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Thematically, the Hulk is an overwhelmingly masculine character. He’s the personification of the masculine urge to break your hand punching a hole in the wall because you don’t know how to otherwise process an insecurity. When a domestic abuser says that they “lost control” leading up to their violent outburst, they are channeling the Hulk. Any strong emotion pushes Bruce Banner into a destructive rage, a literal manifestation of the toxic pressures on men to limit their “weaker” emotions and only project strength. These are all quite blatant masculine tropes. Now, obviously the Hulk is “one of the good ones”, so his horrifying superpower is always ultimately directed at the villain. He becomes Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s sheepdog, utilizing the viciousness of the wolves against them, all in the name of protecting the sheep. We all know mindless brutality is bad, but when it’s channeled in opposition to evil, then it becomes good! Don’t you feel safer knowing that the dude punching holes in the wall is the same dude with a gun protecting all of us from faceless terrorists?

I’m so sorry baby, but you know what happens when you make me angry!

Despite its palpable presence in the character, an exploration of gender within Hulk media has not yet developed. Maybe it has in the comics, and I would appreciate anyone sharing that with me if it has, but at least in the media I’ve consumed, I haven’t come across it. Despite the reticence to explore gender with the Hulk, however, Marvel and Disney+ decided to take it for a spin by adding a pronoun with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.

With the Hulk being so obviously masculine, it was always going to be a struggle using Hulk-ism to analyze gender through a female lens. The writers at She-Hulk seemed like they were trying to take radical feminism into the corporate mainstream, but ended up espousing the backwards ideology of Caitlyn Jenner: the hardest part of being a woman is figuring out what to wear. The show makes multiple references to some of the struggles of women, but these only exist for the main characters to role their eyes, and are never really confronted. Toxicity presents itself passively as an immutable constant from which to derive superpowers, not as a social ill to be addressed. The show tells us (literally verbatim) that it exists on the fringes of the reluctant superhero trope, that She-Hulk isn’t there to mindlessly smash a villain in an epic CGI battle (perhaps because rage is associated with a different pronoun). Unfortunately, that leaves us with not-so-scintillating conflicts like: needing a new outfit, dating in your 30s, and being a reluctant bridesmaid – tropes reminiscent of those romantic comedies about women trying to have it all, but then realizing they still need a man to feel complete.

This blog is really just an excuse to play around in photoshop

In addition to failing at feminism, it also fails at portraying masculinity. Each new episode seems to have a new skeezy dude, and even “some of the good ones” turn out to be manipulative by the end. These aren’t traditional villains that want to take over the world, but guys who mansplain, that are lecherous to the point of absurdity, men who are unable to commit, predatory strangers, etc. She-Hulk is not the first piece of media to have poorly developed, one-dimensional characters, but it’s the equivalent of having a menstruating woman president firing off nuclear missiles because of her PMS. It doesn’t matter how many positive representations exist alongside of it, it’s still a pointed insult. Just because there is some reality depicted by the skeezy male behaviour doesn’t mean an extreme caricature is the appropriate method of representation. And thanks to the show’s shallow feminism, these caricatures are not seen in any systemic context, so the conflict becomes with the men themselves, with men and male behaviours, rather than with the patriarchy that spawned them.

The weird thing is, the show writers knew it was going to be bad. The main “villain” of the show is a gaggle of internet trolls talking shit about She-Hulk and her gender, a meta attempt to preempt its own criticism. Rather than trying to write a better show, they absolve themselves by pointing to bad faith actors and saying that if you think we’re failing at feminism, you’re just like them. She-Hulk takes an adversarial tone not just within its feminism against its male characters, but against its viewers as well. They wrote the show as a lecture to berate the people watching it without making it good enough that this meta-antagonism would be tolerable.

But it’s okay when Jen herself points out that She-Hulk is derivative from the Hulk – pick your commentary, writers!

Television shows have the ability to discuss gender, even toxic masculinity, without provoking massive online hate. Consider Ted Lasso and the fall of Nate the Great in season two. Season one has Nate learn that strength comes paired with dominance as he is bullied and belittled by the male players, and is rescued by the strength and dominance of another man. In season two, as he becomes more and more recognized, he seeks that dominance in a confused attempt to impress both Ted and his father. His attempts at dominance are not rejected by his well-meaning friends, but are accepted in a way that infuriates him further. He wants to be the big tough guy who succeeds in crushing his enemies because that’s how he learned to be a man from season one – acceptance is not a part of the masculinity he learned. Nate betrays his friends by joining another team, and we at home are heartbroken because we can’t help but see the problems in his behaviour – they have been spelled out so beautifully within the show itself. Toxic masculinity is explored in an illustrative systemic context, is shown why it is toxic, and why it might be appealing to someone engulfed within it. All without backlash from internet trolls.

I mean, nobody liked it because we felt betrayed alongside the rest of the team, but that’s good writing for you.

How could She-Hulk have been better at exploring gender? There are a few ways. It could have picked a toxic masculine trope and committed to it, perhaps with a single villain who gets a chance at character development like with Ted Lasso. But with Hulk-ism so associated with anger, I think the show should have dedicated itself to what anger looks like for women.

When She-Hulk finally loses it, she punches a television and holds a guy up by his shirt. This is enough to cause everyone in the world to freak out and put her in monster jail. In a show that relies so heavily on shallow themes, I was surprised when they didn’t compare this incredibly mild outburst to what literally every male superhero has ever done without any social consequences. In theory, the show could have led with that, and then taken the time to explore why female anger is tamped out in a society that expects them to be meek and demure. This would have been a better show, though I still would likely have had some criticism that a feminism that aims to show that women can be uncontrollable rage monsters too isn’t really the greatest message either.

I don’t remember this part in The Second Sex

I think its best bet would have been to explore anger in a way that didn’t relate itself to rage. As the show highlights, women have much to be angry about, but rampant destruction isn’t the solution to address it. Oddly enough, the show itself is a perfect metaphor for this as it attempts to bludgeon its viewers into its ideology and receives zero converts. She-Hulk was never a rage monster, and there can be value in that. A woman’s anger can manifest itself in something as simple as refusing to change seats on a bus. Jen Walters tells her cousin that women are much better at regulating their emotions because they endure more social trauma, which is false because this ultimately leads to higher rates of depression in women (the opposite of well-regulated emotion) than in men. In reality, anger is a much healthier reaction to injustice than the passive acquiescence depicted in the show. Anger is actually the solution to the problem; it is not to be repressed nor dismissed. She-Hulk could have embraced this constructive use of anger if it really wanted to depict a feminism worthy of its pronoun.

But it didn’t, and I expect Disney to produce a refined piece of critical feminism around the same time they make a show about intimate partner violence and the relationship between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross.

Just gonna bang ’em out this year:

  • A bird in the hand is worth the labour required to obtain it. Focusing on the value relative to birds in the bush erases the worker and makes them vulnerable to exploitation
  • A penny saved is wealth hoarded
  • Every bird gets a worm when resources are equitably distributed
  • An apple a day produces unsustainable monocropping
  • Good things come to those who wait, and ought to be subject to an estate tax
  • You can coerce a horse to water using kicks, spurs, and a riding crop, and you can forcibly dehydrate it so the horse conforms to your drinking schedule. But can you collaborate with the horse as equals toward a shared goal?

Lastly, “People in glass houses invite voyeurism.” No silly progressive message in this one; just pointing out how pervy having a glass house would be.

It should be fairly common knowledge that Batman is the greatest superhero of all time (Suck it, Achilles, you knock-off Beowulf). People have been trying to figure out why this truism exists since it’s fairly difficult to qualify superheroism outside of subjective preference. It has been argued that since he’s just a guy in a costume facing off against the same world-ending events as an invulnerable Kryptonian, it is his courage and willpower that makes him the greatest. He is the most at-risk, and continuing to fight in those circumstances is more noble than say, someone who is constantly protected by a lime-green hue.

I disagree. I don’t think people really believe that Batman is more at-risk – he’s fucking Batman. He figures it out. He’s fine. What makes Batman the greatest superhero of all time is his villains. What people love about Batman is he fights against Jungian versions of his shadow self. Batman represents humanity’s struggle to combat the darkness in ourselves, and that is what makes his character more relatable than being a braver-than-usual fleshy meat sack.

I_Am_the_Night-Title_Card

They are not at all subtle about it

Let me give you an example. Two-Face is a very clear symbol of the duality between darkness and light. Harvey Dent always begins as a friend to Bruce Wayne (in all the iterations of the character that I’ve seen, at least), and that’s why Bruce will pay for the plastic surgeries to repair the scarred side of Harvey’s face – to return the character to his lighter origins. However, thematically it’s always more than that. Bruce struggles to save Harvey from Two-Face because he needs to save the humanity in himself. Two-Face is the most obvious facsimile of Batman with one crucial difference that highlights the thesis of this post. Two-Face will always enact the dark side of his personal Manichean struggle, regardless of coin tosses, and Batman will always triumph in the light. That’s how the protagonist/antagonist relationship works.

BatmanTDKR1_055_The_Dark_Knight_Returns

It’s a comic about a guy in a bat-suit. It was never going to be subtle.

Our favourite Oswald that didn’t shoot a Kennedy, Penguin, fits into this thesis too. Penguin was born into the wealthy Cobblepot family. With that inherited privilege, he embodies the sin of greed and demands more. Penguin is the graphic representation of a Marxist wet dream excoriating the bourgeoisie. Bruce is again similar. He did nothing to earn the billions afforded to him from his familial inheritance, and he became the CEO of a mega-corporation rivaling LexCorp without any relevant education or business acumen. It is unclear what Wayne Enterprises actually does (Thomas Wayne was a practicing physician, not a businessman), but who cares. It’s been argued that a class critique of Bruce Wayne would prefer him systematically redistributing his wealth rather than acting out his well-funded revenge fantasy against “crime”, but within the liberal paradigm of Batman comics, Bruce Wayne is essentially a good, charitable dynasty billionaire to Penguin’s evil, selfish one.

Penguin

Batman is better. Batman is always better.

Scarecrow, Jonathan Crane, is another Jungian villain that begins to show the edge to Batman’s battle with himself. Scarecrow uses fear gas to terrify the populace into submitting to his criminal schemes. Batman dresses like a bat because he was scared of bats as a boy, and embodies that fear to intimidate his foes to make his vigilantism more effective. He uses fear just as intentionally as the Scarecrow, but on a different demographic. Fear is acknowledged as a devastating tactic, and must be precise in its implementation lest one slip into villainy. Batman walks that tightrope like a champ.

Superstitious and Cowardly

Children are a superstitious, cowardly lot

This leaves the Joker. The Joker’s whole deal is that he’s an insane clown, but not like the John Wayne Gacy type. He could have easily been a forgettable villain, overblown by too much camp and vanishing into the dustbin of history like the ICP, but against all odds, the Joker became the most iconic Batman villain. He did this by embodying Bruce Wayne’s madness. The Joker infamously believes that all it takes to drive a sane person mad is one bad day, and while he is proven wrong on many occasions, he is accurate in his analysis of Batman. Bruce had one bad day, and became a driven, megalomaniacal vigilante in response to it. He is held in check only by his single-minded focus on justice. The Joker broke under pressure, caving to unchecked violence, but Batman held on to his values just enough to stay in the light.

Two Guys in a Lunatic Asylum

What do you think I am? Crazy!? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across!

There are obviously a lot more Batman villains, and not all of them fit so neatly into this kind of categorization. Catwoman, sure, is as ethically grey as Batman, and her darkness slightly edges over the light much in the same way Batman’s light slightly edges over darkness, and as much as they want to, they can never quite meet in the middle. However, that’s just as much a Jungian conflict of coming to grips with one’s own ethical ambiguity as it is a Montague and Capulet love story. And I swear to God, if anyone brings up Calendar Man I’m going to lose it. The point isn’t that every villain perfectly represents Batman’s struggle with himself, but that the emblematic villains that define Batman as a character are lasting because they reflect his own inner demons.

This is what makes Batman the most interesting character that happens to be categorized as a superhero. The thing is, though, despite the socially agreed upon categorization, Batman is not a superhero. Not because he doesn’t have superpowers, but because a hero is someone you’re supposed to aspire to. Imagine genuinely believing that it is okay to terrify others in order to dominate and control their social behaviour – you’d be a monster. Who wants to aspire to madness? Or Manichean angst? Batman isn’t a hero, he’s a criminal. He knows he’s in the wrong, and strives for a world where he himself would not be welcome. If anything, Batman is a supervillain fighting against cartoon versions of himself in order to protect the world from his own potential for darkness.

BatmanTDKR3-135 Hunt The Dark Knight

Batman, the libertarian fantasy, pointing out the reality of the libertarian fantasy

The idea that Batman is a superhero has pretty dark implications. Kyle Rittenhouse was found innocent in his own vigilantism through claims of self-defense, which, legally speaking, would have similarly applied to the men he had killed if they had killed him instead – not exactly a glowing exoneration. The micro legality of it is less important than the macro perspective that sees a young boy leave his hometown with a semi-automatic rifle in order to protect property from those he sees as criminals. Kyle Rittenhouse and those who canonize him genuinely believe that it is right and good to basically pretend to be Batman. The reality is that Kyle Rittenhouse created a situation where people died because he wanted to live out his own revenge fantasy against “crime“. It doesn’t matter that he is legally innocent of murder, what he did is counterintuitive to the ongoing functionality of civilization.

On a more abstract level, Batman is truly a villain in that the impact of the superficial ideals of superheroism he represents is a net negative on the world. People tend to look at Batman and don’t see a man fighting against himself, they see a man fighting against incorrigible criminals. They see social systems as not being sufficient and true justice requiring individual citizens to rise up against otherwise unstoppable evil. They don’t learn to fix the social systems through collective action, they learn to use violence to bully degenerates into conforming to normative standards. They see a fairly traditional superhero.

Hockey Pads

I mean, he is pretty often portrayed that way. This is really only my own opinion as a Batman apologist

What makes Batman great is that he doesn’t have to be a superhero. If we see him as a villain, then we recognize that he is no one to aspire to. He can just be an interesting character dealing with the loss of his parents by combating anthropomorphized versions of his inner demons. He can be someone we can relate to when we have to face our own shadow. He can help us find the light by repudiating himself rather than uncritically celebrating his single-minded madness. To borrow a phrase: Batman is not the villain that we deserve, but the one we need.

A dark knight.