The trailer for the long-gestating Marvel superhero flick Ant-Man is now out, with millions (if not billions) of moviegoers and comic book fans around the world hoping — some of them dreading — to see what kind of thrills and shenanigans the folks over at Marvel Studios have cooked up for them.
Being something of a Marvel movie skeptic, I watched the trailer fairly bored until something got me thinking:
Paul Rudd has a daughter.
Ant-Man is a father.
A superhero is a parent.
This fact made me realize how few, if any, of our superhero icons are parents. This realization was the sole new or innovative aspect that I could perceive in this Ant-Man film based on this early trailer. As I searched my mind for exceptions to the rule, mentally wondering if Michael Chiklis’ Thing had ever spawned little Thinglets, I could only come across a few. Upon conversation with other filmgoers online, I was able to create a brief list.
Barring a forgotten B-picture somewhere down the line, the films that feature superheroes who are also parents are limited to The Incredibles and, after a fashion, Superman Returns. Pseudo-superhero pastiches Mystery Men and Unbreakable both featured superhero fathers, but are so far removed from the traditional expectations of the superhero genre that including them in the discussion felt wrong.
That’s it. And in Superman Returns, neither the hero nor the audience is made aware of the fact that Superman is Superdaddy for about three-quarters of the movie. The Incredibles, on the other hand, is a great and affecting take on both heroism and parenthood, being as much about family responsibilities as it is about punching large robots in the face.
But that’s the entire history so far of our cinematic superheroes as parents, from 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
In fact, by looking closely at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we can see that the Marvel heroes, the larger-than-life idols whose chiseled abs and even more chiseled jaws we slap on lunchboxes and pajamas (as well as Tumblr dashes) are, in fact, more children than parents. These superheroes are defined by their relationships with their parents, their roles as “minors” to their parents’ elders. They are essentially, as presented in these films, immature figures, “children of the atom” — to borrow a phrase from science-fiction author Wilmar Shiras, later re-appropriated by the writers of the X-Men comic books.
Tony Stark is essentially an 11-year-old boy’s vision of what it’s like to be an adult.
He lives a life free of consequences. He drives the fastest cars, dates the hottest women (with no serious discussion of condoms, consequences, or commitment, sweet romance with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper aside), and tells it to the boring old grown-ups who want him to turn down his music and hand over his cool Iron Man action figure until he gets better grades.
And unlike actual 11-year-old boys, he never does have to hand over his toys, the implicit moral of the Iron Man films being that our rich trust fund kids have better judgment than the authority figures chosen by the electorate (who are all crypto-Nazis, obvi).
Even as Robert Downey Jr. gets closer and closer to fifty (when he films Captain America: Civil War, Downey will be over twice the age that Christopher Reeve was when he inaugurated the age of the modern superhero film), and his hair gets grayer and grayer, Tony Stark basically remains a perpetual adolescent, give-or-take the requisite “Stop being so selfish, Tony!” message that each film feels the need to ladle on.
Tony Stark’s most important relationship in the film franchise isn’t with the smart and savvy CEO Pepper Potts, nor with the confident and commanding military man Rhodey, but is with his daddy. Howard Stark has been dead for, oh, two decades or more, but Tony getting a posthumous “I love you, son” message from the Old Man in Iron Man 2 is clearly meant to be the turning point for the character. I hope you’ll forgive me if I remain unimpressed.
Thor, like Tony Stark/Iron Man, is utterly in the thrall of his father, Norse God King Odin, played by a hibernating Anthony Hopkins. The first Thor film is about yet another adolescent in conflict with his papa, only this time the boy is temporarily grounded to his boring old room (read: Earth) until he “proves himself worthy”/ punches things in the face.
The central conflict of the Thor series is essentially the story of two boys fighting to see which one is father’s favorite, with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki as the weedy goth to Chris Hemsworth’s meathead jock. In Thor: The Dark World, the eponymous hero actually turns down the responsibility of assuming his father’s place on the throne of Asgard, for reasons that essentially smack of selfishness. But hey, he got to play footsie with the girl from Phantom Menace, so it’s cool to leave an entire kingdom in incapable hands, right?
A responsible and dignified fellow to be certain, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers nevertheless feels less like an actual 1940s World War II veteran and more along the lines of a 1930s Eagle Scout who will later go on to be a World War II veteran. Not helping the issue is Rogers’ virginity (real or implied). It’s not that a man cannot be responsible, mature, and be a virgin — just that, when taken in conjunction with the other films in the Marvel series, Rogers’ virginity reads more like filmmakers’ unwillingness to deal with the possibility of men and women getting together in a moment of intimacy than any kind of self-imposed monk-like chastity.
Which is not to say that Steve’s doomed never-was relationship with Peggy Carter doesn’t have poignancy, or that his bedside scene with the elderly Peggy isn’t quite sad. It’s just that it seems impossible to ever imagine Rogers ever actually consummating any kind of relationship with Carter. While the now-senile Peggy lies in the hospital, where Steve dotes over her and reminds her of their dances together, I can’t help but wonder if the vivacious woman was really missing anything at all by having married another man 70-or-so years ago.
This aspect of Captain America — and truly, just about all superhero films other than the sensual and fetishistic Batman Returns — reminds me of a humorous scene in Martin Scorsese’s film The Aviator. In the scene, Leonardo DiCaprio’s oil billionaire/aviator pioneer/filmmaker Howard Hughes is trying to enjoy a date at a club with Katharine Hepburn, when Hughes’ publicist Johnny Meyer, and movie star Errol Flynn (played in a cameo by Jude Law) show up and crash their dinner. Meyer tries to impress Flynn by proclaiming that Hughes is going to make a new western called The Outlaw, which Meyer promises is all about one thing: “S-E-X.”
Flynn, Hollywood’s most notorious playboy, simply replies: “You can’t have fornication in a western. It simply isn’t done, old boy.”
Well said, Mr. Flynn. Superhero movies — in some ways the heir to the tradition of cowboy horse operas–are about as sexless as any genre in current Hollywood production.
So few people cared about 2008’s failed Incredible Hulk movie (or the 2003 Hulk movie for that matter) he’s hardly even worth discussing, but the Hulk as a character on film, television, and in the original comic books, exists in a strange state of liminality that rewards the audience for enjoying misery and punishes a character for being enjoyed.
(There is no fictional character whose existence depresses me more than the Incredible Hulk. But that’s a story for another article.)
To make a long story short, Bruce Banner, no matter what actor is playing him, has to always be on his own, and can never, ever be allowed to accept responsibility for anyone or anything other than himself. The reason for this is that Bruce Banner will endanger anyone or anything he comes into contact with, which is a pretty good excuse if you want to find a reason to get people to leave you alone.
Look, this isn’t to say that there couldn’t be some kind of pop art poetry in Banner’s loneliness, merely that the character is a continual self-defeating figure, and that in time that self-defeating repetition rolls over into audience indulgence, which is the epitome of immaturity as it exists in art. The Hulk could never be a father, which is probably good for the kid, but it’s also pretty good for the Hulk too.
Guardians of the Galaxy:
How could Peter Quill accept the responsibility of a parent when he’s 35 years old and still carries around the backpack from when he was 9? His defining relationship is with his mother, and he’s surrounded by the toys and keepsakes of his earthly childhood. Now, on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this — in fact, I think director James Gunn is “leaning in” to this aspect of the character — because the character’s arc is meant to be one of maturation.
But when put together with Gamora — who, like Thor, is defined by her relationship with her royal father — and the character arc of Groot, who sacrifices himself only to be rewarded by coming back to life as a baby, the pattern begins to see excessive. And when put together with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it becomes downright troubling.
Which is not to pick on Marvel specifically! Batman is a stunted basement dweller that also tends to pander to youthful fantasies. It’s not a pretty thing to say, but many of the criticisms of the ending of The Dark Knight Rises seem to derive less from actual cinematically-derived objection than to the fact that the ending seemed to indicate that Bruce Wayne could (gasp!) actually settle down, marry a nice woman, and become a father himself.
And the same story goes on and on.
Because at this point in the arrested development of the superhero genre, as it exists on film, the limits of the genre seem to extend no farther than the daydreams and fantasies of young boys.
Because what little boy wants to make-believe that they’re a dad? Dads are boring. They tell you what you can’t do.
Because it’s much more fun to go rushing headfirst into danger when you don’t have to worry about leaving an orphan at home.
Because who needs consequences when you can have fight scenes?
All of this, taken together, is why I can’t yet feel as though the superhero genre has truly matured to the level of cinematic art. While the signs aren’t great (few great films fired their visionary director shortly before cameras started rolling) perhaps 2015’s Ant-Man will offer some level of maturity or responsibility into an old yet still young genre.