I don’t know what the defining moment of Alias #1 (the Brian Michael Bendis Marvel comic, with no relation to the TV show) will be historically, but I suspect that it may be the scene where heroine Jessica Jones gets fucked by Luke Cage, Power Man. At the time I was bemused by the fan reaction to the scene; even ignoring the undercurrents of racism from people appalled at the interracial coupling, many people seemed to think that Cage was fucking Jones in the ass, simply because he was going at her from behind. It’s the sort of puerile response to sex that still haunts superhero comics 20 years after Watchmen seemed to blow those doors wide open.
Before seeing the movie version of Watchmen I wondered if it would be relevant in two ways: would the film as a period piece mean anything, politically and morally, today (it does! Look for an Advocate about that this week as well), and would it mean anything as deconstruction in a movie environment where the best earning superhero film of all time tried to put comic characters in the real world? But just like in comics, the movie versions of superheroes have remained, for the most part, completely desexualized. While most of the characters in Watchmen could comfortably show up in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City, they would all be surprised to get there and find out that while they can break bones and beat baddies, they can’t get blowjobs.
Watchmen changed the way superheroes could operate – things got darker and more violent in the book’s wake, and the heroes became more dysfunctional and ‘real,’ but nobody could fuck. Comic book sex remains either a function of marriage or the province of bad guys. The female villains get to be sexualized – that’s part of how you know they’re bad, they want to fuck Batman. Or if they’re men they rape Elongated Man’s wife – but the good guys have sex only offpage, and almost always only in committed relationships. And even the characters who have seemingly healthy sex lives – like Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson – end up the victim of pin-up art mentality. Was there ever a Todd McFarlane illustration of Mary Jane that didn’t look like it could have been the cover of a porn DVD? Mary Jane’s sexuality doesn’t feel like a part of her character, it feels like her character (check out this extraordinarily distasteful Mary Jane statue from a couple of years ago. The juxtaposition of the character as sex object and Spider-Man’s servant is actually despicable). And in most other cases sexuality is reduced to childish, giggling innuendo disguised as a post modern look at the characters. Oh that Reed Richards, imagine what he could do!
Movie superheroes don’t have much more luck getting their fuck on. Looking back at the pre-Watchmen landscape it really seems that only the most Boy Scoutish of all superheroes, Superman, ever explicitly got some ass. And what a price he paid for that – in Superman II he gives up all his powers just to have a roll in the crystal with Lois Lane. It’s possible that Daredevil actually gets it on with Elektra – I’ve blocked most of that movie out of my mind in a defensive move – but generally the superhero self-denies, never actually getting with the love interest (and there’s always a love interest, even though nothing gets consummated).
Enter into this puritan, pent up world Watchmen the movie. While the violence of the film is above the norm (Rorschach puts a meat cleaver in a child murderer’s skull as opposed to leaving him in a burning building. You have to up the ante here, since Batman does almost the same thing to Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins – “I don’t have to save you!” – that Rorschach does to the baddie in the comic), it isn’t that far from what we’ve come to expect from our heroic fantasy. But the sex… it’s above and beyond.
What Snyder gets about the sex, and what he make work in the movie, is that it’s about characters. Yeah, there’s the element of kink and fetish that is inherent in people in skintight clothing beating one another, but that’s not what Watchmen‘s sex scenes really are about (although they’re kinky in their own right). And they’re not lascivious in a Mary Jane Watson lounging around in her nightie way (although they’re presented as unabashedly erotic). Each of the film’s sex scenes inform us about the characters and the story. And that’s the function of a sex scene in any adult movie – by which I mean not a movie with sex and violence, but a movie where sex and violence mean something. I’m not bagging on gratuitious sex and violence – I write a column called CHUDsploitation for the love of God – but just noting that the ideas that we have (ideas that seem to be shared by the comic book community) of what makes something adult could be skewed.
It’s the sex that makes Watchmen work in a new way beyond The Dark Knight. Sexuality is a big part of what makes us human, and the attempt to put a realistic spin on these people in costumes will always fail when that side of humanity isn’t acknowledged. There’s also a vulnerability and privacy to sex that makes these characters real people instead of archetypes; maybe you’ve never been a glowing blue master of quantum reality, but perhaps you know what it’s like to be mystified by your girlfriend’s reactions to your advances. Or maybe your boyfriend can’t shift matter but he’s definitely been more preoccupied with his job than getting you off. And if there’s a single sexually active male reading this who has never experienced some sort of sexual problem – either not getting it up or getting it done too quickly – I’d like to meet you, study under you and possibly bottle you for resale. The ‘real world’ of Watchmen is no realer than Nolan’s Gotham City, but it’s populated with realer people, partially because it’s populated with people who fuck.
I guess it’s an indictment of America that comic books embraced the violence and moral greyness of Watchmen but essentially left the boobs and balls behind. We’re still puritanical at heart; there will be a lot of people who won’t even understand why there should be sex in a movie or comic on any level. They’ll complain that superheroes are primarily aimed at younger audiences, and are happy to let kids see brutal violence but not someone getting sexually pleasured. And besides, they’ll say, you don’t need that stuff. “You can understand their relationship by how they kiss! Or how he looks at her! Or how they fight ninjas side by side!” they’ll say, and I’ll just shake my head. Surely not every movie or comic needs sex, and not all of it needs to be explicit, but it’s a part of our lives, and it’s not one of those gross parts of our lives like taking a shit or watching American Idol. It’s a big part of our lives, it’s a cool part of our lives, and it in many ways drives us and gives insight into us. It’s no less true in fiction as it is in reality.
What’s doubly funny is that so many will line up to declare superhero comics the modern version or descendant of Greek myths. Those Greek gods fucked ALL THE TIME. Zeus used to take on the forms of animals just to fuck people. Sexuality and sexual desire inform Greek myth in a big way, but that aspect never got ported over to the four color world. Or did it? The difference between Dr. Manhattan and most superpeople is that his penis is visible – draw a penis on most supermen and it wouldn’t look out of place, as they’re essentially naked people painted garish colors.
I’d like to see Christopher Nolan pick up the torch from Watchmen. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for Batman – the Jim Aparo years had Bats as a guy who got around and who was unabashedly sexual. Nolan doesn’t need to go beyond the PG-13 that’s served him so well, but if Catwoman is introduced why not let her and Batman actually get it on? There are a lot of reasons why I can’t identify with Christian Bale’s Batman, but his monkishness is certainly high on the list. Maybe he’d be less edgy if he got his batrocks off once in a while. We want our superheroes to have the motivations and morality of adults, but we still insist that they approach ‘love’ from a schoolboy perspective, leaving aside anything gross like lust or desire.
A note at the end here: I haven’t seen The Spirit, but it does seem that sexuality plays quite a role in Frank Miller’s movie. It’s possible that it’s of the lascivious, Mary Jane statue way, but I do want to qualify that it’s possible that the guy who was behind the other seminal mid-80s decontructionist superhero comic, The Dark Knight Returns, has escaped the boundaries of pitiful platonic screen love. But it’s Frank Miller, so I bet The Spirit‘s sexuality is at best creepy.
Oh, and Jessica Jones from Alias? At the time of that initial comic I thought that Bendis understood the place of the sex scene in storytelling. She sleeps with Cage not because it’s titillating or for shock value, but because it shows us something about Jessica. She’s desperate for contact, desperate to feel something, even if it’s the gritty shame of a creepy quickie. That’s a real character with real humanity, not the usual neurotic superhero BS. But it was short lived; Cage knocked her up, the two got married and her R-rated book got canceled and she moved into the pages of one of the variations of The Avengers, where she and Cage could commit endless acts of wanton violence but couldn’t ever really get it on again.
Thanks to Silas Lesnick for providing Alias scans used for research.
After I published this it was drawn to my attention that one on-screen superhero does fuck: Iron Man. And Iron Man’s sexuality is a part of his character, and tells us something about him – even though he still has that lame schoolboy thing with Pepper Potts. Still, hats off to Jon Favreau; I knew there was a reason his movie was my favorite superhero film of 2008.