Sometime last week I got to thinking about Superman. It was actually a Facebook post of the image included here that peaked my interest (it’s been tweaked courtesy of a friend). I thought to myself, here you have this comic book character who’s not only superhuman he’s super(hetero)masculine. He possesses otherworldly strength and mental abilities but, just to keep things in perspective, he has that one weakness; he’s a he who happens to be white, straight, good looking and dashing (even in tights); he’s iconic; and he’s all-American. I‘d say that Superman is the superhero of all superheroes and, technically, he’s physically disabled. Think about it, he was this non-normative ‘super other’ forced to conceal his identity behind an unassuming, awkward and, let’s face it, emasculated figure of a man. Yes, his identity had to be hidden so that he could get on with his job of protecting the planet but also because of the haters and naysayers, the people so committed to the status quo that their own discomfort with the unfamiliar and unknown is perceived as a threat to the livelihood of all humankind. A little dramatic, yes, but not so far off. In real life people tend to shy away from difference and change because it’s often beyond control. It doesn’t help that doomsday imagery of dystopic futures floods the news media and gets into our heads. Enter the superhero/villain narrative, it’s good versus evil at it’s best and it helps us cope. An interesting interpretation of this narrative, according to my husband, is M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen the film so I had no idea it was written as a superhero/villain story. It also came as a surprise to find out it was an ‘origin’ story with more of an interest in the mundane, human aspects of its characters.
In the film Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, the super-masculine-human hero in the making; he can’t get sick and he can’t get hurt apart from that one (Kryptonic) weakness, that one ‘humanizing’ element, a sensitivity to water in the lungs. Samuel L. Jackson, aka archenemy Elijah Price, plays a man born with a rare genetic disease that makes his bones ultra-brittle. But there is more, so much more. Willis’s character is a security guard with a stellar gut instinct and a mind made for bigger things. But, he’s still a working-class guy, feet planted firmly on the ground, with a wife who rehabilitates the sick and injured and a young son who‘ll carry on his name. Did I mention that he’s white, good-looking, super beefy, stoic and, otherwise, unassuming? Then there’s Jackson’s character, a black, eccentric purple-suit-wearing art gallery owner whose physical disability and impoverished upbringing has left him bitter, manipulative, lonely and alone apart from his mother. Price knows everything there is to know about comic book superheroes and villains. He’s convinced that they’re inspired by us and not us by them and in thinking so sets out to find his character opposite in the real world. In order to weed out ‘the one’ (the Superman to his Lex Luther) he masterminds a number of terrible accidents that leave everyone dead except the unbreakable, unbeatable Dunn. Of course Price conceals this fact until after he’s coerced Dunn to actively hone his powers. Beefiness develops into unparalleled physical strength and gut instinct amplified to a kind of empathetic clairvoyance leading Dunn to disrupt an already bad situation from getting worse (see movie still).
Superhero narratives weave in other elements of humanity and society to craft a believable case for good versus evil. Film adaptations quite literally paint a more vivid picture of these narratives by anchoring them within contextual environments and material bodies in ways that visibly stereotype content for viewers who come with their own biases. We’re aware of the superhero’s abnormality (call it an impairment) but we don’t see it as a threat rather as an extraordinary ability that doesn’t just make it possible for him to do good it selects him for it. If not for the villain distracting us with his badness we might suspect the superhero’s intentions for something other than what they are. The villain is the villain because of his abnormality not in spite of it so we’re justified in our approval of one ‘abnormal’ guy and disapproval of another.
‘Unbreakable’ sets up this relationship in a predictable way. Dunn embodies the heteronormative masculine form, the able-bodied individual and fully actualized self with dutiful practices to match (including his day job since ‘white’ working class remains venerable). Price is positioned somewhere in-between the center and periphery of masculinity and personhood. He’s self-made in his intellectual achievements but self-righteous at the same time. He’s a bit of a know-it-all but pitiable nonetheless because of his physical condition. Price’s in-between status makes him a true anomaly. As viewers we’re prompted to wonder how on earth a disabled black man can be so smart and successful. It’s not a status that makes sense in the real world so we suspect him as a character. The idea is to get us rooting for the right gender, the right race, the right class, the right body, the right purpose and, above all, the right circumstances. With circumstances dictating differences can be called abnormalities and limitations and diversities called hindrances and threats. Without them dictating we would likely learn that the superhero and villain are actually more alike than different and perhaps that there was little to fear after all.