Two blockbusters-to-be are about to hit theaters—and they’re going to be epic in every sense of the word. Thor: Ragnarok will have thousands waiting in line tonight, and The Justice League is scheduled for later this month. I know I am not the only guy who can hardly contain his excitement. Of course, the comics industry has been making strides toward bringing in a bigger female audience, but superheroes are still mostly marketed to and consumed by men. Though the biggest Deadpool nut I know is a lady, all of my past S.O.'s have responded to my vast X-men collection with a derisive chortle rather than enthusiasm.
I get that this fandom is silly. But I’ve realized that, if you’re willing to get past that silliness and think seriously about the genre, you can come to some really useful conclusions. You see, ladies, we Millennial guys, whether we’re cognizant of it or not, relate to these superhero movies more than you think.
Let me explain.
When it comes down to it, the superhero escapist stuff marketed to men isn’t very different from the rom-com stuff marketed to women. In ‘The Timeless Love Story’ as in the ‘Superhero Flick,’ one or more Romantic-With-A-Capital-R heroes rise up over unthinkable, ridiculous odds and make incredible sacrifices to win the day. We watch, in part, because we want to be like them.
In our superhero stories, however, we see that romantic love is not the aim. A superhero has a mission that transcends romance. Daredevil’s Matt Murdock gives up his practice, his friendships, and his chance with journalist Karen Paige because he needs to fight evil. Steve Rogers tells Peggy Carter that he has to postpone their date so that he can plunge into the Arctic to save New York. Bruce Wayne chooses saving Gotham City over wooing Rachel Dawes. You get the idea.
Steve Trevor—although technically not a superhero—in Wonder Woman is another great example. Wonder Woman’s B-plot was structured very much like a romantic comedy, until the end. Steve Trevor and Diana of Themyscira have a bit of a meet-cute, are immediately attracted to each other, and spend much of the movie bantering, flirting, dancing, kissing, etc. Their mission is to end the Great War, but it becomes clear they are motivated not only by a sense of duty but a growing love for each other. After trying desperately throughout the movie to prove himself worthy of the mythical Amazonian demigod, Steve instead realizes that he has to do something else. While she’s fighting the Big Bad to end the war, Steve realizes he may not be that important, but he can do one thing of significance. So he gives up his life to rid the world of weapons set to kill thousands.
This isn’t a Titanic moment. Steve doesn’t die to save Diana. In a love story, any kind of self-sacrifice is directed at the relationship or the beloved. Their livelihoods, families, homes, and their lives themselves may all be given up for what they consider more important, which is the love for one person. In superheroes, however, we find a man who has priorities beyond himself and even the woman he loves.
For decades (and maybe centuries), romance has been an object of worship in our culture—from poetry to novels to the big screen. Finding 'the one' and sacrificing everything for her is thought to be the prime action of the ultimate Romantic Hero. While this is still a common narrative, a lot of modern guys are drawn toward trying to live the superhero narrative instead.
Though on the big screen and in real life this can be incredibly frustrating for his woman, it's also what makes him worth waiting for. Ironically, the guys who aren't obsessed with finding their soulmate and instead are focused on the greater good are better for women. Why? Because this guy is not going to subject you to unattainable ideals. He's not expecting you to complete him. And he gets that you have a life, too, outside of him.
You see, the men who prioritize your relationship above all else often see themselves as owed love (because, in his mind, he’s the Romantic Hero, so he deserves the princess and/or quirky Smiths fan). They do not necessarily see women as individuals, but as idols to place on their pedestals at worst and tropes to fit their self-aggrandizing story at best. As romantic as he may seem, this isn’t healthy and isn’t sustainable. This guy might even put immense pressure on you to play a role, and it will ultimately make both of you unhappy.
Of course, we're all going to obsess over our romantic partners at first, because, it's what happens. The high is real. But, if you are a guy's only priority, your relationship is doomed. You see, guys will always, like superheroes, have a mission. But people are not mission objectives. When they are treated in that way, relationships quickly devolve into dysfunction and emptiness. You don’t end up with Steve Rogers—you end up with scary Heathcliffe.
That said, guys who are following the superhero narrative won't prioritize just anything over you. As a romantic partner, you are still a major priority. Don't just accept that any person who prioritizes something above romance, is doing a good thing. Guys who prioritize their own wealth or career advancement aren’t acting like superheroes; they’re just selfish. (See Iron Man pre-Pepper Potts.)
My suggestion? Find a guy who has higher values, but whose highest values match your own. And when you find this guy, make sure that you are compatible and capable of working together for that higher thing. That way, when your relationship has to come second, it isn’t a point of conflict—it’s something on which you both already feel is worth the sacrifice.
So you know that guy who has a vast collection of comic books? Yes, you can laugh at him (and he should laugh at himself)—but it's just possible he's the kind of hero that you might want to keep around. Not to toot my own horn or anything.