Unlikely as it may seem, I’ve been to two superhero movies in the last ten days. I saw The Incredible Hulk because I’m an Edward Norton fanatic. I saw Iron Man because several of my friends have liked it (with reservations) and it was 95 degrees out.
While I have lots to say about both movies, from a political perspective, from a theatrical perspective, and as entertainment, the Body Impolitic point that struck me seeing them so close together was how astonishingly similar their basic story lines are, and how they both center around the dream of invincibility.
For those even less comic-literate than I, here’s how these two movies work. The Hulk is an ordinary scientist (Bruce Banner) who gets somehow infected with a substance that, when he gets too angry, turns him into a giant, rage-filled fighting machine. He hates the Hulk persona and devotes his life to keeping away from enraging situations and learning mood management. Of course, it doesn’t work. The Iron Man is a billionaire scientific genius playboy (Tony Stark) whose money comes from weapons. He is captured by people “misusing” his company’s weapons and constructs an armored suit to escape. Back home, he constructs a much fancier, better armored flying suit and starts trying to dismantle the weapons empire he owns.
So we have two privileged white single men (both with love interests, of course). One achieves invincibility; the other has invincibility thrust upon him. Both are under attack by extremely strong forces: Banner is being chased by the U.S. Army, and in particular by a general who happens to be his true love’s father. Stark’s nemesis is the man who runs the weapons business.
Both stories move to a point where the good invincible guy is forced to hand-to-hand combat with a bad guy with the same or closely related powers. Banner fights another “hulk” created by the general; Stark’s opponent builds a new version of the original armored suit and battle is joined.
I couldn’t stop thinking of the ways we all want to be invincible good guys: big, potentially very destructive, immune to weapons, and yet with some moral compass, something that differentiates us from the monsters. In general and in this culture, men have a lot more pull toward this than women do. Women superheroes are rarely indestructible in quite the same way–for one thing, there’s just nothing sexy about being a hulk (although the Iron Man suit could have fashion potential), and girls are encouraged to dream of different things. Nonetheless, the temptation is probably pretty universal. “I’ll just step on them and they’ll run away screaming!”
As long as we dream of invincibility, as long as the little kids inside us know just how good it would feel to step on the big people who try to hurt us, this story (in its various forms) will continue to speak to us. The trick is to be able to enjoy the ride and then remember what isn’t true and isn’t useful about what we’ve just seen.
But the presence of the bad guy with similar powers functions as a reminder (made extremely clear in Iron Man) that the line between invincible good guys and invincible bad guys is very thin indeed. Comic book movies are satisfying because the invincible good guys always win, despite how close it may look, and there’s always some reminder of how and why they’re good guys. They stop to save civilians, or they cradle their girlfriend tenderly between two fingers.
How could we not dream of invincibility? How could the little kids inside us fail to imagine just how good it would feel to step on the big people who try to hurt us? This is intensified by the tenor of the Western news in this period: the headlines are more often about seemingly invincible “bad guys” facing our own flawed, not-so-heroic opposition, the attraction is unmistakable. This story (in its various forms) is bound to speak to us.
The trick is to be able to enjoy the ride and then remember what isn’t true and isn’t useful about what we’ve just seen.
True and useful stories aren’t about amoral Middle Eastern gangs who can’t be trusted with weapons and white Westerners who generally can, unless they are corrupt enough to take money from those terrible Middle Eastern men. They aren’t about active manly men with superpowers and semi-independent women who either make a living taking care of their guys or drop their careers to do so. When the fun is over, invincibility just doesn’t make a story worth chewing on.