Super Sex: Body Objectification and Superhero Narratives

I want a perfect body

“Creep,” Radiohead

She’s suddenly beautiful
And we all want something beautiful
Man, I wish I was beautiful

“Mr. Jones,” Counting Crows

Superhero comic books have a long and troubling history of xenophobia, racism, cultural appropriation, sexism, and nearly any negative -ism you can imagine.

The comic book industry is obsessed as well with rebooting as an industry mechanism and rebirth as a recurring plot element. Whether reboot, resurrection, or adaptation, however, superhero narratives seem unable to shake the very worst aspects of cliche and reductive storytelling.

The adaptation of The Punisher (Netflix) and yet another rebooting of Daredevil, volume 6 (2019), share even more examples of failing to take advantage of starting over.

Season 2 Episode 1 of The Punisher puts Frank Castle, masquerading as Pete, in a dive-bar in Michigan.

Ever stoic, Frank cannot avoid trouble, interjecting himself between a crude bar patron and the bartender, Beth, who has remained nearly equally as distant as Frank. When the bar bouncer moves to expel both the creep and Frank, Beth intervenes, and despite her protestation that she doesn’t need any help, she ultimately makes the move on her knight in shining armor, offering a nightcap at her place.

As Beth and Frank (Pete) walk to her car, Beth asks Frank to assure her he isn’t an “asshole”; Frank replies, “Isn’t that the kind of thing an asshole would do?”

Soon, Beth and Frank are entwined in Hollywood montage sex, interspersed with some dialogue where Frank confesses his name is Frank, and not Pete as he has told her.

Once again, Beth struggles with a reasonable concern about whether or not Frank is an asshole, just another creep, one whose body is riddled with scars.

And for the second time, Beth just goes with a feeling and accepts Frank is essentially a good guy.

Not blessed/cursed with superhero powers, Frank is one of the mostly human superheroes although gifted with skills and the prerequisite rage-motivation: a well-trained killing machine spawned by the military and then driven to incessant vigilanteism by the slaughter of his entire family.

Castle and Mad Max were cast from the same mold.

The Hollywood montage sex of E1 is much less about the sort of sex people have on one-night stands and more about the objectification of bodies in superhero narratives. And these narratives never stray too far from the unexplainable magnetism of the white male saviors that nearly always sit in the center.

Superhero sex is a compelling topic when those superheroes have exceptional powers like Superman needing to be human to be with Lois (see the Christopher Reeves films) or the violent and destructive coupling of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in the Netflix adaptation of Jessica Jones.

But Castle, The Punisher, is all rage and training so the super sex is titillating but mostly secondary to the standard messages being sent about Frank as white male savior and sexually irresistible.

In both the Marvel comic book universe and the Netflix universe, Castle/The Punisher and Daredevil/ Matt Murdock are paired as different sides of the same vigilante coin—Frank the-ends-justify-the-means Castle juxtaposed with Matt Batman-lite Murdock.

With Daredevil being resurrected once again in the comic book with 2019’s volume 6, on the heels of the Death of Daredevil and three seasons of Daredevil on Netflix, we are immediately confronted with super sex and body objectification.

While superheroes such as The Punisher and Batman are essentially humans with super abilities gained through training and trauma, Murdock is a step above since he does possess super powers, although his physical strengths are mostly acquired. In other words, Murdock/Daredevil does not pose the same sexual threats as Superman or, say, the Hulk.

Fresh from the edge of death and the hospital, like Frank in S2 E1, Matt in issue 1 (2019) moves from the bar to the bedroom:

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The panels preceding these are the comic book version of Hollywood montage sex, but this dialogue is significant for the ways this reboot approaches well and then fails the super sex motif.

In the early episodes of Netflix’s Daredevil, Foggy chuckles about Matt’s being blind but always attracting beautiful women. This adaptation remains uncritical in its use of the blind motif in Daredevil, which the comic book has tended to do since the early 1960s.

The scene above does complicate the blind motif when Matt implores: “Please don’t make my disability your fetish.”

However by the final panels of that page, the dialogue and artwork paint a disturbing, and far too predictable picture.

Matt’s partner in a one-night stand is aggressively establishing her seeking out his body. But she is drawn pencil-thin, and both she and Matt concur—despite her being attracted to Matt’s blindness (“I picked you up with my charm“): “I don’t have to worry if I am pretty enough,” she explains. “And yet,” Matt parries, “you’re beautiful.”

“And yet,” she echoes, “I’m beautiful.”

Superhero narratives remain compelling because they have potential, often underachieved potential, but potential none the less.

The Punisher and Daredevil are characters with moral and ethical imperatives about justice, but also embodiments of vigilante themes that are pursued uncritically.

They share as well the lazy super sex plot elements and body objectification that is reductive for women characters who are equally diminished by their capitulation to the irresistible white savior appeal of Castle and Murdock—stoic, scarred, and chiseled.

Real-life sex is almost nothing like Hollywood montage sex, and superhero narratives could benefit from realizing that as well as exploring the full physical and emotional complexity of humans, even when they have superpowers or especially when they are merely human in the presence of the superhuman.

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