RogerEbert.com editor and New York television critic Matt Zoller Seitz is one of my favorite people to read, so it’s no surprise that, though it seems he and I took rather extraordinarily different things away from the Man of Steel screenings we attended, his review of the movie still made me think. Suggesting that Amy Adams and Henry Cavill lacked chemistry, which I’m not quite sure I agree with, Matt notes the way the movie plays down romance. “Considering that every previous “Superman” movie put the courtship dance between men and women at the heart of its action — particularly “Superman: the Movie”, “Superman II” and “Superman Returns” — the fact that “Man of Steel” has a No Girls Allowed sensibility seems like a deliberate creative choice, a way to reassure young male viewers accustomed to the glib swagger of “Iron Man” and the dire self-pity of Nolan’s Batman that this hero is very much in the same wheelhouse,” he argued.
It’s absolutely true that Man Of Steel is much less concerned with the budding relationship between Superman and Lois Lane than in Clark Kent’s self-actualization and Lois’ insatiable curiosity, though there is a smooch, and a discussion of whether superheroes do it better. But reading Matt’s review, I realized that I was fine with that. In fact, unlike Matt, for which it was a decided and unwelcome abandonment of tradition, I was so relieved to see any break in the portrayal of superheroes’ love interests that it probably upped my overall assessment of the movie. I’m so burned out on the way superhero movies treat romance that I’d actually be relieved by one that leaves out the prospect of a climactic kiss altogether.
What is it that women do in superhero movies, after all? If they’re Pepper Potts, you act as a dutiful assistant, waiting to be noticed, then run Stark Industries faithfully while your boyfriend runs off to save New York, get ignored as Tony Stark navigates PTSD, then remembered when someone else expresses romantic or sexual interest in you, get kidnapped, get superpowers, and get divested of said superpowers. If you’re Jane Foster, you pursue obscure astronomical research, fall for the hunky guy who crash-lands out of the sky, get saved a lot, and get shipped off on fellowships to be removed from possible danger, since apparently Thor couldn’t just call her up and say “please get out of town for a while and when this is all over you and I can hit up a resort.” If they’re Peggy Carter, they’re feisty and then dead of old age. If you’re Black Widow, things are a little bit better: you get cocktail dresses that can apparently stand up to delivering an ass-kicking, you get to hang tough through an interrogation with a very cranky god, and you, unfortunately, get to beat the hell out of your brainwashed maybe-love interest before rewiring his brain correctly. If you’re Rachel Dawes, you get to be Batman’s moral compass, and in the process, get drugged and then burned to death. If you’re Catwoman, you get to rob and lecture Batman before he delivers unto you your actual purpose, and then runs off to Paris with you. If you’re Talia al Guhl, you get to honey trap Batman, while having a much more interesting backstory with Bane that gets filled in by two minutes of dialogue. In other words, over and over again, you get to participate in a man’s self-actualization.
Don’t any of these guys have male friends who are non-employees, unlike Happy and Alfred, with whom they could shoot the breeze or work through a few more of their issues? What about women friends or coworkers who aren’t there simply to be love interests? That might be a way for the Marvel universe, at least, to make use of the dramatically under-utilized Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill? If superheroes are supposed to be possessed of tremendous will, couldn’t they take care of some of the self-actualization their own selves? I am exhausted by watching talented actresses get cast as the little women to very big men, not just because it’s sexist, but because over and over again, the narrative arc of these origin stories is exactly the same, whether the origin is of the superhero’s powers, or of his relationship with the love interest who helps him manage them.
If we’re going to be clobbered with two or three superhero movies a year into infinity, as seems to be the case, we are desperately in need of new narrative frameworks for stories about these characters. Just as it’s gotten exhausting and poisonous for superheroes and their antagonists to destroy enormous swaths of cities without facing any apparent moral or legal consequences for the mass death and property damage they’re causing, it’s exhausting to see their interactions with women be essentially the same time after time, without any growth or sense of what a settled relationship between a superhero and a human with her own interests might look like. It was what made Tony and Pepper’s argument over the hideous giant rabbit he got her for Christmas in Iron Man 3 simultaneously so appealing and sad: it was an actual conversation about their relationship, and one that revealed that Tony knows precisely nothing about the live-in girlfriend who is running his company.
Maybe it’s time to start treating superheroes as a category of characters, and mashing them up with genres, rather than treating the presence of a superpowered person in a movie as a factor that automatically causes certain comic book conventions to lock into place. A genuine superhero romantic comedy, unlike the poisonously uncharming tripe that was My Super Ex-Girlfriend that gets at how superpowers might affect the manifestation of supercharged emotions would be a way to recharge the flailing romcom trope. A procedural involving superheroics and actual law, like an adaptation of Powers, which I fear is dead at FX, or my personal dream project, a She-Hulk movie or television show, that treats superpowers as something that need to be constrained and kept under control, rather than unleashed in the service of gleeful destruction, would get at new psychological dimensions of superherodom, as well as of key questions in crime procedurals, like the treatment of police brutality and evidence obtained without warrants. Screwball could put superheroes in a position where they aren’t immediately admired, and need to win over someone, often a competent woman, with something other than a super suit.
And really, though most unrealistically given Hollywood’s predilections, what we need is superheroines. There’s nothing like giving a woman a lot of power to make people newly attentive to the importance of gender equality. Just as no one expected Bill Clinton to keep house for his wife while she was Secretary of State, it’s hard to imagine a superheroine movie where She-Hulk or Wonder Woman’s boyfriend’s main function is to look cute, where his work as a scientist or a high-powered corporate executive is less important than his squeeze’s ability to save cities, and where he’s left hanging out at home, misunderstood and ignored while she’s off being a badass. And sure, some of that is because of sexism: Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, and the God of Thunder would never get judged for prioritizing their own superpowered careers over being good partners in the same way a paired-up superheroine would, and they’d never get penalized for playing the field in the way She-Hulk gets criticized by her fellow Avengers for partying in the “Single Green Female” arc. But maybe seeing that you can stage some bone-crunching fights and pay actual attention to the domestic lives of super-people all in the same film would be a reminder that while their majority audiences might be men, you can still sell them on the idea that it’s aspirational to have all kinds of fully-developed relationships with women.