Tag Archives: superhero comics

Lois and Clark and Supergirl: Gender, Romance, and Superheroes

Yesterday, CBS revealed this six-minute trailer/first look of their upcoming fall show, Supergirl.  Since then, on news and social media sites, there has been joy and trepidation. Regarding the latter reaction, I’ve seen quite a bit of worry about the romantic comedy set-up, comparing the trailer to The Devil Wears Prada and SNL’s recent Black Widow trailer.

Certainly there are rom-com elements to the Supergirl trailer, and presumably, the show, but the true specter that haunts the Supergirl trailer is the failed Wonder Woman pilot from 2011. The leaked script pages and rough footage of the pilot were terrible on myriad levels and was the closest superhero adaptation to the SNL parody. There was actually a scene of Wonder Woman/Diana crying about her break-up with Steve Trevor while eating ice cream. We know how bad a female-led superhero show can actually be, but rom-com elements are not the root of these problems. It’s a symptom of a two-fold cause: the scarcity of female representation in superhero media that leads to an incredibly high burden of representation, and a general loss of uniqueness attached to superhero characters or worlds.  The two issues coincide most clearly in the House of El.

We cannot avoid that Supergirl is derivative of Superman. She was introduced 20 years after Action Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world, and she is Kal-El/Clark/Superman’s cousin in almost every iteration. Her origin is tied to his (in some versions, she’s meant to be his babysitter), her outfit mirrors his, and her tone is usually as hopeful as his. The first look of Supergirl even begins with Kal-El’s story and ends with his approval-via-cape. Yes, it’s sexist and paternalistic, but it rings true for the character, her history, and her relationships. She is inspired by her cousin, loves him, and values his esteem, but she also chooses to be a superhero without even asking his opinion. This is all to say that Supergirl shares a lot of characteristics and tone with Superman, and the romance is part of that.

Although the New 52 run of these characters moved far away from the core Super-characteristic of love, Superman and his many iterations are mostly romances. Yes, there are massive battles and alien threats and all manner of derring-do, but the heart of Superman is Lois Lane. She has been around as long as Superman and has been his primary love interest for all of that time; in fact, every modern adaptation of Superman has devoted considerable time to the relationship between Clark/Superman and Lois. Almost every first meeting is essentially a rom-com meet-cute twice over: bumbling new guy Clark meets confident, talented Lois and falls for her, and facing-death Lois meets high-flying Superman and falls for him. But because it’s a male superhero story, these movies and TV shows are generally not categorized as romances or romantic comedies. Except for one notable adaptation that was a romantic action-adventure series: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (ABC 1993-1997).

Lois and Clark was created by Debrah Joy-Levine to be a story about Lois Lane, but as it progressed, it also happened to become, in my opinion, the Superman adaptation that had the best understanding of Superman’s story and what makes Superman a unique superhero, both of which revolve around relationships with humans, particularly his love of his parents and Lois. When Superman is accused of having a god complex in an episode in which he is put on trial, he replies, “I really do believe that we’re all put here on this earth, or whatever planet we’re put on, to do better than we think we can. To be kind, helpful, generous, and forgiving.” It’s corny, earnest, and infused with hope. And, like almost every moment in Lois and Clark that exemplifies who and what Superman is, it is said because of Lois and his relationship with her. Superman does not exist without Lois Lane. Literally, she names the hero, and figuratively, she is the one who gives him the strength to do what he does while in the cape. Even on Smallville (WB/CW 2001-2011), the entire final season revolves around Lois and Clark’s relationship and how she is the reason he finally makes it to both tights and flights.

And in many Supergirl stories, love is just as much a goal for Kara Zor-El as it is for her cousin. She develops crushes, goes on dates, and finds her grounding with her family. Superman and Supergirl are both aliens, orphans, sole survivors of an entire planet, and as such love–familial or romantic–is an important element to their sense of belonging on earth. That sense of belonging, of loving humans and humanity more generally, and trying to be the best version of themselves in relationship to other living things is the core of their morality and the check against their potential for tyranny.

For all these reasons, I am not worried about romance being a part–even a big part–of Supergirl. But I am worried about the narrative of Supergirl being a rom-com. Where Superman has as many iterations as factions of fans, Supergirl struggles to even hold on to her own title in comics publishing, and few live-action versions. More than merely her own history, she will be the first live-action eponymous super woman of this current cycle of superhero media. She beat both Wonder Woman (2017) (who hasn’t had live-action iteration since Lynda Carter in the 1970s) and Captain Marvel (2018) to the scene, and as such she’ll face heightened scrutiny and–being on CBS and going agains Gotham in the fall–a higher barrier to success. She carries the burden of representing female superheroes on her shoulders alone, but that I hate to think that means that any romance diminishes any female superhero. Supergirl–optimistic, loved and loving, hopeful and inspirational, loves being a superhero–is not Black Widow–emotionally scarred, suspicious, guilt-ridden, badass spy. Where elements of romantic comedy work with one, they do not with another.

This is the second part of the problem facing Supergirl. In shared universes and with more exposure in mainstream media adaptations, there are certain tropes that are repeated and certain unique characteristics that are sloughed off. It’s easy to use differences in accent, powers, costume, and general temperament as shorthand to differentiate among superheroes, but it takes many hours of exploring these characters to get to how the characters view and approach the world. There are over 20 hours of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we’re only getting hints at how these heroes view the world and their responsibility to it. In the DC cinematic universe being built, it’s even more apparent how differences are being erased as Superman became dark-and-gritty in Man of Steel and images of Wonder Woman, a warrior, yes, but for peace, place her in a muted wasteland. Instead of Batman providing the pragmatic, cynical accent to a group of heroes who embrace intrinsic goodness, the DC cinematic world is bleak, as if it’s the world as seen by Batman not a wider world featuring Batman. The CW’s Arrow as well started out as basically a Batman story; gone was Ollie’s notorious liberalism. But Arrow has led to the one superhero adaptation that understand that different heroes require different worldviews: The Flash. In last week’s episode, The Flash tried to handle a situation like he thought The Arrow would and failed utterly, only to be reassured that his unique compassion and ability to see the best in people are what make him a hero. Supergirl doesn’t have an in-universe superhero to compare herself to other than Superman, but the acknowledgment of difference, that not all superheroes are alike–especially since The Flash and Supergirl are produced by the same people–makes me hopeful. Supergirl is not Black Widow, but she is like Superman, and neither of those things is a bad think or something to ignore. Now we just need to get her some super (best) friends (forever).

The Man in the Gray Flannel Super-Suit: Superhero Adaptation in a Cold War Setting

A little over a week ago, news sites, blogs, and twitter lit up with the news that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, produced by Bryan Singer, will be set in the 1960s.  Though there is a long history of popular comic adaptations evoking the aesthetics of a bygone era: Batman: The Animated Series famously used art deco and 1940s film noir as its visual guide; Richard Donner’s Superman films, Singer’s Superman Returns, and Superman: The Animated Series all hark back to the 1940s and early 1950s in their clothing and sets, but all these examples were clearly set in the contemporary period with the technology to go with it. Few details accompanied that news, but producer Bryan Singer made it clear that the 1960s culture will be an integral part of the film, mentioning historical figures like JFK and Malcolm X as well as saying that some part of the action will occur in the U.S.S.R.  While most opinions I’ve seen offered on this praise the decision to return to X-Men‘s Silver Age roots, especially in terms of aesthetic and mutant-as-allegory, I’m intrigued by the return to the height of the Cold War, sure to play a vital role if scenes are indeed set in the U.S.S.R.  In particular, I’m curious if this is to be a trend as one of the better-reviewed DC Animated straight-to-DVD features was also set in this Cold War era, Justice League: The New Frontier. Are these superhero comic adaptations merely riding the wave of the 1950s aesthetic exemplified by Mad Men‘s  cultural capital?  Or is there something else undergirding this possible trend?

Setting the Cold War stakes in the opening titles

Though, as Noel Kirkpatrick replied when I first floated the question on twitter, Matthew Weiner may take credit for the upswing in early Cold War popular culture settings, The New Frontier addresses the tension in a much more overt but no less complicated manner than Mad Men does.  Hal Jordan, who will become the Green Lantern by the third act, is introduced as an American fighter pilot at the moment of the Korean War’s cease-fire who is shot down and must kill a young soldier to survive.  That moment of guilt and survival, wrapped around a truly needless death–he keeps telling the boy that the war is over, but the language barrier is insurmountable–sets the tone for both the character and the film.  Hal is a character born of an unsanctioned battle.  The war is officially over, but it continues in the trenches between one soldier who knows of the official cease-fire and another soldier who cannot understand.  The New Frontier delves deeply into the tension between the sanctioned and unsanctioned battles that speak to the Cold War sensibility.

One of the major tensions among the heroes before the appearance of the villain (the Center), is the idea of superhero registration and complicity in McCarthyism.  Certain heroes agreed to work for the United States government while others refuse to do the dirty work of the late 50s/early 60s Cold War.  Both sides are portrayed as equally fraught: Those who refuse to give up their individualism are labeled as vigilantes, but those who agree to conform lose some of their fundamental heroism by perpetuating an Us vs. Them mentality rooted in the Red Scare. This tension between the push for conformity and the desire and need for exceptionalism is one of the key tensions of the era (and why I chose to title my post after the book and film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit).

Conformist in a Super-Suit?

Superman is the Company Man in this feature, and I’d argue that’s why he is largely absent for the main battle.  In addition to making way for the DC heroes that haven’t had as many adaptations–Flash and Green Lantern in particular (and I must wonder if this is due to wheels in motion for their respective live-action features, the former still in development purgatory)–injuring Superman to the point that he is assumed dead for most of the battle perhaps serves as a punishment for his conformity.  Certainly, it is curious that he is returned to the screen and saved by the appearance of Aquaman, a DC superhero who in the Animated Universe, can be portrayed as an outsider and even political separatist (often choosing Atlantean needs over American ones).

If Superman is the man in the gray flannel super-suit more than the Man of Tomorrow in terms of conformity, Green Lantern appears to be the superhero to tackle the ever-present–but increasingly discussed in the 1950s–crisis of masculinity.  Hal deals with having to kill a young soldier by removing himself from the military and moving toward the private sector, yet he refuses to kill after his initial moment of violent survival.  As a result he acts against the label of “coward” that he faces due to his pacifist streak.  The dichotomy is set: to be a true man is to be willing to kill among his peers.  However, it is his respect for all life that draws the Green Lantern ring to him and grants him the true power of the Lantern corps.  Hal still performs a rather hegemonic masculinity: virile, powerful, and heterosexual; however, he advocates for gender equity and doesn’t let the homosocial pressure to do violence sway him.  He represents a shifting idea of desirable masculinity, moving away from War Hero masculinity of WWII and entering into the more ambiguous proving ground of the Cold War.

Using the early Cold War era in recent superhero comic book adaptations capitalizes on the fashionable trend of the time period and Silver Age nostalgia, but it also provides a setting defined by its contradictions–and to a degree the narrative of its lack of contradictions–providing ample ground for allegorical readings and contemporary meaning-making.

Wonder Woman says: be(a)ware the consequences of providing arms to proxy warriors.