As the two major comic book giants DC and Marvel continue to vie for our attention on the big screen, the current “golden age” of superhero films remains steady. But among the inundation of remakes and adaptations, one component of the stock standard, commercial superhero film complex has been repeated ad nauseam: the emphasis on youth.
The evolution of Spider-Man through three iterations (including the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming) have always portrayed the eponymous Peter Parker as a student of high school age. This is despite the fact that in the comics, Parker does leave school. He even starts a family in some storylines. Similarly, Iron Man 2’s Justin Hammer, a character in his fifties or sixties in the comics, is rather a “young-washed” billionaire businessman (portrayed by Sam Rockwell) in the film.
And even when superhero narratives feature apparently “ageing” heroes – most recently Batman in both The Dark Knight Rises and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, played respectively by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck – the consequences of ageing are never explored with much depth.
This is understandable, given that production studios need to create hype to sell tickets and merchandise to younger audiences. But in doing so, with films planned to the 2030s, at what point will “superhero fatigue” set in?
The brave and the banal
In a world awash with CGI and rampant commercialism, films that explore the ramifications of ageing give some nuance to treatment of the superhero genre. These compelling and more personal stories emphasise the “human” in superhuman.
Bob Parr, the protagonist of Pixar’s 2004 animation The Incredibles, is a paunchy, middle-aged superhero who is consigned to a boring desk job. With his crime-fighting days under the moniker “Mr Incredible” behind him, Bob moonlights as a hero in secret – and despite his wife’s knowledge. Through this lens, we see a fleeting glimpse of what happily ever after looks like: a nine-to-five job and familial responsibilities that, when compared to the hero’s glory days, seem like a mundane existence.
Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen also stays true to its source material. The film’s treatment of retired superheroes (and villains) emphasises the inglorious through its focus on characters facing potential extinction via planned superhero genocide.
When compared, Mr Incredible’s dull family life seems idyllic to the fates of Watchmen’s retired heroes. Silk Spectre, once a pin up girl, has wound up in a retirement village, alone and miserable. Similarly, Nite Owl is an aged bachelor who runs an auto repair shop that specialises in “obsolete models”.
Amid the commercial churn of 2017 is James Mangold’s Logan. With its R rating, the film immediately stands out as a superhero story that is pitched to an older audience.
Logan presents a bleaker and more personal picture than both Watchmen and The Incredibles. The film emphasises the physical toll of ageing on superheroes rather than their abilities. Its protagonist James “Logan” Howlett (played by Hugh Jackman) moves into the banality of ordinary living after retiring as famed X-Men mutant “Wolverine”. Now, he works as an Uber driver who cares for two other mutant invalids: the albino Caliban and the paraplegic Professor X.
Importantly, each hero’s powers are presented as risks rather than blessings – to their own well-being and to the safety of those around them. Professor X’s uncontrollable powers are likened to an illness that requires suppression through medication. It is implied that his loss of control resulted in an incident where several hundred people died. And despite having regenerative abilities, even Logan suffers from blood poisoning caused by the indestructible metal claw implants characteristic of his hands.
In their own ways, these films offer a realistic turn to a genre that spotlights youth. They remind us that our culture’s heroes are only human and that they exist in the same fabric of society as the rest of us. They are subject to the pressures and wills of being “others” living in a world populated by “ordinary” people.
Themes of collateral damage and the hero’s responsibility to society at large are addressed in Watchmen and The Incredibles. In Logan, individuals with powers are an extinct breed, accorded an almost mythical status, but are also exploited and treated as pariahs.
These films, despite addressing ageing, also seem to require the presence of younger characters as a form of juxtaposition: Mr Incredible’s children have superpowers; the retired heroes of Watchmen have trained a younger generation to replace them; and Logan’s quest involves his protection of a young mutant who shares his same animalistic abilities.
Depending on your point of view, we can see this juxtaposition in two different ways. We could see the presence of youth alongside older characters as hopeful, in that the values of justice and freedom espoused by superheroes will always prevail. The Incredibles and Logan place intrinsic value on collaborations between the old and the young, who find common ground in defeating the forces of evil.
Conversely, the older characters in these films could serve to remind the young of time’s inevitable advances: they will grow old someday.
Colin Yeo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.