Superheroes

I’ve been watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Pretty much non-stop. For weeks.

Missed it completely when it was actually on TV. Couldn’t have cared less. Didn’t watch Xena. I grew up with The Bionic Woman, Princess Leia, and the original Charlie’s Angels; and nobody, I figured, could measure up to Lynda Carter in her red undies in the superhero stakes. So the 90s superhero phase completely passed me by. Never even saw The Matrix on the big screen (something I deeply regret).

Also, while I quite like action thrillers, I’m not very good at watching scary things, so I’ve never seen Alien.

But since then, you see, there are children – then teenagers – who really want to watch Spiderman or X-Men over and over and you get sucked in and the next thing you know, you’re begging your niece for Buffy DVDs. All seven series.

Now I remember what’s so super about superheroes.

My pirate books were, in fact, anti-superhero. I’d read so many frustrating kids’ books where the protagonist – especially if she was a girl – only escaped the usual near-death experiences due to her amazing and often unsuspected superpowers.

Superpowers suck, I decided. My books will NEVER feature superpowers. In fact, I think I constructed some sort of thesis along the lines of superpowers undermining feminism because … well, I don’t remember the rest and that’s probably just as well ’cause it’s bollocks.

I am, however, still quite happy to argue that many authors let themselves and their characters or plots off the hook with the use of superpowers or paranormal activity. It can be lazy, distracting, pointless. It can be just plain stupid. Read I, Coriander? I rest my case. I’ve mellowed, and am again quite happy to be completely immersed in a well-constructed world of superheroes, so long as that world has its own creative and mythological logic – and not just powers splashed about like fairy dust.

At any rate, Lily Swann, in the Swashbuckler trilogy, quite specifically has only one power that her fellow pirates consider to be extraordinary. She can read. Oh, and she can fence. Both quite remarkable for an ordinary girl in 1798.

She follows the Joseph Campbell-style Quest, as do all heroes, and as many Jungian archetypes a person can muster – they come out of the mythical woodwork while you’re not watching, I swear.

Of course, she is incredibly brave. That goes without saying.
She’s consciously a hero without superpowers, as is Isabella in Act of Faith (out next year) – unless you count education as a superpower which, until recently in the western world, it was. They save themselves and others, including men; they overthrow great powers almost single-handedly; and they – I hope – get all the good lines.

But then, so does Buffy.
Brilliant lines in some pearl-like scripts – scripts so good that I have twice stood and applauded, literally, at the end of episodes – although one of those episodes had no dialogue at all.
For example:

Xander: I’ve been through more battles with Buffy than you all can ever imagine. She stopped everything that’s ever come up against her. She’s laid down her life – literally – to protect the people around her. This girl has died *two* times, and she’s still standing. You’re scared, that’s smart. You got questions, you should. But you doubt her motives, you think Buffy’s all about the kill, then you take the little bus to battle. I’ve seen her heart – and this time not literally – and I’m telling you right now she cares more about your lives than you will ever know. You gotta trust her. She’s earned it.
Faith: Damn, B. I never knew you were *that* cool.
Buffy: Well, you always were a little slow.

It’s hilarious and moving and strong and beautifully written (especially the later series) and scares the shit out of me on a regular basis.

Drusilla: [as The First] Do you know why you’re alive?
Spike: Never figured you for existential thought, luv. I mean, you hated Paris.

Jennifer K Stiller argues in Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors that the quests of female superheroes are different to those of their male counterparts. Their attributes – and challenges – include compassion, leadership, friendship, family, love, community, and the potential loneliness of those who wield great power. Above all, their stories are about redemption. They usually operate in ways that are not found amongst the Justice League of America or even the X-Men.

The rules about vampire slayers, says Buffy as yet another apocalypse draws near, were made up by a bunch of men, thousands of years ago. Her friend Willow (who happens to be one of the best-loved queer characters on TV – ever) is more powerful than all those men combined. Together they create an army which conquers not only the great evil, but also Buffy’s loneliness, Willow’s insecurity, Faith’s alienation, and the gang’s paralysing fear.

Harry Potter can’t survive without Hermione Granger. Superman’s greatest hero is Lois Lane. It’s Sarah Connor (and her astonishing arms) who terminates the Terminator. Drew Barrymore’s version of Charlie’s Angels kicks ass only when the team is in synch.

There are exceptions – lame chicks who still have to get saved by someone else (I’m looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow), or whose main aim in life is to look hot in latex in movies aimed at a male audience, rather than inspiring young women (and men) to think differently about female protagonists. In recent years, many of the female superheroes in comics seem to have had breast implants and a ticket to Sleaze Ball 1998. And don’t start me on Twilight.

Perhaps it’s a pendulum that swings back and forth, much like attitudes to feminism. Boringly.

So who knows? Maybe I might have to create someone with superpowers. Some day.

In the meantime, I can’t wait to see what Joss Whedon does with Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers.

And most importantly – what will she wear?

What do you think?

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