What we can learn about love and relationships from superheroes?
One of the parenting decisions I’m not proud of was letting my sons watch The Avengers when they were 3 and 5 years old. This bad decision haunted me over and over whenever my sons would yell “Hulk smash!” and destroy everything in sight: legos, furniture, and each other.
What shocked me most was how I would become the Hulk in response to their destruction. I would let out bone-chilling screams, smash their toys into the trash can, and throw them like rag dolls into time out.
In The Avengers, a janitor played by Harry Dean Stanton asks Dr. Banner, “Are you an alien?”
When Banner answers no, the janitor says, “Son, you’ve got a condition.”
It took me years to realize that I had the same condition as Bruce Banner. In college, I dated a hippie who lived in a tree house. She used to call it my “fire.”
“If you ever burn me again, I’m out of here forever,” she once threatened me.
The funny thing is that she could see the fire arising even before I knew there was a spark. It was almost like she could see those cheesy green contact lenses that Bill Bixby put on right before he became Lou Ferrigno.
Research has shown that newborn boys are more emotional than newborn girls, but by the time a boy is four or five years old, he has learned to repress every emotion except anger. William Pollack, author of Real Boys, states, “it is very challenging for most men to express or experience emotions other than anger, since, as boys, they were encouraged to use their rage to express the full range of their emotional experience.”
In The Avengers, Dr. Banner tells the Captain America how he keeps the Hulk under control: “That’s my secret, Captain: I’m always angry.” Unfortunately, many men live in this “the emotional funnel” which only leads to anger. This results in anger management problems that destroy relationships.
Although in the 2003 and 2008 film adaptations of The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner has romantic relations with Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler, the loneliness and isolation of Dr. Banner in The Avengers seems more true to life. Anger burns everything around us, even ourselves. In a surprising reveal, Dr. Banner admits to attempting suicide to the whole team of Avengers.
One of the scenes in The Avengers that resonates with me is when Dr. Banner and Natasha Romanoff are trapped in a contained space on the Helicarrier. I’m not sure why Dr. Banner is so upset, but it doesn’t seem to help that he is lying next to the beautiful Scarlett Johansson.
Natasha pleads with Banner, “We’re going to be ok. I swear on my life I will get you out of this. You will walk away…”
The overwhelmed Dr. Banner gives a final look of remorse before he launches an all-out attack on the fleeing Romanoff. Right before he is about to back-hand her into oblivion, Thor comes to her rescue. Unfortunately, Banner is not able to stop his “fire” before it burns the women around him. Both Romanoff and Betty Ross could post powerful testimonials on #YesAllWomen.
Unlike my college girlfriend, Natasha comes back after getting burned. Later in the movie, Banner rides his motorcycle into the middle of a chaotic battlefield and says, “So, this all seems horrible.”
Romanoff replies, “I’ve seen worse.”
After Banner apologizes, Natasha says, “No, we could use a little worse.”
Director Joss Whedon probably never intended the following interpretation (although Whedon’s 1987 Commencement address at Wesleyan might argue differently), but this is how I read the previous scenes.
Banner is trapped in the emotional funnel that always ends up in anger, usually violent rage. He has this anger under control until he is face to face with a helpless woman who is trying to comfort him. This sends him over the edge.
Why would the suffering and helplessness of others make anyone angry, much less make someone want to hurt those in pain even more? The answer is complicated. We can start by delineating the clearly defined boundaries of the act-like-a-man box. In Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson argue:
“Boys not only feel the pressure to appear masculine, but they feel that, in doing so, they must be clearly not feminine—perhaps even antifeminine—and so they consciously and deliberately attack in others and in themselves traits that might possibly be defined as feminine. This includes tenderness, empathy, compassion, and any show of emotional vulnerability.”
At the heart of this paragraph is the shocking statement that boys “consciously and deliberately attack in others and in themselves…tenderness, empathy, compassion, and any show of emotional vulnerability.”
When I interviewed Dr. Dan Siegel for the Compassionate Men Interview Series, he offered a reason why men might react to helplessness with aggression. The feelings of helplessness in the face of another’s suffering give men a sense of powerlessness which triggers the fight or flight response.
In the 2008 film adaptation of The Incredible Hulk, Dr. Sterns explains that “the gamma pulse [that awakens the Hulk] came from the amygdala.” The amygdala being the “alarm bell” in the brain that sends us into fight or flight mode and also has been connected to aggression.
When my college girlfriend saw my “fire,” she was spotting the early warnings of my fight or flight response system. She was trying to help me to extinguish this fire—to become responsive rather than reactive to suffering in others.
Unfortunately, much of our society, like Natasha Romanoff, encourages men’s anger and stokes the fire to help fight battles whether those battles occur in a field, a boardroom, or a bedroom. My step-father who physically abused me for 12 years recently admitted that he didn’t want to be the “ogre in the house,” but my mother insisted that he continue in the role of disciplinarian.
This leaves men like Banner in a constant state of anger and socially isolated from the rest of society. In the 2008 adaptation, Banner is also sexually deprived since he can’t even “get a little bit excited.” I can’t help but notice the similar effects that anger has on men in our society: it isolates us and burns any intimate connections we have with others—Elliot Rodger is an extreme version of this isolation.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Superman. When one thinks of healthy loving superhero relationships, Superman and Lois Lane come front and center. Call me old fashioned, but the Christopher Reeves Superman romance with Lois Lane has to be one of the most romantic flying scenes before Wall-E and Eve.
Unlike Banner, Clark Kent has a completely different reaction to suffering. While Banner reacts with aggression and anger, Kent responds with empathy and aid. The classic frame/scene of any Superman story is a close-up of Clark Kent pulling his shirt open to reveal the Superman shield.
In the face of suffering, Superman quite literally unveils his heart. He shows his true self which is not a raging lunatic, but a caring protector. In their song “Superman,” Five for Fighting sing of the Man of Steel: “I’m…only a man in funny red sheet looking for special things inside of me.”
I can’t think of better description for a hero than someone who opens their heart to the suffering of others and looks for “special things inside.” I would argue that the “special things” are love and compassion.
The modern science on compassion supports this hypothesis that love and compassion are inherent in being human. Professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, Dacher Keltner’s re-reading of Darwin argues that Darwin actually believed in survival of the kindest, not the fittest.
Like Superman, we have strength and compassion beneath the façade that society makes us wear. Only by radical dehumanization do we become the anger-plagued loners capable of mass destruction and violence.
As an everyday Joe, I’m making a commitment to be more responsive to the needs of others like Superman rather than mindlessly reacting to other’s pain like the Hulk. Hopefully, this will lead to a life of connection with others rather than one of isolation in a wilderness cabin.