Letting Go of Superman: Of Romantic Love and Superheroes
Smallville only got good near the end. Clark had finally evolved from the whinny emo teenager I couldn’t stand years ago to a more decisive character that resembled Superman. The show was campy with some terribly wordplay and questionable costume designs. But I guess that was part of the charm.
In the last two seasons, long overdue pieces of his origin story were finally coming together from Clark Kent’s mild-mannered alternate persona to the red and blue costume color design. For me, the final message from Clark’s Kryptonian parents was especially well done. I thought the words (not really the acting) captured that desperate hope but deep sadness of letting go of a child that every atom in you wanted to keep.
But aside from these things, I was charmed by the way they let Lois and Clark’s relationship blossomed. I have a particular soft spot for the dance scene in the barn. There is a reason the last successful Superman TV show was Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. There are romantic-comedy elements practically implicit in many of the superhero stories just waiting to be exploited. And for a genre supposedly targeted to men, romantic storylines are exploited regularly especially in the comic books. They both share some of the same tropes after all: hidden identities, acts of self-sacrifice, repressed strong emotions.
Often times in superhero storylines, it’s this bizarre love triangle that is resolved by the magical revelation that, “Oh my god, they’ve been one in the same all along!” It’s about as bizarre a resolution as in Twelfth Night where the romantic tension between Cesario & Orsino was resolved when it was revealed that, “Oh my god, he was actually a woman all along!”
The key thing that makes this type romantic story in the superhero genre special is the explicit use of the alter ego. With superheroes all disguises are a form of self-analysis revealing something about the protagonist no matter how much they try to hide. The awkward teenage Peter Parker can be the wise cracking flirt he always wanted to be behind the mask. Superman, the all-powerful alien from another planet is a relatable everyday guy he always wants to be when he puts on those glasses. (For the basics on this, watch this clip from Kill Bill ).
The wish fulfillment that some people read into this is a simple one. Through the protagonist, the male readers can live out his dream of being a dweeb who is secretly stronger, faster, just someone special that the girls are into. It does hit home to our prepubescent fantasies but when we get older and our understanding of what women want becomes less superficial and what we want becomes more mature (for some of us at least).
There is another side however, one that I think helps explain why there was such a strong reaction to Peter & MJ’s weird cosmic separation (aside from poor execution) and this recent Superman & Wonder Woman mash-up.
The story of bringing Peter & MJ or Clark & Lois together is like the story of finding a partner who can love you not only for who you already are (as geeky Peter Parker) but who you are striving to be (as heroic Spider-Man). It’s quite rare to find that- but it’s even rarer to find someone who can understand why, and this is a wish-fulfillment story in this type of superhero romance.
While the “disguise” reveals who the superhero strives to be, it also hints at the key episode(s) in their life that helped shaped them. Superman’s “S” is the family crest from the parent’s he never knew and Spider-Man’s name links back to the arachnid powers he failed to use to save his uncle. The romantic interest inevitably finds this hidden personal story out if there is any chance of this ending happily.
In our hearts of hearts, we want the people who love us to be able to accept who we are, respect who we want to be, and understand what makes us tick. It’s a tall order to meet and it always feels like a small tragedy when you come so close to it. Our heroes at least for a short while were able to find it.
Here’s hoping that despite the retcons that broke them up, you still might.
Cesar R. Bustamante Jr.
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