Published: Verve Magazine, February 2012, Features

Illustration by Bappa


This summer, costumed crime-fighters return to the big screen in their darkest form – plagued by physical failings and emotional dilemmas. This may be their sexiest avatar, ever. What is it about sinister grey shades that make a woman see passionate purple? And can a woman ever stand by a male world-protector, holding her own? Sitanshi Talati-Parikh explores the subterranean world of fantasy fiction

the ultimate turn-on
There’s a general buzz in the air about the much-awaited release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises where the costumed crime-fighter, Batman, is pushed to breaking point. The Amazing Spiderman, also releasing this summer, grapples with human and super-human crises. Superheroes are by default meant to be indestructible. That makes them sexy. But in the world of karmic angst and philosophical revolt, our superheroes are sexier in their existential and painfully human form. Maybe the allure lies in the fact that these are people who have transgressed above and beyond and are able to fight their own weaknesses and fears, and ours. Every cathartic battle makes them take a leap of fantasy in our psychedelic emotions – our subconscious mind becomes a battlefield of latent desires, every fight is a fight for survival. It’s about power. Not just at the obvious level, but at the level of hope. We hope that good can still win over evil. And yet, we hope that it’s a photo finish, because we are afraid of closure. If it all ends today, if everything is said, and all ends are nicely tied up what will we take home to our fantasies?

Indian superheroes are fantastical caricatures at best and over-the-top mystical drones at worst. There is no real superhero culture in commercial Indian cinema. We watch Ra.1 (2011) for Shah Rukh Khan’s exaggerated antics, Robot (2010) for Rajinikanth’s omniscience, and Drona (2008) for…nothing. In Indian cinema, the movie star is the superhero – he’s not an actor, he’s playing a larger-than-life persona. It gives him the ability to do anything, while also at a very simplistic level describing good and bad. Superheroes of Hollywood are a far more refined species, evolving over time to greater levels of depth and mystery. They have undergone many changes, versions and personalities to reach a point of climax. From a rather simplistic beginning during the time of the World War, where economic downturn led to a desire for a better life, a strong role model and a saviour for the average man; to returning in a new avatar: the confident anti-hero, standing up to the establishment, patriotic and powerful. Today we have a disturbed, grey superhero: who is battling his own demons, external and internal. No one can fight evil continuously without feeling the ramifications. Even in fantasy literature, Frodo and Harry Potter found themselves turning vicious under the brunt of carrying the malicious ring and destroying Horcruxes in Lord of the Rings – Return of the King and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows respectively. Similarly, in superhero fiction, what makes the current Hollywood costumed crime-fighter worth his weight in gold is the intensity of his emotional drama. His mental battles are ours as we make constant switches between the right and wrong decision. What is good and bad? Who defines it? Is making a bad decision for the greater good okay? Most people don’t face the weight of decisions where cities and worlds get impacted. The superhero’s crisis is supreme. He fights more than his own anxieties; he fights a world’s anxieties.

The power to be in that position and the eventual control he wields makes him obviously an object of desire – but the real sexiness comes from how human he actually is. His turmoil appeals to the nurturing instinct in every woman, and the desire to have him win, willing him along mentally, grips a girl through another superhero summer. Gadgets, indestructibility, strength, resilience, super-intelligence, metaphysical abilities…and an inner reservoir of good make the superhero a classic stereotype of attractiveness. What’s a regular girl asking of a regular boy? Physical desirability, material comfort, good nature, the strength to be her man. Every man spends a lifetime trying to be a superhero and every girl waits for a man to become one for her.

Popularised by teenage comic-book geeks, the genre grew from strength-to-strength inside the mental fantasy of a boy who was yet to come into his own. He is exalted in this make-believe secret world of crime fighting, where his deepest desire of leading a life far removed from his own, where what he believed himself capable of in an alternate universe appears to become a reality. He isn’t the jock, but he’s the guy with secret powers to save the world. He will be an outcast, because he isn’t like them, he is more than them. He yearns for the cutest girl in school, but he can’t have her because of the life he must lead to complete his mission. Along the way, he becomes desirable – he is so focused and inherently strong, that women begin to notice him. We begin to take him seriously. And in there lies his fulfilment – he may be too busy to get anything more than a chaste kiss, but the very fact that he is desirable is enough for him. And it must be enough for us. His sexiness is in his unreachability, in his very unavailability.

a failed species

In this whole scheme of things, what’s a woman’s role? Superheroes have evolved in their failings and flaws, but their women remain the same – waiting to be rescued, waiting to be loved. Spiderman yearns for Mary Jane, but it seems trite that he can never have her, despite being a superhero, because he’s a superhero. Superheroes have a duty to protect and cherish, but no place for love. They cannot endanger their lady love by bringing them into their web of crime-fighting and uncovering their secret identity. Is that merely ironic or is it a foundation for martyrdom? It’s like a Mills and Boon romance with an unresolved ending. Maybe, as the Twilight romance has proven, endurance – in the age of free sex – is a turn on. And it is possible that we want the people we look up to, to not get it all – to suffer and pay the price of power. Who does the superhero come home to after a hard day’s work? Would his failings and existential pangs have been resolved had he been able to experience a companion’s love, advice and support? Is a woman a superhero’s Kryptonite or elixir?

The story of good versus evil is romantic – whether in its blatant form of a leading love interest or in its subconscious form of bromance (Batman and Robin) and in its metaphysical form of evil serenading good, calling it out and finding itself extinguished in the flame of its love. And in this romanticism, detractors find much to say. Spiderman 2 spent too much time philosophising and romancing and too little fighting crime, say some. Indian superheroes are supreme – they manage to dance and make merry love while all along giving a hearty fight to the supervillains.

A superheroine? Does she exist? Catwoman, Batgirl, Spiderwoman, Ice, Wonder Woman, Xena… the list is quite long but unimpressive. While more popular in their comic book versions than their cinematic ones, these fabulous women don’t leave a lasting impression (except for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but when vampires get involved it’s a different story altogether) the way the men do – probably because the men watching want to be in power and not be overpowered. So there is waif-fu. A character dependent on waif-fu is best described as a pint-sized powerhouse: an attractive woman with moves that can bring a man to his knees. Literally. If she is captured or pinned she doesn’t stand a chance, making her a good kidnap victim and a key plot turner. We want our women strong, but our men stronger. In women men look for resilience, patience, love… no superhuman powers and strengths. Men want to be seen as protectors and women as their emotional saviours. One would think a supergirl with powers would be the eternal turn on, but apparently, a woman in power is far sexier than a woman with powers. Demi Moore in Disclosure (1994) wins over Halle Berry’s Catwoman, any day.

The comic book industry may actually be male-dominated – after all, a lack of female readership of comic books was suggested as the reason behind keeping ‘women in refrigerators’: an inside term among the comic book circles implying doing away with the female lead as a plot device. And can a woman be his partner in crime? Fan blogs yearn for a true female superhero, the kind that can be more than just a foil to the male lead. But that may not actually work. Take the case in popular fiction of famous sleuths: The Hardy Boys – if you plan to read them, can you complain about the female positioning (or the lack of)? Bringing Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys together, we have seen, never really worked – it is a recipe for disaster. How can the balance of power sit on the fence? Drew being rescued will make the Boys’ fans snicker with glee and annoy Drew’s fans; Drew playing power woman will turn off the boys. It wouldn’t be much different for a thrilling plot play of Batman and Catwoman, for instance. Coming together of male and female superheroes and crime fighters – unless it is for some fun on the side – is like treading on eggshells. One would have to be subservient to the other: there can be only one dominant hero, and by default and by popular vote, it tends to be the male hero. The fantasy industry does propagate stereotypes, but that isn’t surprising as most of popular culture works on the foundation of male supremacy. And in that world, women are but accessories to the greater good of mankind. And so we must lie.