Lois Lane and Superman, a couple that has been inseparable for decades, has been driven apart in the most recent Superman movie. Forced to wait for five years while her beau gallivants across the galaxy, she shows us that her updated version is no longer docile and naive. She is now a modern woman and no ‘faithful Penelope’ waiting for some man to return to her at his convenience. Instead she finds another man in this latest story.
Upon his return from outer space, superman finds that the love of his life has not only fallen in the arms of another man, but has also belittled his contributions to humanity with no small amount of vitriol in nationally syndicated publication. Lois is clearly a new woman, a completely new character with little relation to precedent. Superman in stark contrast is the same as ever and finds himself utterly confused by the changes that have occurred on Earth while he was away. He remains helplessly in love in Lois Lane, even though she has forsworn him in every possible way.
I surmise that the screenwriters wished to adapt the traditional toughness of Lois’ character to the modern era, but in so doing, they forgot her importance as a sensitive, classically feminine individual. Lois Lane was human and vulnerable underneath her initial bravado for a reason; she allowed Superman to show a more affectionate and emotional aspect of himself that dutiful service to humanity did not permit. Now that element is gone, and in the new film, Superman seems ready to burst as he struggles to accept the new man in Lois’ life and writhes with internal torture as he wonders if he fathered her child. This time, Superman finds himself utterly lonely, without support, still hopelessly attached to an unrequited love, and divided from a child he later finds out he fathered, but can never hope to be father to. He continues to selflessly serve humanity, but this time with a certain grim conviction in place of indefatigable optimism.
As for Lois, one must examine her side of the story. She tells Superman that she moved on to another boyfriend because he left without saying why or where and that she didn’t feel cared for. Didn’t feel cared for? Superman must have saved her life against impossible dangers dozens of times in both comics and movies—and with a romantic flight through the clouds afterwards. If that isn’t enough to show one’s care and love, what is? A romantic flight across the starry sky and full moon for God sake! Most men find purchasing a sparkly rock to be at the outer limit of their powers.
As for leaving suddenly and without explanation, one can’t conclude he’s dead very easily we’re talking about Superman here. As far as sleeping with another women is concerned, he’s Superman, he’s as morally upright as any human being has ever been. As far as being intentionally hurtful by leaving her, he’s Superman, he wouldn’t ever deliberately hurt any being at all if he could help it, let alone the love of his life. When her faith was put to the test in one of the most reliable, most desirable men ever conceived, she chose someone else.
Furthermore, she has little or no interest in hearing Superman’s reasons for acting as he did while demanding that he accept her justifications for turning away from him without question. She offers no empathy or understanding for the loneliness of a man who is the last of his species and regards his quest to discover his past with something bordering on incredulity.
The collapse of Lois Lane’s case is complete when one considers the fact that there is an issue over parenthood of her child. This means that she must have slept with the other guy almost as soon as Superman was out of sight. Five years is a lot to ask and we would be able to sympathize—if it were a normal man in question—but ditching the biggest hunk in the galaxy within a month?!
With all things considered, the new Lois Lane is completely undeserving of Superman’s love and trust. Meanwhile, Kitty, Lex Luthor’s girlfriend, is genuinely grateful to be saved by Superman and later repays him by saving his life. Ironically, one of Superman’s enemies proves herself far more constant and deserving of his affection than the new Lois Lane. She may seem too bubbly to be an ideal match for Superman, but she has the audacity to cross Lex Luthor, something not easily done by those much more powerful than she. Superman, however, is imprisoned in a bygone era and the prospect of moving on to a new love is not even suggested within the film.
Spider Man also finds himself in a predicament in his third movie. Peter Parker has the good fortune to keep his traditional sweetheart, Mary Jane Watson, but with enough strife that one almost begins to wish he didn’t. Their relationship is idyllic in the beginning of the film but the trouble quickly begins when Mary Jane’s Broadway career has an unpromising start. From that moment, there is no peace.
I can still see Peter Parker’s glowing expression as he sits in the front row barely able to contain himself as he watches the same girl he saw in an elementary school play realizing her life long dream. He is exultantly happy for her in what seems to be her moment of triumph, and when she is lambasted by the critics, he unremittingly supports her with utter sincerity.
Unfortunately, none of this is enough for Mary Jane. Her fanatically loyal boyfriend’s mere sympathies are no good if he can’t even empathize with her in exactly the way she deems proper. Everything goes to hell when he mentions Spiderman while assuring her that the critics will not be a problem. At this point, the wall crawler’s popularity is at an all time high and the mere mention of Spider Man causes Mary Jane to be consumed by resentment and jealousy. An old-fashioned Peter Parker doesn’t even comprehend the grief he’s brought upon himself by invoking the ire of a modern, liberated woman even as he plans to propose to her.
On the very evening he plans to present her the ring, he suddenly discovers the entire relationship is actually on the brink of collapse. Mary Jane is upset that her boyfriend seems focused on his career over hers and that he just doesn’t seem to have a lot of time to discuss the matter. And there’s the matter of worrying that her famous boyfriend will fall prey to other women, which drives her into a possessive frenzy.
Now let’s consider Mary Jane’s side. Spider Man giving out his upside down kiss as a matter of public spectacle is definitely a real transgression. She has every right to be angry over this, but there are mitigating factors. When the college classmate he rescued asks for a kiss, he tells her to ‘lay it on.’ As a viewer, I was expecting her to give him a peck on the cheek of his facemask. I don’t think Peter Parker anticipated her next move, to partially pull down his mask and kiss him on the mouth. Even seeing what was about to happen, Spiderman would have had to stop her right there and humiliate her in front of thousands. On closer examination, Peter Parker unintentionally got himself in a bind; he didn’t even realize he’d done anything wrong until Mary Jane confronted him with it later.
Mary Jane is absolutely right that her career seems to be coming second to that of Spiderman, but her resentment is spiteful and irrational. It should be obvious whose job comes first when your significant other has personally saved the city a half dozen times from seemingly unbeatable forces and who is admired by millions. Where is the disconnect here? Even if she was a famous Broadway diva she couldn’t compete with Spiderman, it can’t be done by a regular person. Peter Parker is genuinely proud of supportive of anything she may attempt, regardless of whether she succeeds or fails. This must be enough if their relationship is to continue. The movie would have us believe that Spider Man must think less about his job as savior of the city and focus more on his woman’s needs, but one must conclude ultimately that the problem lies with MJ. A temperamental prima donna has no place at the side of a renowned superhero.
Mary Jane’s case is decidedly very weak and not at all enough to justify her constant pouting, outbursts, and nagging. After they fight, they split apart for awhile and Peter Parker is the one who languishes without support. He falls victim to the corrupting influence of power—embodied by the symbiote—and finds himself in a devolving spiral of revenge, angry outbursts, and hateful acts. MJ demands additional support constantly and in exactly the empathetic sweet way she likes it, but she has a physically safe occupation, no particular need to bottle up secrets about herself, and is not the only one who receives scathing criticisms. It is she that needs to be there for Peter Parker, and when she finally shows up at his apartment he’s already been through hell and she’s too late to do much good.
With the relationship all but collapsed, a man less dedicated than Peter Parker would see that Mary Jane isn’t exactly the best woman for him. To him, she is the childhood sweetheart, the girl next door, but it doesn’t bear up to examination. Through both their childhoods only moments here and there passed between them at all. He was romantically invisible to her while she dated jocks and bad boys with sports cars left and right. She didn’t even notice him until his superpowers made him confident enough to be of interest. If it hadn’t been for the bite of a radioactive spider, she would never have looked at him twice and the supposedly golden romance would never have come to pass.
Now, I put Mary Jane’s competition into the arena, the college classmate who Spiderman rescues from a skyscraper. This woman is stupendously grateful for being saved just once by Spiderman—so much so that she initiates a city-wide parade in his honor and praises him publicly. Wow. Mary Jane has been saved a dozen times and her reward is to go on about how he’s not in touch with her feelings.
The competition does even better on the Peter Parker front. She is on the way to becoming a brilliant scientist and has a wealth of shared interests with him. She would be a true companion in his work as a superhero, she might even contribute to the gadgetry that allows him some of his special abilities. Mary Jane on the other hand has nothing in common with Peter Parker. I can’t think of a single activity they even do together; they inhabit completely separate spheres. The classmate is clearly a much better match, as is the Russian girl who has a huge crush on him and bakes him cookies, but the thought of a traditional Spiderman leaving his updated, liberated love interest cannot be seriously entertained.
Ultimately, we end with the same situation for both Spiderman and Superman. The old-fashioned man is helplessly trapped where he is, caught between traditional expectations and realities of the present, without the sense of self-worth and independence with which their women are amply endowed. Screenwriters powered up the love interests without any compensation on behalf of their heroes. Ironically, it is now the male characters who seem docile and weak.
This is no mistake, however. Screenwriters succeed in the marketplace by astutely reading the current trends and penning something that will sell. Superhero stories in particular serve as a sort of modern mythology populated by a colorful pantheon of deities acting out a plethora of morality plays. Superheroes embody the morality and values of their times and as such the tales of their exploits are a telling barometer. The message of Superman Returns and Spiderman 3 is clear—that even super powers, daring rescues, and undying love is no longer enough. Guys have to provide all that and furnish her with the right kind of affection and sympathy when she wants it, for the duration she wants it, in exactly the right way. Not only is the woman free to take whenever she wants, she has no obligation whatever to give anything in return. In fact, any infraction whatsoever, imagined or real, is justification for her to leave for another man since her emotional needs are apparently not being satisfied. The man must remain faithful all the while or he would be selfish and shallow. When it comes time for advice and council, Peter Parker’s Aunt May tells him that he must put his wife before himself, which implies to the viewer that he isn’t already. What more can he possibly give!? Superman has no one to console or advise him, just a sad longing that will not allow him to move on.
The greatest of superheroes have been broken and defeated, not by the villains that populate their universe, but by a new society, a post 1970s order, to which they are hopelessly unable to adapt. Both of these movies succeed in the tradition of their genre in that they resonate with the issues faced by their audience. With divorce rates at high rates in most Western nations, is it any surprise that Peter Parker finds himself in the doghouse and that Superman gets his chance to be a deadbeat dad? With the vast majority of these divorces initiated by women who are subsequently showered with money, property, and custody is it any surprise that the modernized heroines are always asking for more? While I certainly found these films entertaining, I also had an appreciation for their deeper commentary on social troubles. It is almost as if a new villainess has entered the scene and no one can say yet when or how she will be defeated.