Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Why is it that if you find yourself bestowed with superhuman abilities and a strong urge to dress in spandex or a cape to fight crime, you’re essentially doomed to a loveless life alone? Such seems the fate of many of today’s superheroes being brought to life on the big screen. Superman and Spider-Man have both spent much of their films either pining with unrequited love (Lois Lane & Mary Jane Watson, respectively) or starting a romance with the object of their affections, only to repeatedly encounter problems that strain or outright end their relationships (consider basically every one of their films, but especially Superman II, and Spider-Man 3). If you look at the X-Men, there’s that torrid love triangle of Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Cyclops, which they’ve been struggling with throughout their entire franchise (and which ends really badly in X-Men: The Last Stand). Bruce Wayne has had relationships end time and again in the Batman franchise, most recently in Batman Begins when Rachel Dawes decides she can’t date a guy who dresses in a cape and cowl and goes out late at night to kick some criminal ass. And those are just some of the bigger names in the world of super heroes. Consider Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Frank Castle/The Punisher, and Matt Murdock/Daredevil for additional examples of crusaders with troubled love lives. For any hopeless romantics in the audience, the situation looks pretty bleak.
But that’s not in fact the reality, is it? Fans of the source material for these big budget movies (comic books) know that of all the examples of unlucky-in-love heroes I mentioned, only one truly maintains a “loveless” personal life. Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson get married in the comics. So do Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Jean Grey marries Scott Summers (Cyclops), and I’m pretty sure Logan (Wolverine) doesn’t cry in his beer for long over losing Jean, but moves on to other women who prefer their men hairy and smelling of cigar smoke. Bruce Wayne/Batman is the only one who never marries or carries on an extended relationship, due to his obsession with exacting revenge for the murder of his parents…and bats.
The only couple that has seen their love realized in both media are Reed Richards and Sue Storm, who get married and have a kid in the pages of their comics, and most recently tied the knot in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. But even with that exception, why are superheroes by and large unable to live “happily ever after” in films?
Could it be that we can’t stomach our superheroes without a spoonful of pathos? It seems our superheroes can’t simply invoke awe and wonder; they have to be plagued by problems that tug at our heartstrings as well. Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but he’s also an alien who is essentially isolated from the rest of humanity. Batman may have access to all manner of cool gadgets, but he was made an orphan by some random gunman. The X-men each have their own awesome ability, but they are mutants, hated and feared for being different. Spider-Man is…well…a nerd, which I guess there are worse things, but my point is gone are the days of the Golden Age of comics, when superheroes were just super and awe-inspiring and that was enough. Now we’ve got to sympathize with our heroes, they need to be humanized so we can identify with them; they need to lose in order to make their victories more meaningful. And since we can’t very well kill off our heroes (unless you’re Brett Ratner), there’s got to be some alternative. Enter love, the great equalizer. We all know what it feels like to fall in love and be in love. We probably all have had a time in our lives when a love was not returned, and chances are many if not all of us have had our hearts broken. Seeing our larger-than-life heroes go through the same thing tempers them a bit. It knocks them off of their pedestal and brings them to our level, which makes for a more meaningful experience.
Or maybe it has less to do with character development and more to do with profits (this is America, after all). There is a well-worn tool in the television industry that may be getting new life in the recent crop of superhero franchises. It’s the old “will they or won’t they?” plot device. Consider Ross and Rachel in Friends, Niles and Daphne in Frasier, Sam & Diane in Cheers, Booth and Brennan in Bones, Josh and Donna in TheWest Wing, Matt and Harriet in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, House and Cuddy in House M.D., Buffy and Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Crichton and Aeryn in Farscape, just to name a handful of examples. All of these couples were NOT couples from the beginning. And they all shared something else, chemistry between the actors portraying them (to a certain degree). That dynamic caught the interest of viewers, and probably attributed to at least some of the popularity of their show and increased ratings. People tune in (in part) to see if that question of “will they or won’t they?” gets answered. Of course, the networks realize this (and maybe intend it) and simultaneously market the hell out of it and endeavor to keep them apart for as long as possible. The reason for this is because in real life the excitement and novelty of a new relationship fades and is replaced by routine and comfortableness. This is all well and good, but it tends to get a bit…boring, and boring does not good television make. Not sure why I just waxed Yoda there, but my point is that in a stand-alone movie it’s easy to show two people finding each other and falling in love, and then rolling the credits so you don’t have to deal with everything that comes after. In a television show or series of movies featuring the same recurring characters, you don’t have that luxury. So to keep ratings (or ticket sales) high, writers dangle that proverbial carrot and lead viewers for as long as they’ll follow.
Maybe it’s a little of both. To take just one example and go a little deeper, let’s consider Peter Parker/Spider-Man. In his first movie we learn Peter has had a long, unrequited love for MJ. After becoming Spider-Man he rescues MJ from some thugs, and they share that MTV Award winning kiss in the alley, after which she is hot for Spidey but still luke-warm toward Peter. But by the end of Spider-Man, Peter and MJ begin to fall in love, only to have the Green Goblin kidnap MJ and use her against Peter, which causes him to pull back, thinking it would be too dangerous for her if they had a relationship. Lots of pathos there, right? And a fairly emotional scene of self-sacrifice to close the movie. Then came Spider-Man 2, which upped the “Will they or won’t they?” tension by putting MJ in a relationship with another guy (J. Jonah Jameson’s son) and even having them get engaged. But she still has feelings for Peter, and it’s only his staunch refusal to admit his own that keeps them apart. It’s to no avail; however, since MJ is once again put in harm’s way by Spider-Man’s enemy (this time Doc Ock). Peter saves her again, and the sequel ends with MJ not letting Peter push her away, thinking he’s protecting her. They profess their love and the bright and hope-filled ending contrasts strikingly with the resolution of the first film. And if the franchise had ended there (and perhaps it should have) the producers wouldn’t have been left with the challenge of “Now what?” So when it came to Spider-Man 3, perhaps the writers feared that a nice, stable, and healthy relationship would be too boring, so instead we see the dial on the tension meter cranked up. The writers create problems (some more ridiculous than others) simply for the sake of driving a wedge between Peter and MJ. Her career takes a dive while his (as Spider-Man) is on the up and up. Another villain uses her against Peter (this time Harry Osborn), and this coupled with the appearance of the black suit and an out-of-the-blue love triangle between Peter, MJ, and Gwen Stacey lead to Peter and MJ apparently ending their relationship. But that’s the point. Now that they’ve broken up, they can get back together again. It’s the same in television. Crichton and Aeryn, Buffy and Angel, Ross and Rachel, each were on-again/off-again over the years. With a movie franchise you can do the same thing! Spider-Man 3 ends with Peter and MJ apparently reconciling and getting back together. But did you notice that marriage proposal Peter kept blabbing about never happened? I’m sure that if they make a Spider-Man 4 (and I’d bet Marvel will do it with or without Raimi, Maguire, et al.) we’ll see Peter propose and the two of them planning their wedding, which will probably be plagued by all manner of problems involving Peter’s responsibilities as Spidey. The wedding will probably take place in the last 10 minutes and those credits will be rolling before they take their honeymoon.
So is there hope for our superheroes? The jury is still out. Even though I mentioned they seem able to find love in the pages of their comics, it isn’t necessarily “happily ever after”. Cyclops had an affair while married to Jean, causing them to split before her eventual death. Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s marriage was fraught with a pregnancy that ended in an apparent miscarriage, a separation, and accusations of infidelity before their ultimate reconciliation. As for Clark Kent and Lois Lane, though happily married they had to deal with the small problem of Clark/Superman dying before tying the knot. What are we to take away from all this? The most obvious answer may be: nothing. These are movies based on comic books, summer blockbusters meant to be fun and enjoyable and nothing more. On the other hand, there is potential here. At their best, these characters and the films they inhabit serve as reflections of ourselves. Superheroes are in a way what we strive to be; they can represent ideals that get tarnished from time to time in the real world. In this case I think they tell us what we already know, that sustaining love & relationships can be difficult, but that it is possible…and that “happily ever after” is just a fairytale…even for a superhero.