A new image from the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man (above) was released this morning. My first thought was this: He really is a good-looking guy, isn’t he? It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the modern superhero has morphed? I don’t think emo is the appropriate word, but it does seem to me that a certain level of brute masculinity has been removed. Are modern superheroes less masculine?
It depends on who you ask. Is Tony Stark/Iron Man a womanizing superhero bathing in machismo? Or is he a sort of satirical nod to old hyper-masculine superhero conventions? When I see Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, I see a hulking Viking, but I also see a guy who takes good care of his hair, who probably wears expensive briefs, and splashes on cologne before he saves humanity. Likewise, Captain American is built like a Mac truck, but his chest is hairless and he clearly uses skin product.
I was surprised to find, however, that others do not necessarily subscribe to my beliefs about masculinity and the modern superhero. I ran across this study, arguing that the “macho” attitudes of modern superheroes are bad for young boys.
“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic book superhero of yesterday,” said psychologist Sharon Lamb, PhD, distinguished professor of mental health at University of Massachusetts-Boston. “Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Ironman, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns. ” The comic book heroes of the past did fight criminals, she said, “but these were heroes boys could look up to and learn from because outside of their costumes, they were real people with real problems and many vulnerabilities,” she said.
But then I found this piece on what is basically the Peter Parkerization of the modern superhero:
Spiderman and his secret identity Peter Parker are the embodiment of the downfall of classical masculinity. Peter Parker, the quintessential geek character, transcends the “geek role” to become an amazing antithesis to macho masculinity. In the Spiderman films Tobey Maguire presented a fantastic version of Peter Parker, and in the reboot Andrew Garfield will take the reigns for this highly sought after role. Garfield, also an effeminate male, is representative of Hollywood’s tendency to cast within physical stereotypes. Contrary to this, the latest Superman film, Superman Returns, featured a highly un-masculine version of the Man of Steel. While Superman’s talents make him a powerful masculine figure, his alter ego Clark Kent is quite un-masculine. Within Superman Returns, the change from Kent to Superman is not entirely registered because both are presented with the same baby-faced qualities. Perhaps it was Bryan Singer’s intention to present a more effeminate Superman, we are, after all, talking about the same film which featured Superman picking up an island of kryptonite and flying into space. However, by casting Brandon Routh, the creators of Superman Returns produced a version of Superman that was quite un-masculine compared to past depictions, thereby assisting in the removal of masculine stereotypes from modern Hollywood.
That’s not exactly how I’d put it (I don’t find Andrew Garfield or Brandon Routh to be “effiminate”), but that does track with my overall perception of the modern superhero, a figure who better appeals to the stereotypically geek audience.
Saul Austerlitz seems to back the trend, arguing that superheroes are being “domesticated.”
The domestication of the superhero owes its recent resurgence to the “Spider-Man” series, which cast frail-looking, bookish Tobey Maguire—rather than some manlier ironman—as the eponymous hero. In so doing, “Spider-Man” took its protagonist off his pedestal and returned him to the pavement of ordinary experience. The casting of Maguire also reflected changing notions of masculinity, in which brawny, all-American types (like Superman, perhaps) have fallen out of favor, replaced by a more sensitive (though still butt-kicking) specimen.
“Sensitive.” That’s a more appropriate word, I believe, for how superheroes are trending, so maybe is an appropriate word for the modern superhero: Brooding, overly sensitive men with baby-faced qualities.
Anyway, it’s impossible, really, to pass judgment on a superhero’s “masculinity,” but I started looking at all the major costumed superheroes from the last decade, and decided to rank them in terms of just that, and my realization — based in part on the actor who plays the character at number one on this list — was this: It’s not just the superheroes who have changed, it’s the very concept of masculinity. When the character who looks most like John Rambo is played by the dashing Hugh Jackman, then you know there’s been a shift. For the better, I think.
16. Routh’s Superman
15. Maguire’s Spider-Man
14. Garfield’s Spider-Man
13. Rogen’s Green Hornet
12. Reynolds’ Green Lantern
11. McAvoy’s Charles Xavier
10. Renner’s Hawkeye
9. Affleck’s Daredevil
8. Evans’ Johnny Storm
7. Evans’ Captain America
6. Fassbender’s Magneto
5. Downey Jr.’s Iron Man
4. Hemsworth’s Thor
3. Bale’s Batman
2. Cavill’s Superman
1. Jackman’s Wolverine