Complex Masculinities: The Superhero in Modern American Movies

Article excerpt

The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen an exponential increase in the production of superhero movies made in Hollywood. One of the ways to explain the phenomenon has to do with reading these fictions as answers to contemporary issues following the 9/11 trauma, one of which concerns the understanding of the multi-faceted problematic of masculinities. This essay attempts to present some of the essential elements that make masculinities complex and to inscribe them in the larger context of their production.

Keywords: masculinity, superheroes, cinema, body, United States, ideology

"What is it that makes a man a man?" asks John Hurt's Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm in a voice-over as the first images of Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro, 2004) flicker on the screen. The strangeness of the question only emerges later, as it is not yet clear who the "man" in question is. Is the locutor indulging in a bit of introspection? Or is the narrative voice referring to the eponymous character, who, as his name suggests, is a compound of two species: a humanoid creature brought from the netherworld? The question is relevant, however, for two reasons: first, it requires the viewer's acceptance that superheroes have something to tell us about such a complex issue as "masculinity;" secondly this diegetically justified question entails that one should pay a certain amount of attention to the contemporary representations of masculinity proposed by cinematographic fiction made in Hollywood. What can justify the choice of studying such a corpus is the fact that this type of movie has (re)gained the favors of the paying public. Never before in the American movie industry have there been so many productions dealing with superheroes in a single decade. Between the turn of the millennium (X-Men, Bryan Singer, 2000) and 2010 (Ironman 2, Jon Favreau), more than twenty films showing the exploits of characters who have made it to the motion pictures before (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man) and not so frequently seen ones (the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Elektra, Catwoman) have been seen around the world. These- with the addition of such contemporary creations as the Incredible family or Hancockhave become traditional summer fare for movie-goers of the early twenty first century.

WHAT MAKES A (SUPER-)MAN A MAN?

To proceed in the exploration of the matter under scrutiny, let us return to the film mentioned above. "What is it that makes a man a man? Is it his origins? The way things start? Or is it something else, something harder to describe?" continues the voice-over. The potential answers thus provided can indeed be justified as ways to approach a possible understanding of "what makes a man a man," and will be used as guidelines in the present analysis.

The first two questions may appear to be reasonably straightforward, since they concern principally a male hero and a male superhero. As far as the origins of the latter type of celluloid characters are concerned, it can easily be argued that canonical North American comic book depictions of masculinity are the quintessential roots of the expression of the commonly shared cultural beliefs about what it means to be a male superhero, albeit in an external, fantasized delineation- the critical reader of comic books cannot but notice "the exaggerated visualisation of the (barely) human body."1 Strikingly, from the first pulp, adolescent-oriented issues of superhero comics, the masculine figure immediately emerged as hyperbolically masculine: Superman was born on the printed page in June 1938 as a superman, and set the standard for the scores of superheroes that followed.

The final (rhetorical) question ("Or is it something else, something harder to describe?") draws attention to what makes masculinities complex. As a first approach to tackling what is not a static but a constantly negotiated and re-negotiated concept, Lynne Segal suggests that: "To be 'masculine' is not to be 'feminine', not to be 'gay', not to be tainted with any marks of 'inferiority'- ethnic or otherwise" (x). …