in Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and American Sniper, with Gran Torino also including how to open up and let new people into your life, especially those that you previously were prejudiced against.
        -Midnight Cowboy has ideas of close male friendship’s cultural perception of homosexuality and the struggle to “be a man” and support yourself.
        -Lawrence of Arabia, and a lot of war films deal with the concept of how a man is typically supposed to handle being a killer and going through a war and how to deal with trauma
        -The Coen Brothers include this theme a lot, Fargo has it with William H. Macy’s character’s inferiority to his father in law and the dynamic of Marge and her husband, A Serious Man is literally entirely about failing to “be a man” as is The Man who Wasn’t There. Barton Fink deals with working in male dominated Hollywood culture while not being a traditional man. Raising Arizona is about making a living and raising a family, but also about feeling the need to do bad things and break the law to feel like a man.

    • I would absolutely love a response to this.

      • Julian told me that I had a responce to this article the other day. I had to re-read it to remember what it was that I wrote about so long ago.

        Ryan, all those examples are worthy, and their memorability more or less reinforces my point. That they impressed on you a moment of reflection is a good enough indication that they got to you and made you think about what it means to be a man.

        I appreciate the Rebirth story line these days more so than the previous stories I’ve read. These ones aren’t the best written but they seem to acknolwedge that the 12 year olds they pandered to in the 90s are now grown men with children and can therefore relate to a Superman raising a child and teaching his son to value life from a human perspective.

        The flash was pretty good also, though I stopped after 8 issues. This approach seems to me the sober one that I’ve been waiting for and I will enjoy it while it lasts.

        I think, reflecting on this, that this article reflects what I want to see in comics. It’s me struggling with the medium in my own way. Neil Gaiman’s work lends itself to me so well because I see real people in them struggling to be something outside of their ability. My knowledge of comics is hardly encyclopedic, but I appreciate that there have been others attempting to do more with comics over the years..

  5. You know, there are many women out there who read the classics, go to museums, know their French New Wave, and still like to watch cartoons on TV and Pixar at the movies. They may even keep a stuffed animal or a doll in their bedrooms. And you know what’s amazing? There’s no word for them (please, let’s not create one). They are normal women who simply respond to all-age stuff more naturally. And they would never say that’s it’s about time for Barbie to get married and have children! The stuff doesn’t need to grow up for them to enjoy it. They still want mature material, of course. Stuff that better reflect their lives. They simply look somewhere else. Why can’t boys be like that?

    I’m not saying that what you’re talking about can’t happen. Hell, it happened already. Usually at Marvel, yes, and Brent’s recommendations are great. I also remember the Hulk losing a friend to AIDS, that wonderful storyline of Sue miscarrying (and having to deal with it, basically alone) in Byrne’s FF, the Nomad feeling that he was a failure in Captain America’s eyes for letting a villain escape (not sure if it’s late DeMatteis or early Gruenwald) and of course “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man”. Or the sequel to “The Death of Jean DeWolff”, in which her killer is released from jail with permanent damage because Spider-Man punched him repeatedly and with no mercy in the previous story. Or Sam Guthrie, who was the oldest of the New Mutants, and their leader, but who was aware that he didn’t make as much progress as his teammates and saw his leadership going away. (My examples are old because I’m old.)

    Now sure, the stories don’t have a definitive ending. The heroes bounce back. A few issues later, the big failure isn’t even mentioned anymore and all is back to normal. Which is okay.

    Let me tell you about one of the very best stories by Lee and Kirby. Thor spent years trying to convince his dad to let him marry Jane Foster. Odin finally says “okay” and turns Jane into a goddess. But poor Jane is obviously not ready to be a goddess. She fails every test. Now they cannot be together, because she’s too weak. It’s cruel. It’s brilliant, because we all relate to her (are you ready to be a god?), but then… in the final pages, Thor gives a good look at Sif and thinks “hey, Heimdall’s sister is all grown up!” And a masterpiece is ruined by a dumb epilogue. Jane is out, Sif is in. Starting with the next issue, Thor fights villains again. And now he longs for Sif.

    Still… The genre demands that, right? Thor is a superhero, he fights villains, that’s his main occupation. If you sit down to read a superhero story, that’s what you should expect. I see the beauty of that. To love and respect a genre, we should accept it as it is. With its limitations. You can play with the formula, but only so far. If you stretch it too much, you break it.

    And of course, there are tons of powerless Peter Parkers (broke, shitty jobs, problems with girls) in autobiographical comics out there. They will never escape from mediocrity. They can be more honest and more real. And I would be mad as hell if one of them had to suddenly fight Captain Cold!

    • Can I confess here that I love Batman and Superman, but I am also hopelessly addicted to the Powerpuff Girls, Amulet and Zita the Space Girl.
      Great stuff! All ages comics are brilliant. I wish American creators would make more good all ages comics like Europe and Japan outside of the capes and cowls crowd.

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