Nonfiction

Let Heroes Feel

7 May 2019

I’m not by any means a superhero connoisseur. I’ve never read a comic book and most of the time I need the post-credit scenes of Marvel movies explained to me. While I’ve heard that many hero stories on paper are interesting and intelligent, I can’t help but notice how all of these action-filled hero films are just plain boring.

When you look behind the dazzling special effects and choreographed fight scenes, where are the characters? It’s pretty easy to figure out what tropes each new superhuman is supposed to fill; rule follower, rule breaker, wise cracker, hesitant hero. But many of these figures end up empty behind the eyes. No personality, bland values laid before the audience like day old oatmeal, relationships with no significance, no stakes, no feeling. Shiny graphics and sexy actors can’t absolve the filmmakers of the fact that their characters are dripping in apathy.

When Black Widow encounters her former lover, missing presumed dead for years, their relationship is resolved with a nod as indifferent as if they were strangers.

The content of Wonder Woman’s ‘I like humans’ speech is so at odds to her dull and robotic delivery it’s comedic, her epiphany made ridiculous and utterly unfulfilling.

Scarlet Witch, having experienced the death of her brother as if she were in his body, rips out the core of the big bad robot, responding to the loss of her closest relative with the same monotone violence all heroes seem to resort to. Her grief, like the grief of so many others, is glossed over, hardly revisited.

The basis of their distinct lack of humanity, I think, lies in superhero films’ place as a platform for masculine fantasy. Despite the meaningful contributions of women and others to the genre, superhero films continue to be a man’s playground.

The aesthetic filmmakers seem so invested in is constructed with a specific audience in mind; straight men. Suggestions that Aquaman was successful with women because of Jason Momoa’s abs, regardless of accuracy, reflect an assumption that heroes are for men with female viewers a profitable bonus.

These films show heroes as stronger than strong, physically and emotionally. In order for men to become a hero, the pinnacle of masculinity, it seems you must leave your past life behind; including all of the emotional experiences that make you human. For the male heroes especially, emphasis is placed upon masculine rationality and detachment over feminine emotion. What we’re left with are super men with a range of emotions that include: Concerned For The Innocent, Pissed Off, Rage™ and Nothing At All.

This emotional disconnectedness applies just as much to the female heroes. Joss Whedon’s reported concern with his female stars still looking appealing while fighting aliens in slow motion is indicative of how women in superhero movies are produced in a specific way. They seem to be following Laura Mulvey’s work like guidelines, their only job to hit the appropriate beats until they can call their construction a film. Women’s responsibility to be beautiful limits their emotional range to Smirk, Damsel in Distress and Nothing At All, with female anger too unattractive to expose to the (straight male) public.

Even the occasional sweet relief of a hint of connection between two parties is just empty calories. Genuine romance or relationships are forgone in favour of generic heterosexual Horny Love, always between a feminine woman and a masculine man, one plot point away from twisting their relationship into trauma and tragedy.

There are exceptions. Venom is one rare example of a film with a protagonist that feels like a real person, a characterisation applauded by much of the audience, although not the critics.

Captain Marvel is a rare moment of respite from the lack of grief heroes seem to show. Carol’s loss is explored throughout the film, and her relationship with Maria is allowed to exist and be resolved realistically.

So here’s my argument: bring some more queerness into the picture. Queerness necessitates a level of vulnerability and emotional intelligence. The entire process of coming out, even to oneself, involves a reflection and interrogation of the self that these films about traumatised, abandoned, punished and idolised heroes could benefit from.

Is it surprising that Venom has become a gay icon? Tom Hardy and his parasite have more chemistry than many a hetero romance.

Carol and Maria’s relationship is easily interpreted as romantic, though the film offers little in terms of concrete representation.

Even Thor has become an honorary lesbian icon following Thor: Ragnarok. His particularly benevolent form of masculinity is characterised by respecting women and wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Living as a queer person means living a life steeped in truth and emotion, be they positive or negative.

No more apathy. Let heroes feel.


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