Well, I thought that in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d salute happy, enduring superhero relationships. Then I realized there hardly are any.
Despite their many advantages (powers, good looks, celebrity, etc.), superheroes are seldom lucky in love.
Sometimes the problem is one’s nemeses, who, unsuccessful at killing the hero himself, take solace in the fact that they can at least ruin his day by whacking his main squeeze. The Green Goblin killed Gwen Stacy by throwing her off the George Washington Bridge. (In the movies, it was Mary Jane Watson in jeopardy and Spider-Man saved her, but that’s not how it played out in the comics.)
Partly to spite Daredevil, Bullseye killed Elektra (who got better) and Karen Page (who hasn’t, yet, but being this is comics, don’t rule it out.) Major Force iced Kyle Rayner’s (Kyle’s one of the four Earthling members of the Green Lantern Corps) girl friend Alexandra DeWitt and stuffed her in a refrigerator.
The violent death rate among superheroes’ significant others provides a strong argument for maintaining a secret identity. But when it comes to romance, a secret ID poses problems of its own.
This is especially true if, believing he needs to go the extra mile to hide just how swell he really is, the hero in disguise adopts a persona that’s downright unappealing. The classic example is bland, clumsy, timid Clark Kent, who, considered as dating material, doesn’t shine even compared to ordinary guys, let alone Superman.
I’ve never actually understood this. Does every dude in Metropolis who isn’t boring, awkward, and cowardly have to deal with people suspecting he’s secretly Superman? Granted, those other guys don’t look exactly like Superman would look if he just put on horn-rims and combed his hair differently, but that’s an aspect of the saga that, since there’s really no rationalizing it, we’re simply supposed to ignore.
Anyway, one solution to Kal-El’s dilemma would be to date Lois Lane in his Superman persona, which she’s quite taken with. But he needs her to want him as Clark, perhaps because he believes it’s the only way she can truly love him as a person as opposed to hero-worshipping him as a demigod. Thus, he condemns himself to frustration.
Dual identities pose other problems, too. Though it didn’t break them up, Iris West was frequently exasperated with Barry Allen for showing up late. Barry had been busy fighting evil and saving lives as the Flash, but at that stage of the relationship, he wasn’t comfortable explaining. Spider-Man had similar difficulties with Gwen Stacy (this was pre-bridge) but felt he didn’t even have the option to reveal his double life because Gwen (unfairly) blamed his web-slinging self for her father’s death.
Sometimes it’s the hero’s fundamental nature, his very superness, that presents obstacles. The Thing managed a long-term relationship with Alicia Masters, but only because she was blind. He was convinced that if she ever regained her sight, the possibility of which was a recurring plot point, she’d reject him as a monster. Thus, the relationship was a source of happiness but anxiety, self-hatred, and depression as well. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Bruce Banner found his romance with Betty Ross hampered by his tendency to turn unexpectedly into a green giant with anger issues hunted by the Army.
As if all the foregoing weren’t enough, sometimes love interests arrive with baggage in the form of troublesome relatives. Alicia’s dad was the villainous Puppet Master. Betty’s was Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, the general in charge of capturing or destroying the Hulk, who took the job personally and didn’t even like Bruce when he was Bruce.
Finally, potential partners may have trouble getting together because they’re on opposite sides of the law. Catwoman would be perfect for Batman…if only she weren’t a thief. The Black Cat and Spider-Man face the same issue.
Still, heroes, being heroes, sometimes overcome all these difficulties. For a time, Superman and Lois actually were happily married, as were Spider-Man and Mary Jane, the Flash and Iris, and a number of others.
It can facilitate matters if both partners are in the superhero business. They understand one another’s lives, and each can put up a fight when vengeance-crazed supervillains drop by the house. Hawkeye and Mockingbird tied the knot, as did the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, and, over at DC, Green Arrow and Black Canary.
But ultimately, a force even superheroes can’t overcome tends to tear these unions apart. That force is the nature of open-ended serial fiction.
Characters in genre fiction need problems and discontentment. They need reasons to struggle and strive. And characters ensconced in happy relationships have fewer reasons than characters still searching for or trying to win that special someone.
Thus, when DC rebooted its entire universe, Superman, the Flash, and Green Arrow all became single once again. Spider-Man’s marriage was undone in a similar let’s-change-time-so-it-never happened kind of way by the Devil himself.
Sometimes, of course, the relationships break up within continuity with soap opera style drama for the principals. Hawkeye and Mockingbird eventually split up, and so did the Vision and the Scarlet Witch. After many years of happy marriage, Sue Dibny was murdered, a tragedy that shattered her husband Ralph, the hitherto happy-go-lucky Elongated Man, and ultimately led to his own demise.
However it’s accomplished, a change like this usually pleases some fans and alienates others. If you like it, it revitalized the character by returning him to the setup that made him great and opening up new story possibilities. If you don’t like it, it trashed years of character development and threw away story elements you dug in favor of (you expect) rehashing plots you already read the first time around.
So, all that said, are there any happy, loving superhero relationships that have stood the test of time? Actually, I can think of a few.
First and foremost are Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. These two have on occasion had their problems. One notable tiff occurred when Reed shot their son Franklin with a put-the-kid-in-a-coma ray, an act Sue considered out of line even though it was necessary to keep Franklin from blowing up the Solar System. But they’ve been together for a long time, happily for the most part, their relationship is one of the cornerstones of the Marvel Universe, and no comics fan expects them to split up in any permanent way.
Then there are Animal Man and his wife Ellen. When Ellen died, her husband’s grief and love for her were so profound they empowered him to rise to a whole different level of reality (our world) and plead with writer Grant Morrison to restore her to life. (If it sounds dumb, that’s because you haven’t read it. It’s brilliant.) His quest succeeded, Ellen came back to life, and their marriage even survived the DC reboot. They’re still together and devoted to one another, and although they’re now facing the horrific creatures of the Rot, we can hope they and their relationship will weather this crisis, too.
Finally, we have Ralph and Sue Dibny. I previously mentioned their deaths, but as I also said, in superhero comics, death often isn’t the end of a character’s career. Ralph and Sue reunited in death and resumed their Nick and Nora Charles style marriage, only as ghost detectives. The Black Hand interrupted their fun by reanimating them as undead Black Lanterns, but it’s a reasonable assumption that when he went down in defeat, it was back to sleuthing and smooching as usual.
Something the superheroes above have in common is they’re not signature characters of their respective universes. Even Reed and Sue, though members of the Fantastic Four, aren’t the charismatic heroes we think of first and identify with when we contemplate the Marvel Universe. They’re tremendously important, but to a degree, they come across as older, quasi-paternal figures to the Human Torch, the Thing (even though Reed and Ben are actually the same age), and other heroes like Spider-Man, too. And for their part, Animal Man, Ellen, and the Dibnys have never really been Underoos material.
The moral may be that if you’re transported to, say, the DC Universe, acquire powers, and long for true love, you may not want to aspire to Justice League membership and your own monthly title. You might want to settle for a slot on the Outsiders and the occasional miniseries.