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10 Big Screen Superheroes With Incredibly Uncomfortable Family Issues

The Playlist By Gabe Toro | The Playlist November 7, 2013 at 3:00PM

This weekend sees the release of "Thor: The Dark World," which, on the surface, is just another superhero film. But, in fact, it also works as a crystallization as to what makes superheroes tick: family issues. Thor's got to save the universe, but he's also got an obnoxious brother gumming up the works, and he can never agree with his father, who is also a King. To rub it in, the sequel also seems to suggest that Mom likes Loki better. Things just aren't going Thor's way!
2
Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man
What’s The Issue? “I never knew my parents, nor do I even know what happened to them. I guess things are okay with my Aunt May, who raised me into the man I am. But I committed a selfish act and my uncle died as a result. I feel like my supernatural abilities have given me a legacy to live up to, but is it my uncle’s, or my parents’? Am I asking totally leading questions here?”

How Does He Cope? In the Sam Raimi films, Spidey (Tobey Maguire) is relatively well-adjusted. He takes responsibility for Uncle Ben’s (Cliff Robertson) death, but his search for a father-figure is mostly an afterthought. The hopes were that he had them in Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) and even Curt Connors (Dylan Baker), but they all had to go and be villains (or, in Connors’ sake, hint at becoming one). Sometimes he gets visits from Uncle Ben in his dreams, but his supportive Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) keeps him grounded, and by the end of three films, he’s ready to settle into marriage with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). The issue of his parentage is never breached, except when he explicitly refers to Uncle Ben as his father.

In the new films, it’s a lot more troublesome. Young Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an outcast at school and at home, regularly giving lip to Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) as he back-burners them in a quest for information about his late parents. Turns out their mysterious deaths may be tied to the strange substance in Peter’s blood, suggesting that he’s had a part of his folks inside him all along. The one possible surrogate for him is Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), the police chief father of his girlfriend. And yet, he feels so strongly about him that he disobeys his dying wish shortly after the funeral, in the span of about ten onscreen minutes.

Prognosis: If the new films intend to follow up on certain plot threads, then things are about to get much worse for Peter, as he’s once again going to fall in with the Osbornes while new information about his parents comes to light. Perhaps instead of spending that nice afternoon in the lab with an obviously-foreboding mad scientist, Peter should try some afternoon picnics with May and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), appreciating what he has instead of trying to figure out where things went wrong with mom and pop.

The Dark Knight Rises, Batman

Batman
What’s The Issue? “I completely wussed out as a kid and made my parents leave early from a show. They got mugged and killed, and I blamed myself and vowed that would never happen to anyone else, even though eradicating crime in Gotham City is like polishing the silverware with nukes. Escalation and all. Anyway, I have a father figure in Alfred, but I really want to build my own family, though when I take a ward, I fail to notice he’s college-aged and quite capable of managing on his own. Maybe it will be alright if I leech off Alfred’s family and indoctrinate his niece into a life of crimefighting. Or maybe this untrained cop can handle the albatross that is my career, he’s sort of another age-inappropriate son-type. What, you want me to actually be running around fighting crime with a real boy?”

How Does He Cope? We’re really talking two different characters, maybe even four. To make this easy, the original four films will be collectively referred to as the Burton Batman (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney). And that one is a real headcase, a guy who so internalized his feelings about bats that he sleeps upside down after sex and treats his beloved butler Alfred (Michael Gough) not as a father figure but as a nattering hindrance. His visits to Crime Alley show that he still has fond memories of his folks, but his quest seems entirely selfish, pathological even. Burton’s Batman suggests that his parents’ death was merely a catalyst for his obsessive nature, bound to manifest in other ways had they survived.

Later on, Burton’s Batman attempts to build a family with the arrival of Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and later Alfred’s niece Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone). But the one person that attempts to alleviate his guilt about his parents’ death, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) is summarily treated just like the rest of his girlfriends, forgotten and discarded. It’s only on his deathbed when Batman opens up to Alfred about how important the man has been in raising him, as the four Burton Batman films establish a character who is at last learning how to let go of the past and embrace the future.

Nolan’s Batman (Christian Bale) differs because his psychosis seems more familiar. He travels the world to “understand the criminal element” but it’s clear that the massive industrial success of his father is a pressure he seeks to avoid. His concern for symbols gets in the way of his concern for real life: when he’s forced to burn down Wayne Manor, it’s not the home he’s lost that causes worry, but the foundation that his father has built, burned to the ground. There’s no statue, no painting of the Waynes, though Bruce still keeps the pearls his mother wore the night she died—loaded, that. He soon starts calling Gotham “my city,” but as father figure Alfred (Michael Caine) eventually reminds him, he has no debt to pay, allowing him to retire in peace after vanquishing one final threat.

Prognosis: You’d have to believe the Burton Batman kept fighting until he retired, finding the support system he never had with his parents and building a small family of younger crimefighters to carry on his legacy. The Nolan Batman, however, couldn’t move on from the death wish that is Batman until, like his father, he “died.” His dreams of settling down were with the late Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but now that he’s with Selina (Anne Hathaway), he’s supposedly going to enjoy being untethered by the Wayne name and maybe adventure on the high seas as the Most Interesting Man In The World, his parents a forgotten, bittersweet memory. The victory in the Nolan films isn’t that the League of Shadows is vanquished, but rather that Batman is finally fairly well-adjusted. Have a drink, Bruce Wayne, and try not to be recognized in that crowded cafe by anyone with eyeballs!

Iron Man 3

Iron Man
What’s The Issue? “My wealth and genius are unparalleled, though I inherited both from my boozehound dad whom I was never close with in my youth. Retroactively, I question his influence, given that he trusted an obviously insane rival with company finances, one who later tried to kill me. He also buddied up during World War II with a newer associate of mine, one with a completely backwards sense of the modern world and a terrible sense of fashion.”

How Does He Cope? Alcohol! Though it’s never spoken out loud in the films quite the way it is in the comics, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is an alcoholic, always with a drink in his hand even when staring death in the face. This attitude allows him to remain flippant about what he’s done with Stark Industries, the company his father built. Formerly a weapons manufacturer, now Stark Industries contributes to energy projects, creating rather than destroying. The fact that father Howard also had an interest in such technologies (having fused some of it into Stark’s bloodstream at a young age) makes his feelings towards his Dad outwardly ambivalent. Those early experiments ended up saving Stark’s life during the events of “Iron Man 2,” but it also showed that he was something of a guinea pig for his late pop.

Prognosis: There’s still a lot we don’t know about Howard Stark, who seemed to love the bottle just as much as Tony. His desire to be a better man than his father seems honest, but he also can’t seem to resist a little daredevilry: Tony’s implicit acceptance of his own reckless ways (like, say, showboating with his home address in “Iron Man 3”) seems to point at his father, a womanizing lush much like him who nonetheless built an empire. If dad can be bulletproof, Tony is arguing, me and my army of robot suits will be fine. All things considered, if Tony wants to distance himself further from Howard, maybe he should put down the bottle, for starters.

Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance Nicolas Cage

Ghost Rider
What’s The Issue? “I love my father very much, but when he got cancer, I gave my soul to the devil to heal him. Unfortunately, the devil’s deal was rotten, and he immediately killed my father soon after. We don’t talk about my Dad much.”

How Does He Cope? He’s the Spirit of Vengeance now, so coping isn’t much on the agenda. Making Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) a soldier of the devil basically gave him eternal life, so it’s almost as if he’s assimilated his father into his own existence. In the first film, Blaze is long removed from the tragedy, though his vague insanity (watching monkey videos, eating jellybeans from a champagne glass) can be seen as dissociative traits, particularly considering he is, like his father, a stunt biker. Eventually, he develops a kinship with an older Rider (Sam Elliot), a bond that helps re-affirm his new adult identity as a hero.

Prognosis: In the second film, Blaze is now a haunted ghost of sorts, and his loneliness is batted away with the same spirit existing in a young boy named Danny. He has become his father, passing down the powerful burden to cheat death. His curse is now his lineage—guy’s doomed, but he seems to handle it pretty well. 

This article is related to: Watchmen, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Daredevil, The Dark Knight Rises, Man Of Steel, Man Of Steel 2, Blade, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, Features, Feature


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