The Married Superhero


For some silly, masochistic reason, I've spent the last few weeks wading through the mid-1990s Spider-Man clone saga. The basic premise is that the Peter Parker we know and love as Spider-Man is not actually Spider-Man. Instead, following a fight with his clone, the real Peter Parker walked away believing he was the clone, while the clone went on to continue his career as Spider-Man. The clone, now known as Ben Reilly (an amalgam of Peter's slain Uncle Ben and his Aunt May's maiden name) returns and the truth is discovered. Peter then goes off to Portland to live happily ever after with wife Mary Jane and raise a family, while Reilly reclaims his role as Spider-Man. The whole thing took two years, and when it was over Marvel just said psych and undid the whole thing. Peter returns as Spider-Man.

So it was pretty lame. In fact, it was the reason I stopped reading Marvel for many years. And it doesn't hold up particularly well over time either. But it's interesting that Marvel never actually gave up on one of the goals of the Clone Saga, which was to replace Peter Parker with a Spider-Man who wasn't actually married. Just a few years ago, they decided on a much simpler way to divorce Peter Parker from Mary Jane -- a Faustian bargain struck with Marvel's version of Satan who agrees to save Aunt May's life if reality is altered so that Peter's marriage never occurred. Simpler, but no less dumb than the Clone Saga.

DC Comics has already decided to eliminate Clark Kent's marriage to Lois Lane in its reboot of their universe. Superman and Spider-Man occupy similar roles as the mascot characters of their respective comic-book franchises. The decision to eliminate their marriages, I think, has a great deal to do with the level of vicarious aspiration involved in comic-book fandom. An essential part of the fun is being able to imagine yourself having Superpowers. There's a reason the X-Men remains such a blockbuster property -- giving superpowers to social pariahs makes the fantasy even more believable, because after all, most comic book geeks -- including myself -- have a vivid sense of what it's like to be picked on.

A marriage then, adds an additional hurdle to the fantasy, and not just because it makes the character seem older. I suspect much of the backlash from white geeks to the new Blatino Ultimate Spider-Man has to do with assumptions about blackness being "cool" and the fear that the new Ultimate Spider-Man will require more suspension of disbelief than they can muster. Also, pace Brother Mouzone, even if a "nigger with a library card" is the most dangerous thing in America, one who can punch planets in half has to be pretty intimidating, too.

Married superheroes though, also curtail the vicarious sexual fantasies of the comic-book reader. The most prominent non-combat related subplots to Ben Reilly's tenure as Spider-Man involve his flirtatious interactions with women -- particularly Parker's former girlfriend, the Black Cat, whom Reilly thinks (I'm paraphrasing) looks better than the girls on Baywatch -- how's that for a dated '90s reference? Divorce by reality-altering retcons then serve a secondary purpose beyond making these characters more relatable. They preserve the idealized standard of monogamous heterosexual relationships (no infidelity, no falling out of love, no messy divorce) while giving the heroes access to their female supporting characters and their impossible, pornstar-like bodies. Because what's the point of being a cool, superpowered social outcast if you can't use it to get girls?

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