Kisses and Capes

June 28, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

It has recently occurred to me that seemingly every superhero movie contains a romantic component. Superman has Lois. Spiderman has Mary Jane. Batman has a new girl in every film (must be those rubber nipples). Reed Richards has Sue Storm. Wolverine and Cyclops have Jean Grey. And so on... It's interesting to note the prominence of love stories in movies that are supposedly aimed at teenage boys.

Most superhero romances are pretty lame. Batman and Vicki Vale don't threaten to set the world on fire. Reed and Sue show no evidence of chemistry in their fantastic two-step (it could have something to do with Jessica Alba's complete inability to do something resembling acting). Hulk and Betty are a little too weird - more like King Kong and Ann Darrow than boy and girl. There are two exceptions: Lois and Clark, and Peter and M.J.

The first two Spiderman movies give us a long arc for the character of Peter Parker, and part of that arc pertains to his relationship with the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson. For a while, it's unrequited love - the most poignant kind to show in a movie. However, when Mary Jane finally shows an interest in Peter, he is forced to sacrifice his own happiness for her safety. Of course, Sam Raimi finds a way to twist this into a satisfyingly happy ending, but one wonders where these two are going to go from here. So much of the first two Spiderman movies are about getting these two together. Now that's accomplished, what's next? A walk down the aisle, a "Dear John" letter, or a funeral?

As with Spiderman, it took two films for Superman to get the girl, except that happened two decades earlier. The romance between Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent, as related in Superman and Superman II was the first great superhero screen romance. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder had perfect chemistry, and their Niagara Falls vacation remains one of my all-time favorite movie sequences, despite the fact that it got all mixed up in the Richard Donner/Richard Lester change-over. Eventually, like Spiderman, Superman has to make a personal sacrifice for the good of humanity. He gives up Lois - his kiss can make her forget their time together, but his memories remain intact. Consider how tormenting that could be. No wonder Superman left Earth when the opportunity arose to go mucking around in the remains of Krypton.

Now, in Superman Returns, the Man of Steel has returned five years later. Lois is less than happy to see him (the reasons for her ambivalence become apparent during the course of the film) - she has moved forward with her life, but there has never been closure to her relationship with Superman, and he remains the "man of her dreams." For him, she is the ultimate temptation - he loves her and wants her, but he cannot have her. These are the feelings that Bryan Singer brings to the table in Superman Returns. This is the tragic romance he must dramatize. This is not unrequited love, but something else - a love that fate has decreed to be forbidden. Therefore, Superman Returns becomes all about yearning and perhaps just briefly achieving the "perfect moment" before it slips away. Superman may have almost godlike powers but, when it comes to emotions, it's easy to identify with him.

Perhaps that's the reason why superhero movies always contain romance. What better way to humanize a mighty being than to afflict him with one emotion than nearly everyone can relate to? We cannot relate to Spiderman's duels with the Green Goblin or Doc Ock, but we can understand how he feels about Mary Jane. We don't know what it's like to save the world, but we can empathize with Superman's yearning for the woman he let go, but still loves. Perhaps Superman Returns is only tangentially about Lex Luthor's megalomania, crashing space shuttles, Christ imagery, and Atlas-like poses. Perhaps it's really about Lois and Clark, and all the rest is just stuff to fool us into thinking we're not watching a chick flick.