In our blockbuster-besotted culture, the figure of the superhero is proven box-office gold (or at least so the conventional wisdom saith). Slap some tights and a cape on a B-list star, let him--because it almost always is a him--save the world from some baddie, and watch the revenues stream in. Ransacking every comic book of the past half-century for source material, the summer movie season has become Superhero Time, and with films ranging from "Batman Begins" to "Sky High," this summer is no exception.

A funny thing happened on the way to box-office success, though; where superheroes past were more of the man-of-steel variety, indestructible and incontrovertibly adult, the new superhero is boyish, ambivalent, and flawed. Finding more drama in the rise (or return) of the superhero than his reign, the new breed chooses to place its protagonists' weaknesses and shortcomings front and center. In place of the hero, our culture has substituted two variations on the theme: the returning hero and the emerging hero. What both share in common are the flaws that are their dramas' driving force.

Take a peek around at contemporary culture, and common threads emerge about how Americans like their famous figures. They like guys whom they would feel comfortable inviting to a barbecue, and they like their heroes to be ordinary, just like them. Witness the triumph of President Bush in the 2004 election, which many observers credited to the successful manipulation of his image as Everyman. Or take celebrity culture's relentless focus on peeking behind the curtain of the rich and famous, revealing (supposedly) nothing other than ordinary folk living ordinary lives. Where once movie stars were larger-than-life figures like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, now actors devote much of their energy to proving just how down-to-earth and unspoiled they are.

Similarly, we like to see our superheroes life-size these days, conflicted about their role, tormented by the past, crushed by indecision, or unsure of their powers because the very notion of a superhero seems a dubious one. In recent films such as "Spider-Man," "The Incredibles," "Batman Begins," and "Sky High," the old notion of the superhero is interrogated and found somewhat wanting. All these films share a philosophy that the only way to reinvigorate the superhero for contemporary audiences is to render him somehow weak or ambivalent.

The domestication of the superhero owes its recent resurgence to the "Spider-Man" series, which cast frail-looking, bookish Tobey Maguire--rather than some manlier ironman--as the eponymous hero. In so doing, "Spider-Man" took its protagonist off his pedestal and returned him to the pavement of ordinary experience. The casting of Maguire also reflected changing notions of masculinity, in which brawny, all-American types (like Superman, perhaps) have fallen out of favor, replaced by a more sensitive (though still butt-kicking) specimen. Crucial to the films' populist mythology was a moment in "Spider-Man 2" in which Spider-Man, exhausted after preventing an elevated subway car from hurtling to the ground, is tended to by those passengers he has just saved. Tenderly removing his mask, they are astonished at what they find; "He's just a kid," they exclaim.

The connection between super-powers and puberty

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  • Much of the power of the "Spider-Man" films stems from their interest in the emergence of the superhero, grounding it in its similarities to commonly shared experience. This is made literal by the parallels "Spider-Man" draws between Spider-Man's newly found powers and the sensations of puberty. Spider-Man exclaims at his ability to shoot webs out of his fingertips, and the masturbatory reference is lost on no one. Growing into a superhero is equated with growing into an adult, a connection also made by "Sky High." "The Incredibles" chose to reverse the equation, presenting former superheroes now forced into square existences. The sight of ex-crimefighter Mr. Incredible now jammed into a tiny cubicle, working as an insurance agent, spoke volumes about the tragedy of demanding normalcy from the superlative, and the ironies of a society in love with the average and the mundane above all else.
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