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.