Spider-Man 2 (2004)
“Am I not supposed to have what I want? What I need? What am I supposed to do?”
-Peter Parker, Spider-Man 2
“That’s all part of living, sir.”
-Alfred Pennyworth, The Dark Knight Rises
Hollywood has answers for every life event. When we’re born, our parents completely lose all sense of maturity as their SUVs barrel through traffic on their way to the hospital. Disagreements are drawn-out montages. Death inspires us. And love is the ultimate answer.
Subsequently, for movie characters, life alone—being “single”—is unthinkable. Characters frequently accept a cynical truth packaged in a dream masquerading as fun, and resign themselves to eating junk food, getting blitzed, and otherwise experimenting with experiences not sincerely desired. Nothing is taboo, except for confronting the feelings at the heart of the unthinkable. For audiences, these stories can be at once the ultimate catharsis, rebellion, punishment, and cry for help. Valentine’s Day is of course the height of collective loneliness, and Hollywood accordingly shepherds one of its most important cyclical assimilations of the rebellious. And this season, things get right to the point with the star-studded romantic comedy How to Be Single, which simplifies the classic Valentine’s Day hook down into its most potent message. The poster says it all.
How to Be Single (2016)
There is certainly enjoyment to be found in the promise of this kind of story. It is a familiar distraction, and can feel especially empowering around Valentine’s Day, even though we can be fairly certain about where the story will end up. Like the ancient tales passed down over the millennia, repetition is an important part of grappling with culture. But in this case, what happens when the credits roll? How long does the feeling of empowerment last? And since How to Be Single is ostensibly for people 17 and older, what kind of a message is this for adults to repeat about their deepest feelings?
The advertising for How to Be Single has thus struck a very powerful chord with this contributor. Scores of people live every single day with the completely incapacitating emotional pain of being alone, and when they buy into to this kind of movie, they surrender themselves to what is ultimately a two-hour cycle. The fact is, being alone happens to all of us. It is a basic part of life, and bad enough already without remaining beyond our understanding as well. Escapism is one thing, but denial is something else. There can be better expectations for adult life, and certainly better ways to experience being alone on Valentine’s Day.
We can find much healthier cinematic catharsis, inspiration bringing us forward without beating around the bush. This contributor’s mind, naturally, gravitates toward super-hero films; not as an effort to stick it to romantic comedies on Valentine’s Day, nor to craft a timely super-hero listicle. Instead, this article is a utilization of films with personal significance, about characters whose goal is not to settle for fading away, but to find strength. It is a call to remember the stories that can help us cope with pain we face, especially during those times when it can be hardest to remember—not by concentrating on premises, but by concentrating on each successive resolution.
It is easy to focus on the pain that super-heroes experience in movies. In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), the Turtles are devastated by the ultimate fear of childhood—the possible loss of their father, Splinter. In Blade (1998), the titular hero lives in a state of constant suppression, fighting to keep himself physically and emotionally disciplined so that his vampiric instincts do not hurt others; and being half human, half vampire, and at the heart of the war between the two offers him little solace along the way. In X-Men (2000), the teenage Rogue feels unbearable isolation as a result of her mutation that causes harm to everyone she touches. In Spider-Man 2 (2004), Peter Parker endures the most profound heartache imaginable having to live without Mary Jane Watson, the woman he has loved since childhood but can never be with due to his responsibilities as Spider-Man. In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Bruce Wayne struggles to move on from the death of his own love, who, as it turns out, had actually made the decision to be with someone else. In Man of Steel (2013), Clark Kent faces the despondence of his misgivings about both himself and those around him. In X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Charles Xavier drowns himself in anguish after being paralyzed, abandoned by his loved ones, denied his life’s calling as a professor, and tortured by the pain of everyone else.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Certainly this is all first-rate catharsis. But unlike a film like How to Be Single, these movies are not trying to draw people in with titles like Teenage Mutant Turtles Who Say Screw Being Ninjas, or Guy Who Gave Up Being Spider-Man. These protagonists do not tread water. They strive to directly confront the reality of their adversity, resulting in a catharsis that can be more therapeutic for the audience.
The heroes in these films reach their goals, not based on a haze, but on perseverance. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles find strength together in life as brothers, when Splinter reminds them of their connection that will be there no matter what, and when their friends, April O’Neil and Casey Jones, stick by them through thick and thin. When Blade’s new friend Dr. Karen Jenson offers him the possibility of being cured of his vampirism, Blade’s resolve for his decision to help others is renewed more powerfully than any of his pain. Rogue finds hope in living with herself through engaging with the genuine and productive support of her new family at the X-Mansion. Peter Parker does accept, absolutely heart-wrenching as it is, the necessity that he must live without the love of his life. Clark Kent finds meaning and acceptance in his dual heritage as Kryptonian and Earthling. Charles Xavier realizes that life is always changing, that people must make their own journeys, and to just keep his door open for support if his loved ones would ever need him. And The Dark Knight Rises flat-out states that life isn’t a means to an end, it’s just living.
Granted, the above characters are also rewarded with what they want. We clearly don’t always experience that in real life. Not all of us get our parents back. Not everyone will be able to be our friend. Not all of us will have an antidote waiting for us. Not all of us will find someone we can completely open ourselves up to. Not all of our lives are going to be saved by that special someone standing in our doorway. And when we leave our doors open for others, it won’t always be taken up on.
But through the realizations of their characters’ diverse journeys, these films can nevertheless provide strength whenever we may feel alone, helping us sort through our pain in a more proactive way and to directly grapple with our circumstances. And ultimately, they can lead us to new understandings in our lives, helping us to grow up and function better in our existence day by day. With their sequels, they directly continue the journey, and in trying to stay fresh, they also build thematically as a genre. Super-hero films can thus in fact be one big journey, offering a variety of roads that come together to offer successive new perspectives.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
So if you ever feel alone, especially around Valentine’s Day, don’t give into despair. Whether super-heroes or beyond, remember the stories that legitimately inspire you. Reflect on what your heroes have gone through to be your heroes. It won’t necessarily fix the pain, but it can help to respond to the challenges of existence in a healthier way. Peter Parker can’t always get what he wants. Will it be in the cards? Maybe, maybe not. Life is never going to be easy. But there are people, however few, near and far, who know us, who care about us for who we are, and will be there when we need them. Through remembering the perspectives of our heroes, and subsequently, those people, we can be those people, too. And that, my friends, is love.