Superheroes Are Humans, Too [OpEd]

superheroes, comic books, hollywood, green lantern, spider-man, bruce wayne, kyle rayner, hal jordan, iron man 2, tony stark,

Hollywood movies ignore the humanity of the men underneath the masks. Their internal struggles are as important as their superpowers.

Superheroes are humans underneath their disguises, and Hollywood seems to have forgotten that. Children, if they’re anything like I was, tend to have favorite superheroes. These heroes often resemble some part of the child physically, emotionally, or socially. I loved the Green Lantern; my parents are neither dead nor billionaires; I didn’t have access to any chemicals stronger than Windex; the X-gene never manifested for me, and no robed men came to take me away to the Jedi Temple. So I was a Green Lantern fan, because that ring could come find anybody. (Disclaimer: I love all of the fiction I just mentioned. Green Lantern is just the one that my child-brain thought most probable, all things considered.)

Being a grown man doesn’t have to be any different. An alcoholic can empathize with Tony Stark while still understanding that it’s all fantasy. A minority, of any sort, can feel the pain of anti-mutant bigotry in X-Men. That is, if Hollywood treated Logan, Clark Kent, Hal Jordan, etc. as actual humans first. Stories about human heroics and, of equal importance, human failings reach people on many levels; why should superheroes be different?

Some movies did a better job of this than the overwhelming majority. There’s a poignant moment in The Dark Knight (2008) when a boat full of prisoners must decide whether or not to blow up a boat full of ordinary citizens. The law-abiding citizens are given the same choice. The Joker sets this up to prove that the citizens of Gotham (read:you) are corruptible if placed in dire enough straits.

Batman functions as the immovable object here; the paragon of justice. He believes in the ultimate good of people (again, read: you). If either boat decides to destroy the other boat and save itself, then Batman has lost. If that’s the case then he is fighting for a Gotham that doesn’t want to be saved; a Gotham that can’t be saved.

In that moment, we saw ourselves thrust into the action of a comic book and thought about what we might do in that situation. In that, we saw the distinct possibility that the worst parts of us would defeat Batman. More than that, Bruce Wayne experiences loss in this movie. He’s faced with the possibility of failing his city, he sees Harvey Dent transformed into a monster, and he loses his love to another man then, ultimately, to death. He risks much and loses some. That’s human.

Now to some comic book movies that got it wrong:

In Iron Man 2, we see what is supposed to be a conflicted Tony Stark. The film is based on a story arc called “Demon in a Bottle.” In this series of issues, Tony Stark is battling his own alcoholism whilst battling great evil or whatever it is that threatens the world each month.

In “Demon in a Bottle”, we are given access to the man inside of the suit, and we find ourselves. Every person who has drank too much and made an ass of himself can be Tony Stark in that moment. While Tony Stark is stumbling around and Rome is burning, we see the hearts we’ve broken with our bullshit.  He is me, and I am he, and we are all together or something like that. Even more pointedly, we see Pepper Potts (his love interest) growing increasingly upset with his drinking and, subsequently, leaving him. Pepper is kidnapped and Tony is too drunk to save her. Take away the supersuit, and that’s a story about a guy with a substance abuse problem, burning the things he loves. That’s a universal story of universal importance.

In Iron Man 2, supposedly based on the aforementioned story arc, we see a gleefully drunk Tony Stark dancing in the Iron Man suit at a party. He destroys a little property in his drunken revelry, but he’s a billionaire, so all is well. The filmmakers replaced the tragedy and the humanity with special effects and Mickey Rourke. The movie was less “Demon in a Bottle” and more “Frat Boy at a Kegger”.  I don’t mean to say that Iron Man 2 wasn’t enjoyable; I thought that Sam Rockwell was near perfect. The problem lies in the fact that it is enjoyable and nothing more.

Spider-Man 3 was built on the same problematic sand as Iron Man 2. This was supposed to be the movie where we see the hero at his most masochistic. We are supposed to see him ruining his relationships and his reputations. Spider-man doesn’t develop a drinking problem; he’s got a symbiote problem.

Venom, the oily black knifetoothed version of Spider-man, is actually an alien parasite that bonds to its host and feeds on adrenaline. In return, the symbiote grants the wearer superpowers or, in Spider-man’s case, greater powers.

The Catch: It controls you.

In Spider-man 3, we were promised a Spider-man that introduces Venom to the world and must fight to control the creature and himself. Multimillion dollar CGI plus some scenes of Black Spidey wrecking his relationships and you’ve got a great film. What did we get instead? We got a musical dance number from an emotional hipster Peter Parker.

Apparently, Hollywood feels the Venom Symbiote should manifest itself as Lucky Brand skinny jeans instead of a monster spidersuit. Peter Parker/Spidey isn’t tortured in Spider-Man 3; he just does some stupid stuff before getting rid of the symbiote. No harm, no foul.

Never once do you think that our hero will actually completely lose himself to the soulsucking of the symbiote. The script never takes him to that shatterpoint where he must rely on his humanity and not his superpowers to save himself or others. Never once do you think he will do/has done something so bad that Mary Jane is gone forever. There’s no tension between a quest for more power (insert: money, fame, possessions) and salvaging his relationships.

When Spider-man is swinging from New York skyscrapers on strings of web, I can’t relate to him, and that’s fine, but there is no reason why Peter Parker should be unrelatable to a (kinda) nerdy guy who writes for a living. I should expect to see myself whenever Spiderman takes his mask off. I should expect to see a guy who gets dressed and goes to work every morning (albeit a much more exciting job) while the whole time wishing he could just go home and relax with a beer and Netflix.

Superheroes are human, even the alien ones. Superman is a Kryptonian with almost limitless power, but he’s still human. He is the Last Son of Krypton and the only Kryptonian on Earth. He’s different from each and every one of the seven billion people around him. Anyone who’s never felt completely alone is probably still in the womb.

Hollywood spends a lot of time and money trying to make superhero movies bigger and flashier. More CGI, more breasts, more explosions, more villains. That’s fine. I like a huge film as much as the next guy. What they’ve forgotten is the men underneath the masks.


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About Christian Coleman

Christian Coleman studies poetry at the University of New Orleans. He makes life decisions by asking himself 'What Would Batman Do?'


  1. What I’m hearing here is that (many) superhero movies don’t really let the heroes risk anything. Tony Stark’s money will make it all better, or Peter Parker is never really in that much danger, or Thor is always obviously going to find his hammer because duh. Agree/disagree? I’d say superheroes are at their most relateable when they’re most vulnerable, because none of us are ever invulnerable, but we are all always taking risks.

    (How much use do you think you’re going to get out of a Windex tag? Genuine curiosity here.)

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