I saw Iron Man 3 with my wife and kids opening weekend; I really enjoyed the film. It was a great look at the Tony Stark character, adding some interesting facets to the Tony Stark/Pepper Potts relationship. Which got me to thinking: Why do superheroes have such a hard time with relationships?
Take the Tony Stark character for example. The Iron Man film franchise begins with Tony Stark chasing skirts the way my dog chases squirrels, yet when confronted with the possibility of a real relationship with Pepper Potts, he becomes Chicken Man instead of Iron Man. In Iron Man 3, after having finally acknowledged his feelings for the super-efficient Ms. Potts, he nearly drives Potts away again with his neurotic obsessive-compulsive attempts to protect her. The whole Potts/Stark relationship is played to great comedic effect by Robert Downey Jr. and Gwennyth Paltrow, and while it does make the Stark character more human, it’s almost a cliché.
The superhero world is filled with characters that have an easier time handling alien invasions than feelings. How many years did it take for Superman to marry Lois Lane? Thirty? Daredevil had one failed relationship after another. How about Ollie Queen/Green Arrow? He was a complete disaster with relationships; however, at least his character was aware of it. Batman and Cat Woman? Great star crossed lovers potential, but ultimately, neither one of them can commit. Wonder Woman? Nothing comes to mind. Cyclops and Jean Grey? In the hands of Chris Claremont, their relationship became a tragic love story of which Shakespeare would have been proud.
There was one notable exception to the superhero relationship paradigm: Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. I always thought it was great that the nerdy hero got the supermodel girl and survived the walk up to the altar. It opened up a whole world of potential for the characters, and readers got to see them grow up and grow together. Then Marvel went and had their Brand New Day story arc, and the Peter/Mary Jane relationship is no more. (I still disagree with that decision, Mr. Quesada. Just saying.) Some new and interesting things were done with Spider Man and the rest of the support characters, but it’s like the second season of Star Trek, The Next Generation: it just isn’t quite right.
I suppose no permanent ties on the relationship front make it easier for the writers to provide variety while maintaining story arc consistency. Writers can add all kinds of almost-but-not-quite relationships to keep things interesting, too. Consider this, though: it takes the same level of commitment to maintain a relationship that it does to have great power and use it responsibly. The character traits that drive commitment to an ideal or to a relationship are not diametrically opposed; in fact, I see them as being very much intertwined. Perhaps in the future we can see more of the mask and cape crowd in successful relationships that can be explored in a positive way.