The Loneliness of Superheroes
I loved superheroes as a boy because superheroes are allowed to punch. Their fury is righteous. They spoke to me from the pages of comic books I would read, by myself, in the backseat of the family car, while it was parked in the driveway. No one ever thought to look for me there. I was safe from parents, and siblings, and supervillains.
Superheroes explained the world to me as it was being explained to me by adults. Fight. Do not cry. If you can’t be brave, get mad. Life is pain and the only way to avoid that pain is to scream at it and punch it right in the throat. The best defense against complicated feelings is a growling offense. There are so many more emotions than “ka-pow!” I know this now. But there are still times, though, when I open my mouth and all that comes out is a cold, airless silence.
Superheroes speak the two languages all boys know. The first language is violence. The second is anger. These lessons have been passed down from father to son for generations. They are meant to make boys strong and strength is a foundational masculine virtue.
Far too often, though, boys are taught to merely pretend to be strong. We learn to substitute the unpredictability of vulnerability with the anxiety-soothing simplicity of naked wrath. And then these boys grow up to become men who love superheroes.
I am one of those men.
I read comic books. I watch superhero movies. Those big-budget cape-and-cowl action flicks are wishes come true. That wish is, of course, that life was less complex. That humans didn’t need each other as much as we do. If I were a superhero, I could use telekinesis, or magnetism, or super-strength, to put a broken heart back together instead of crushing the shards in my fist in a fit of rage and bleeding.
Men are lonely. I am lonely. Batman is lonely.
I have learned, recently, that insulting superheroes, or superhero movies, on social media will earn you a passionate defense from those who love superheroes. This defense will probably be emotional and, likely, personal. If you do make the mistake of criticizing superheroes — even if it is a superficial opinion — you are a villain and justice must be served. If all men had god-like powers, the world would be reduced to ruin because of hurt feelings. At least we’d be able to sit in the debris, alone. When I am alone, no one can love me. I suppose this is why I’m on social media so much.
Men are lonely. I am lonely. Batman is lonely. Sometimes he looks up at the bat signal and thinks, “Commissioner Gordon is thinking about me.” I mean, his parents are dead. Every superhero’s secret identity is a quiet withdrawn boy, terrified of his own sadness. Batman spends his night’s fighting crime because, otherwise, he’d spend those nights in a cave full of echoes.
Iron Man is lonely. Anger is armor. He’s a human oyster — the shell gives him shape and purpose. Without it, he’s just a quivering tablespoon of meat and tears. Aquaman talks about his fears to fish. Captain America hides behind his shield.
Superman is an alien so lonely he built a home far away from other people. His whole homeworld is dead. He named this fortress after his loneliness. He spends his days there waiting to be of use to someone, anyone, because unless the world is in crisis, what’s the point of Superman? He’s just Clark Kent, a man who no one can ever know.
The Avengers aren’t lonely until they all go home — to their penthouses and sanctums and apartments in Queens. They take off their masks and boots and wonder what the others are doing. When they’re together, when they’re a team, they punch and make jokes and get angry at aliens. But they never stop, make eye contact, and ask each other, “How are you feeling?”
Daredevil crouches on rooftops, alone. Superheroes crouch on rooftops a lot. It’s solitary work, getting fired up about wrongdoing and punching, punching, always punching, maybe a roundhouse kick here or there. But I was never lonely when I was with The Flash, Hawkman, or Thor. They understood me, as a boy, because all boys are scared and spilling over with feelings and confusion, and superheroes are strong.
Iceman is covered in ice. He can freeze rivers and create glacier-like walls. I liked him, for obvious reasons: My anger is ice. But he wasn’t my favorite. The character I couldn’t get enough of was The Fantastic Four’s Thing, a hulking monster made out of marmalade-colored rocks, who is strong and angry. He finds love with a woman who is blind, and that is nice. But he’ll always be a living geode, a cigar-chomping boulder filled with glittering quartz crystals that no one ever sees. Another superhero I connected with was Silver Surfer, the cosmic sojourner who broods over the world with shimmering sadness in his empty silver eyes.
Superheroes are loved from a distance.
Once, for a summer, I created superhero identities for myself and my younger brother. He and I used to fight. I, partly, blame nature. I used to fight with my older sister, too, but we were outmatched: I was a beast, constantly unmoored by emotions I could not understand or control and she was smart. It was far too easy to lock me in the basement, which she did often, without breaking a sweat. But my brother and I were two monkeys fighting over a single banana. So I brokered a short-lived compromise: I would become The Whippersnapper and him, The Young Whippersnapper, and our weapons where tree branches. We would shout and punch, as a team, and it was a love song, even though our mother told us to quiet down.
Maybe, one day, I can tell my brother how much I miss fighting bushes, and trees, and other assorted backyard evils, with him.
I was a lonely boy. As a consequence, I am a lonely man. I am lonely because I am not strong. I have no superpowers except for seething, and pushing people away, and isolating myself for entire weekends. But I do have a weakness. Every superhero has a weakness, like kryptonite or bullets.
My weakness is telling, and showing, those I love that I love them. I want to shoot laser beams out of my eyes and carve a trench around me, a wide moat, that no one can jump, not even my therapist, who wants me to reach out to friends and family and ask, “How are you doing?”
I lay naked next to the woman I love and I cannot turn invisible. No matter how hard I try, she can see me. I hold my best friend’s newborn in my arms and I use mental telepathy to tell him, “I feel so lucky to hold your son, my dearest friend,” but I fail and the only words I can summon are, “Wow, cool.” My mother calls me because she, too, is alone, in an empty house, and I tell her I’m busy and after I hang up I sit in my empty apartment. If I had the power to control time I would fall back through the years to the moment my sister collapsed on her bathroom floor, alone, and call an ambulance. But I don’t have that power. I am powerless.
Superheroes are loved from a distance. They crouch on rooftops or float in clouds. And that’s how I want to be loved: waving to those down below as I fly off into the sun.