Is Marriage More Fantastical Than Superpowers?

Adam Serwer closes out his blog on a very smart culture note, musing over why comic book companies are skittish about married superheroes:

The decision to eliminate their marriages, I think, has a great deal to do with the level of vicarious aspiration involved in comic-book fandom. An essential part of the fun is being able to imagine yourself having Superpowers. There’s a reason the X-Men remains such a blockbuster property–giving superpowers to social pariahs makes the fantasy even more believable, because after all, most comic book geeks–including myself–have a vivid sense of what it’s like to be picked on.

A marriage then, adds an additional hurdle to the fantasy, and not just because it makes the character seem older. I suspect much of the backlash from white geeks to the new Blatino Ultimate Spider-Man has to do with assumptions about blackness being “cool,” and the fear that the new Ultimate Spider-Man will require more suspension of disbelief than they can muster…Divorce by reality altering retcons then serve a secondary purpose beyond making these characters more relatable. They preserve the idealized standard of monogamous heterosexual relationships (no infidelity, no falling out of love, no messy divorce) while giving the heroes access to their female supporting characters and their impossible, pornstar-like bodies. Because what’s the point of being a cool, superpowered social outcast if you can’t use it to get girls?

That strikes me as a core conflict at the heart of male fantasies, and an emerging conflict in some female fantasies. Marriage is desirable, but also the source of pretty profound fears about whether someone will care to stick with you until death do you part. Pulling girls (or guys) lowers the stakes to the level of whether someone will have you until breakfast the next morning, but it doesn’t actually satisfy that long-term goal of settling down.

Most of our romantic comedies succeed by reconciling these disparate impulses: we meet a hound, usually of the male variety, towards the end of his long period of carousing and womanizing, and follow him through the process of finding The Woman. One of the things Sex and the City does that it does not get nearly enough credit for is to have Samantha, the main character with the most active sex life, go through this process, settle down in a monogamous relationship at the end of the series, and then to have her walk away from that relationship in the movie to return to the single life. The reason these stories work is that they generally last from 90 minutes to a decade; the timing feels sort of realistic, and you don’t get tired of the characters either as serial or as happy couples. Superhero stories, by contrast, last for decades. Over that span of time, serial dating or one-night stands can feel like arrested development, while that many years of happy marriage might seem dull, or worse, smug to core audiences. Having superheroes get stuck in terrible marriages might be in keeping with the trend of putting people with powers through the perpetual wringer, but that might be a bit too on the nose. Better to get overwhelmed by world-consuming power than go through the agonies of martial stultification and divorce. At least that’s a way to go out in a blaze.