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Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

The superhero psyche

Comic book adaptions reveal the complex human beings behind the masks

By Patricia Ingold

A child witnesses the murder of his parents in the back alley of a movie theatre and grows up to be a very angry man. Bruce Wayne intends to avenge his parents’ death, but a disgruntled rival of their killer pulls the trigger first. Deprived of his vengeance, Wayne is filled with a rage that sends him to Asia, where he is trained in body, mind and spirit by a league of martial arts assassins. Unlike his mentors, who teach that crime must be fought without mercy or pity, Wayne says compassion is what sets him apart from his opponents, and vows never to kill.

Forget what you think you know about superhero movies. Today’s big-screen caped crusaders are flawed and fascinating characters — men (and occasionally women) who bring serious psychological baggage to their superhero careers. Though they recognize that the world is broken, they — like us — are unsure if they want to get involved in the messy work of fixing it.

Cinematic superheroes were once cast from a stock one-dimensional template. They fought crime and saved the universe — hands on hips, chests puffed and capes blowing behind them. On television in the 1960s, a pop-art Batman managed to be even less complicated than his comic book counterpart. At the cinema, in the 1970s and ’80s, Superman was blandly virtuous, with no apparent problems in his life.

By contrast, recent screen efforts focus on the men behind the masks. Whether they are cast as peacemakers, guardian angels or public servants, these complex human beings are as much in need of personal salvation as the worlds they are trying to save.

In Batman Begins (2005), Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) returns to crime-ridden Gotham City and begins apprehending criminals as “The Batman.” Though his anger is in check, he is emotionally frozen, keeping loved ones at a painful distance. In the sequel, The Dark Knight (2008), we learn that being Batman isn’t a long-term project for Wayne, who hopes the new district attorney will step in to maintain order. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned. Despite promising never to kill his opponents, Wayne finds other ways to be unethical. In the end, he suffers a loss so devastating that his old anger begins to surface, and Wayne risks slipping into the role of vigilante.

The brilliant protagonist of Iron Man (2008) is wealthy weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a man whose drinking and womanizing disappoints the people who love him. On a business trip to Afghanistan, he is taken hostage by a vicious warlord who shocks Stark by addressing him as “the most famous mass murderer in the history of America.” Stark escapes in a crude, self-made flying suit of armour, but not before seeing the ugly side of his company’s success. His weapons have killed American troops and provided ammunition for ethnic cleansing.

Back in America, Stark is a changed man, shutting down weapons production and investing in green technology. He launches his superhero career as Iron Man, but all is not well. A troubled relationship between Stark and his late father is implied, and his alcoholism remains unresolved.

The Spider-Man films (2002, 2004, 2007) are morality plays about the human struggle to accept the great responsibility that comes with power. After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) decides to use his new-found super powers to fight crime. Unfortunately, this decision costs him his best friend and the girl of his dreams, and the tabloid press brands him a freak. Parker so craves a normal life that he throws his costume away and renews his romance with Mary Jane Watson. But catching criminals is a fate he cannot escape. Parker’s ego swells, making him vulnerable to darker influences. An evil parasite soon penetrates his body, tainting him like sin, and his arrogance and vengefulness are unleashed. Overwhelmed by his sinister side, Parker seeks liberation from the darkness inside an abandoned church.

Far from being perfect human beings, these re-imagined superheroes are a lot like the rest of us, which makes them more appealing to adult audiences. Behind the masks are old wounds, grief, guilt and regret. Will they ever face their personal demons, make amends and find peace? Wait for the sequels.

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