Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

First it was Su­per­man, then Bat­man and Iron Man – an un­end­ing stream of capes, masks and su­per­pow­ers. Can Tanya Gold res­cue her boy from their vice-like grip? Por­traits by Perou

The Guardian - Weekend - - Front Contents -

Tanya Gold on her son’s end­less ob­ses­sion with su­per­heroes

Ishouldn’t be sur­prised, re­ally, be­cause I gave him a hero’s name. Names are a kind of parental prayer, and I wanted him to be kind d and strong. So I gave him a king’s name (which I am keep­ing to my­self) – not Ge­orge, some­thing thing bet­ter and more op­ti­mistic (none of the Ge­orges was happy), and not Henry, which preens too much – and hoped for the best. I hoped for other things, too, based on my ideal (it can only be an ideal: I was brought up with a sis­ter) of what a happy boy should be. It is vaguely pre­war, this ideal – an urchin with a conker in his pocket – and in­spired by what made me happy as a child, which was be­ing dirty and out­doors, or read­ing books and day­dream­ing about ac­cess to un­lim­ited amounts of an­i­mal fat. It’s all a bit Enid Bly­ton, but I can’t do any­thing about that now; bu­colic myths die hard in ur­ban Jews.

Still, chil­dren don’t and shouldn’t con­form to parental fan­tasies. My son didn’t want to be Just Wil­liam, even if we put only short trousers in his draw­ers and con­sid­ered buy­ing him a cat­a­pult. He sprouted with a fully-formed soul and he loves what he loves – and that is, al­most ex­clu­sively, su­per­heroes.

Su­per­heroes! It be­gan when he was three, straight af­ter the fire-en­gine stage. (Very young chil­dren cel­e­brate emer­gen­cies. It is one of their charms.) It had noth­ing to do with us. My hus­band won’t ad­mit to lik­ing any film made af­ter 1950. I watch the in­ter­minable se­quence of Avengers and X-Men films with ever-grow­ing bore­dom and dis­gust – although I stop short of be­liev­ing that the su­per­hero craze helped cre­ate po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ism, as Peter Biskind sug­gests in his re­cent book The Sky Is Fall­ing: How Vam­pires, Zom­bies, An­droids And Su­per­heroes Made Amer­ica Great For Ex­trem­ism. Rather, the same cul­ture that likes vam­pires, zom­bies, an­droids and su­per­heroes also likes ex­trem­ism, be­cause it doesn’t like peo­ple as they re­ally are, so much. The orig­i­nal X-Men film lm opens in Auschwitz, with young g Mag­neto the mu­tant bend­ing the barbed rbed wire as he is sep­a­rated from hi his mother. In X-Men Apoca­lypse, he de­stroys Auschwitz in the com­pany co of a man with ca­bles sprout­ing from his head. The film made X-bil­lion dol­lars. What­ever.

My son was give given a Su­per­man cos­tume by his five-year-old cousin, who wore it only once be­cause he knew, even then, that he wanted somet some­thing more nu­anced from his myths. “I don’t like fancy dress,” dress, he told me, and handed it over. So my son be­came Su­perm Su­per­man – the first, the best, the kind­est su­per­hero. ( (The The rest are al al­most al­ways bro­ken.) We lost the cape in a ball­pit and the res rest was too big for him, so I had to cut the legs with scis­sors, and t they ended up ragged and half­way up his legs. But he was still st Su­per­man, who is my favourite su­per­hero not be­cause he is i kind, and not be­cause the de­fin­i­tive film ver­sion ap­peared in 1978 when I was five. It was be­cause Su­per­man is also a jour­nal­ist. journ Not enough peo­ple re­mem­ber that. He could have been one of the greats, but he was too kind and ended up as lousy a writer as Car­rie Brad­shaw.

While my m son was Su­per­man, he didn’t al­ways live up to the leg­end. Here, H for in­stance, is a Su­per­man in­ci­dent from 2016. We go to the pub with Su­per­man for lunch. I ex­plain that he has to share a p pud­ding with us. (The por­tions are very large, even for Su­per­man.) Su­perm Su­per­man, seem­ingly, agrees. But Su­per­man has done some­thing s un­char­ac­ter­is­tic: he has lied. When the pud­ding ar­rives, ar­rive I di­vide it into three and Su­per­man screams. He weeps, he goes go red, but he can­not quite sum­mon the gump­tion to steal it and fly away. Is it be­cause the cape is still miss­ing, buried in a far far-off ball-pit? I had to carry Su­per­man out of the pub as he wept wep while an­other mother’s mouth twitched with laugh­ter.

At A three, he was hooked: on the colours, the pu­rity – it’s good­ies v bad­dies, like Twit­ter – and the power. It is en­demic, this cul­tural im­port from Amer­ica, and as fash­ion­able as rage. (Cap­tain Bri­tain, who ac­tu­ally ex­isted, never re­ally made it off the ground. He just doesn’t sound fun; he is, at best, a man in a mous­tache with a ra­tion card, or Ja­cob Rees-Mogg.) I can­not work out whether the pop­u­lar­ity of su­per­heroes is about democrati­sa­tion – ev­ery­one is a su­per­hero now, how­ever use­less – or a re­sponse to it, but it hardly mat­ters. It is the craze of crazes and a grue­some part­ner to the Dis­ney princesses – a craze so suc­cess­ful it has found a live-ac­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Meghan Markle and mar­ried her to an ac­tual prince.

The small su­per­hero wears su­per­hero pants, su­per­hero socks, a su­per­hero T-shirt and su­per­hero trousers by day. He will also wear a su­per­hero jumper or cardi­gan. You know the look; so many small chil­dren now look so iden­ti­cal, their par­ents can­not tell them apart.

By night, he wears su­per­hero py­ja­mas, su­per­hero slip­pers and a su­per­hero bathrobe, like a pop-art Hugh Hefner. He drinks from a su­per­hero cup, eats from a su­per­hero plate, sucks from a su­per­hero straw. Un­less pre­vented by his fa­ther, he will watch only su­per­hero TV (es­pe­cially Lego su­per­heroes, be­cause live­ac­tion cin­ema seems too much) and read su­per­hero books, which I am tempted to call su­per­hero nov­els, but re­ally can’t. When he goes out, he car­ries his pos­ses­sions in a su­per­hero ruck­sack.

Of course, he is not alone. Fully grown hu­mans go to mul­ti­plexes mul­ti­ple to gorge on Dead­pool and Black Pan­ther. Ear­lier this year, year the Academy Awards planned to in­tro­duce a “pop­u­lar film” Os­car Osca – be­cause no one watched Lord Of The Rings, of course – but in the th end re­con­sid­ered. We were saved, but only for now.

My son didn’t d stick long with Su­per­man. If at three he lived in the light with wit Su­per­man, at four he en­tered the dark­ness with Bat­man, who wh is deeply weird. Bat­man! The BDSM-style su­per­hero wh whose best por­trayal on screen is by the guy →

Su­per­man is my favourite be­cause he was a jour­nal­ist. t. But he ended up as lousy a writer as Car­rie Brad­shaw

who also played Pa­trick Bate­man! Bat­man/Bate­man is very pop­u­lar now, be­cause he’s rich, in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic and in de­nial about his own pain. (Peo­ple seem to have for­got­ten that, in one story, he be­came a fish and, in an­other, a baby.) A few years ago, Money­Su­per­mar­ es­ti­mated Bat­man’s per­sonal ex­pen­di­ture – the bat­suit, the cars, the gad­gets – and came up with a fig­ure of al­most $700m, not in­clud­ing the ther­apy he so sorely needs. My own view on Bat­man is that ev­ery­one in Gotham City knows that Bruce Wayne is Bat­man; they just pre­tend they don’t be­cause they feel sorry for him, be­cause he is an or­phan.

The Bat­man ob­ses­sion led me to fret, be­cause – Su­per­man aside – th­ese he­roes are bad role mod­els. The su­per­hero is the un­ex­cep­tional man made ex­cep­tional by tragedy – Bat­man, Iron Man, Hulk, Mag­neto – and/or by the ap­pli­ca­tion of pow­ers: Bat­man, Iron Man and Hulk again, plus Cap­tain Amer­ica and the X-Men. But he is usu­ally nar­cis­sis­tic (Iron Man, who de­scribes him­self as “a ge­nius, bil­lion­aire, play­boy, phi­lan­thropist”, like a com­plete in­ad­e­quate, or Elon Musk, or Ar­ron Banks). He is of­ten de­pres­sive (Bat­man, Hulk, Mag­neto) or frozen in ice (Cap­tain Amer­ica, though it’s not re­ally his fault). He can­not form sta­ble re­la­tion­ships with women (this ap­plies to all of them). Anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism is es­sen­tial; none of the su­per­heroes seems to read books, ex­cept Pro­fes­sor X of X-Men. They ex­ist to punch peo­ple.

It was dur­ing the Bat­man phase that my son first came to me and whis­pered, “Mummy, I love hit­ting peo­ple.” His fa­ther taught him to punch peo­ple in slow mo­tion: you just wave at peo­ple with a closed fist.

Even so, I was re­lieved when he ex­ited the Bat­man phase and turned, at five, to Spi­der-Man, the geeky teenager who spurts white mat­ter ev­ery­where (what a metaphor!). He has a Spi­der-Man jumper with a hood that closes over his face, so his su­per­power is, ef­fec­tively, blind­ness. When he wears it, I have to hold his hand to stop him bang­ing into lamp-posts.

Then came Cap­tain Amer­ica, along­side an in­ter­est in Amer­i­can his­tory, which is ill-served by Cap­tain Amer­ica books be­cause they rub out all the bad stuff; then Iron Man. His Iron Man cos­tume has a light you can turn on and off, like the in­side of a car. He won’t con­sider Dead­pool, who is a ni­hilist, and so as use­less to a dream­ing five-year-old as Wal­ter White in Break­ing Bad.

Per­haps 60% of his con­ver­sa­tion is now su­per­hero-re­lated; the rest is about food. He didn’t used to be like this. Be­fore su­per­hero­ism, typ­i­cal ques­tions would be: “Is Big Guy [a late fam­ily friend] in heaven? What’s a dou­ble yel­low line?” Now his ques­tions are: “What is heavy wa­ter? What is gamma ra­di­a­tion?” Th­ese, of course, are about The Flash – whom he calls, with pe­cu­liar em­pha­sis, The Flash – and Hulk. Even non-re­lated sub­jects are sec­onded to su­per­hero­ism. He asks if Brexit will come with “Mr Brexit”. Will presents be brought by Cap­tain Birth­day? At one point he cre­ated a char­ac­ter called Cap­tain Fuck.

Now I have read the comic book writer Grant Mor­ri­son’s fas­ci­nat­ing Su­per­gods: Our World In The Age Of The Su­per­hero, and I know, from this and my own in­stincts, that su­per­heroes are mag­i­cal be­ings – fairy god­moth­ers for men. When you be­lieve that hope is lost, up pops an ideal so mas­cu­line, it can wear a cape and be ad­mired. Su­per­man came in 1938, a re­sponse to the Great De­pres­sion; Bat­man in 1939, with the be­gin­nings of the sec­ond world war. That the su­per­hero canon was cre­ated, al­most en­tirely, by Jewish im­mi­grants – Jerry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter, Bob Kane and Bill Fin­ger – is more a mat­ter for psy­chol­o­gists than hacks, but I sus­pect they just wanted to be taller and to smash things, like my son.

Su­per­heroes change, decade to decade, de­pend­ing on what is re­quired of them. They can sub­vert the dom­i­nant cul­ture (Su­per­man be­gan as a spokesman for all that suf­fer­ing) or they can prop it up (he didn’t stay that way). This is how it feels to­day, when Bat­man and Iron Man – the Don­ald Trumps of the su­per­hero uni­verse – rule with their “bil­lion­aire, play­boy, phi­lan­thropist” shtick. Last month, Kanye West told the pres­i­dent that when he wore a Make Amer­ica Great Again hat, “it made me feel like Su­per­man. You made a Su­per­man. That’s my favourite su­per­hero and you made a Su­per­man cape for me also as a guy who looks up to you.” What? No boots?

My son can­not pos­si­bly know all this, though he knows deeper truths and his own needs. When I ask why he loves su­per­heroes, he says, “Be­cause they are good.” I know this is not true, or not al­ways, and I think he says it to please me. When I ques­tion fur­ther, he tells me it’s a se­cret. But I have watched him as Bat­man, Su­per­man, Spi­der-Man, Iron Man – it’s not a great cos­tume: he looks like a small Franken­stein’s mon­ster in pri­mary colours – and I know why he does it. It is his reach for magic and the di­vine; su­per­hero­ism is his re­li­gion. I am bring­ing him up as Jewish, but there is no af­fil­i­ated Lego set for that, or py­ja­mas, and there is no su­per­hero. Even Moses screwed up in the end.

Bat­man and Iron Man give him the pow­ers he knows he does not have, and pro­tect him from the fears he does have. What is that but re­li­gion? His su­per­heroes also pro­tect him from us, his par­ents, by of­fer­ing an es­cape, through fly­ing or a se­cret iden­tity.

A few months ago, he said, “Mummy, I wish I re­ally was a su­per­hero.” And I told him, “You al­ready are.” But child­hood, like su­per­hero­ism, is ever on the move. I am los­ing him to an­other genre, as if su­per­heroes have given him all they can and now flow flown away, leav­ing only an enor­mous tide of branded Lego as a sou­venir, most o of it un­der the floor­boards. Be­cause last week he said, with great ur­gency, ur­gen as if he had dis­cov­ered a truth so ob­vi­ous he was amazed I did not know it, too: “Mummy? Why didn’t you call m me Han Solo?”

Iron Man de­scribes him­self ass ‘a gge­nius, bil­lion­aire, il­lion­aire, phi­lan­thropist’, likeike a com­plete in­ad­e­quate, or Ar­ron Banks

‘Will Brexit come with Mr Brexit? Will presents be brought by Cap­tain Birth­day?’ Tanya Gold with her son

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