2016-06-30
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.

    Two films this summer also present domesticated superheroes, but unlike "The Incredibles," they do so to shape characters more pleasing to audiences, lacking the politicized knowingness of the Pixar film. "Batman Begins," the first episode in the retooling of the formerly moribund "Batman" series, heads all the way back to the source of Batman's--that is, Bruce Wayne's--pain: the murder of his parents by a violent thug. Bruce, as is related in a series of extended flashbacks, struggles with his urge for retribution against those who took away his parents' lives.

    Bruce is no goody-two-shoes, sublimating anger into good works; and though he eventually gets to a more public-spirited place, his core of burning anger never ebbs entirely. Incorporating elements of the emerging and returning heroes to his steady unveiling as Gotham's savior, Bruce gradually learns that he wants to act in the name of justice, and acquires the savvy (and gizmos) to make it happen. As if to make this ambivalent-yet-triumphant figure a concrete presence in our minds, the film's last shot has Bruce standing amidst the rubble of his family's burnt-out house, said rubble bearing a distinct resemblance to that of the World Trade Center. Bruce Wayne is superhero as everyman, saving the city from destruction, and promising to rebuild what evildoers have brought low. Any resemblances to everyman-hero of the moment Rudy Giuliani are, of course, strictly intentional.

    Which brings us to "Sky High," a Disney film so comfortable with this new mode of softer superhero filmmaking it melds the genre with an entirely different one: the high-school film. Will Stronghold, newbie at superhero training school Sky High, is groaning under the burden of being the son of superhero couple Commander and Jetstream. While saving the world is all in a day's work for them, Will anxiously awaits the onset of his powers, which he is concerned may never come. His parents make the worst of a bad situation by casually mentioning their expectations that he will soon join them to form a crimefighting trio.

    The age of the bite-size hero
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  • In school, Will is embarrassed by his lack of powers, and shunted to the school's secondary "sidekick" track. Having initially failed as a superhero, Will grows sympathetic to his classmates, the school's outcasts, and even after finding his powers, enlists them to help him battle the film's ubervillains, and save his parents. In this context, superheroes are no better than, and in fact identical to, the snobby cool kids of many a high school film, seeing their powers as a license to discriminate against the runts of the litter.

    "Sky High" plays it too safe to let Will save the school as a powerless adolescent, having tied up the onset of powers too closely with that of puberty to leave him untouched. When Will tells his father he lacks his powers, the ensuing awkward conversation sounds like a gay teen coming out of the closet. Will finds his powers in the middle of fighting his personal tormentor, and their onset, unexpected and thrilling, is sexual in its sensations. Nonetheless, Will, like Bruce, discovers that it is actions, and not powers, that speak loudest. Will is the superhero miniaturized, placed in the high-school context to familiarize his actions, and to render the superhero genre utterly mundane. Like "The Incredibles," "Sky High" depicts the superhero as family member, both elevating the average moviegoer and shrinking the superhero to manageable size.

    In our age of the bite-size hero--where role models rise up only in order to be shrunk back down to size, and where it's heretical to believe that some may rise above the average and become exceptional--characters like Will Stronghold manage to bridge the gap, serving as life-size superheroes. Having never lost the appetite for larger-than-life figures, be they movie stars, athletes, or superheroes, we now want to simultaneously gape in awe of their magnificent accomplishments while also assuring ourselves that, at some deeper level, they are just like us. Avoiding the onscreen depiction of too much power or self-assurance, films like "Sky High" and "Batman Begins" concentrate on moments of confusion: the emo superhero. These bildungsromans give us superheroes we can identify with, eventual giants whose growth we bear witness to. Like the sun, the superhero in the full onset of his powers is something too powerful for us to look at, and so we settle for reflections, secure in the knowledge that these superheroes look a lot like us.

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