“Wolverine, Batman, and Spider-Man: The Holy Trinity of Masculinity” - Why Superheroes Celebrate the Nature of Masculinity While also Addressing its Perils.
I’ve come to believe the reason why superheroes play a large part in culture is due to the symbolism they represent of humanity. Since the dawn of storytelling, we have always made wisdom palatable and entertaining through fiction — a truth hidden in an elaborate tale. Superhero comics, movies and video games have become the next step in the evolution of story telling. I also believe there is a subconscious attraction for men to be drawn to superhero tales. Not only because it would be cool to fly or stick to walls, but they’re communicating a wisdom about the nature of masculinity. We all wish we had the strength and the gadgets to take on great feats, but do we need to be a superhero to be the best parts of ourselves?
Wolverine: The Indestructible Protector
I often fantasied as a child that I had the ability to heal immediately from any mortal wound and have adamantium claws extend out of my hand whenever I needed to fight; hell, I still do it as an adult. Despite my childish delusions, there is an understandable allure to Logan which all men can feel whenever they see him in the comics or watch Hugh Jackman fiercely bring him to life. He speaks to a profoundly animalistic and noble part of masculinity: the protector.
Despite the profoundly skewed current views on sexual roles, there is an intrinsic duty to protect that all men have to fulfill because it is in our nature. We must have the ability to protect the ones we love. We’ve done so ever since we first protected them from the ferocious beasts outside the cave during the dawn of man. Today’s threats may not be as primal in modern culture but they still exist, and we’re sometimes powerless to stop them. It may be a burglar, a random street mugging or predatory bankers whose greed caused a recession. But there are times when we can face these threats and engage them. Meet them head on and subdue them. But to do so comes at a physical price through injuries or even death. Wolverine can face any threat without paying that price.
Wolverine speaks to the protector side of masculinity because he is what we wish all can be for the ones we love. Even without his adamantium-laced skeleton and claws, Logan is a skilled warrior and his unyielding will in the face of adversity, and god-like enemies represent a real aspect of the masculine spirit. But it is the combination of his skill, will, and powers which make him a deity of the protectors. We wish that we can take on danger and challenge without being scathed. To lose a battle without the scars such as Wolverine does, even when he fights the Hulk. Some men seem to embody this, such as your tough as nails Uncle or a Medal of Honor recipient. They are men who protect, fight and live to tell the tale.
Even though we wish to be indestructible and have our “claws” ready at any moment, we are still vulnerable from the things we fight for. Logan has survived brutal punishment over the centuries, but he is haunted by the women he loved and lost, notably Jean Grey. He’s even tried to settle down and raise a family, i.e. “Old Man Logan,” but danger always looms wherever he goes, and it’s the ones he loves who pay the price. Through drinking, limiting his intimate relationships and being a solitary Ronin, Wolverine tries to make his heart indestructible. Which is the problem all men share: the more powerful we become as protectors, the more vulnerable our hearts are from the ones we finally love.
Wolverine is best of what he does, and what he does isn’t really nice. Embracing the protector side of masculinity is an ugly task because we as men have to face our shortcomings and become better so we can protect the ones we love. It also means facing both failure and death. We wish we can be a living weapon and indestructible, but this is reality and not the comics. Wolverine only died once and was resurrected; we don’t get to be so lucky, which is why men are fascinated with Wolverine.
Batman: Gotham’s Father
He is vengeance. He is the night. He is the paternal figure of Gotham. Batman may be the most revered fictional character ever created. The boy Bruce Wayne was made a man through tragedy, using his resources to fulfill the full potential of his body and mind, he has devoted himself to protecting Gotham from the evil that borne the Batman. Bruce Wayne has three personalities/identities, with two being a mask. There is the playboy-industrialist-philanthropist Bruce Wayne which the public sees, which is an elaborate decoy. There’s the Batman which strikes fear into the monsters of Gotham. Then there’s the real Bruce Wayne, the one that exists between both worlds. The one that only Alfred knows.
Batman is in many respects is a selfless father figure for Gotham. He even has adopted surrogate sons such as Dick Grayson and Jason Todd (the prodigal son), who were also orphans like himself. Like many fathers, he provides his family with resources, discipline, and knowledge; even if it’s on the extreme side. Bruce was born into wealth but he uses it and his influence to create new technologies to help humanity or invest resources into Gotham so the city his love can grow. Then there’s the Batman who uses his body and mind to protect Gotham, like any true father who would do anything to protect his family.
Like Batman, father’s wear a mask or show different personalities depending who they are in front of. A father will show a different personality to his friends, to his coworkers, and a different one to his family. When there is tragedy or hardship, he puts on a mask to hide his fears and sorrow so he can lead his family. And sometimes these masks or personalities maybe even be used to hide lost dreams or quiet desperation.
Why does Batman only show his true self to Alfred? Alfred represents absolute trust. A surrogate father to the young Bruce Wayne, he has never forsaken him and never judged him for the lunacy of dressing up as a bat. But he understood the pain and the goodness in Bruce Wayne and fostered him as any loved one could. In reality, Alfred symbolizes the one person a father can be vulnerable to and doesn’t have to be afraid to show their fears and dreams. This person could be a parent, mentor, a best friend or a wife.
Despite the heroic paternalism Batman displays, he is deeply flawed because he can never truly be honest to another person, besides Alfred. If you live a life of wearing a mask, then you will alienate the people you love. Dick Grayson, his first son, left Bruce because he was afraid to become like Batman, a man obsessed with vengeance and is afraid to live without his mask.
Spider-Man: The Realistic One
Out of all the superheroes, Peter Parker a.k.a. Spider-Man is the most realistic. Realistic because he represents the truth of becoming a man. Spider-Man was just a teenage boy when he received his amazing powers. And like many of us, he makes poor choices when given new freedom or ability. We would use ours to get attention or to impress a girl, such as when I rear-ended my first car because I was too busy trying to get the attention of the pretty girl driving next to me... Sometimes we get lucky but other times unintended consequences are created by our actions, and we have to reap the costs of them. Such as when Spider-Man letting the robber go who would later kill Uncle Ben.
Spider-Man is every boy who has ever had a crush on a girl who's out of his league, whoever had a dream, and who has ever been bullied. But it wasn’t the powers that made him a hero; those were just a means. It was the call of responsibility that Uncle Ben has instilled into him, which his death had fortified. Every person has the potential to become something much more. And it’s in our youth when we are bitten by the symbolic “radioactive spider” of inspiration that we learn that we have a calling. We sometimes squander our calling because of the fear of rejection or the fear of failing to live up to our potential. It’s responsibility that gives us great power. We take responsibility for ourselves, our mistakes, our shortcomings. Then we do something good with them.
Unlike Batman and Wolverine, Spider-Man’s beauty is that he is vulnerable. He wears a mask not only to protect Aunt May from his enemies but so his greatest foes can’t see him afraid. His smartass remarks are a way of coping with the bloody fights he goes on. He feels pain and sadness when his relationship with Mary Jane is on the rocks. He worries about paying the bills and getting good grades. He is every man who has been given a great responsibility and must find a way to balance it with a healthy, normal life.
The Hero in Us All
Men play an essential role in existence, as do women. Though the sexes may not be equal biologically or in societal expectations, both sexes are equally crucial for humanity. One sex can’t live nor enjoy the beauty of life without the other. It’s hard on both sexes; neither one has it easy. We both have roles to play, and sometimes those roles are unfair. Women are expected to be beautiful, caring and nurturing no matter what. Men are expected to be stoic protectors and providers.
An excellent superhero example for women is Gal Gadot’s version of Wonder Woman. She isn’t just a mighty warrior, but a strong maternal figure who uses compassion and grace as a superpower. She doesn’t treat the men fighting with her as inferiors but fellow soldiers on a mission. She even shows a wonderful excitement over seeing a baby with its mother. Wonder Woman represents an icon who can be both feminine, intelligent and a warrior without forsaking her natural role or the opposite sex.
We all have roles to play and different ways to play them. We can never be indestructible like Wolverine, resourceful like Batman or acrobatic like Spider-Man. These heroes are based in fiction, but they were borne out of the best qualities of men. What men innately have. We can train ourselves to be the best physically and mentally. We can face terrifying situations for the ones we love. And we can become heroes if we take responsibility in doing so.