“A Man Can Run Out of Things to Live For” – On the Ethos of Superhero Film Love Interests

Wolverine has always been a tormented soul, a social pariah damned by his stunted aging and propensity for berserker rage. He is a character with meat on his bones and certainly one of the richer creations in the X-Men pantheon. Of course, much of that complexity has never been effectively addressed in the various film adaptations of the X-Men property. This was why the new film, The Wolverine, seemed at first to hold great promise. Finally the ol’ furball was gonna get a truly worthwhile film treatment – or so we thought.

While allegedly based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine mini-series from the 1980’s, Wolverine largely eschews that novel’s meditative take on Logan’s struggle for self-respect. Instead, the film revolves around a Wolverine still beating himself up over the necessary death of Jean Grey in the previous X-film (Ratner’s atrocious The Last Stand). The Wolverine is one of the latest comic book films to do this. It represents another film from this genre which elevates its hero’s doomed love interest  in terms of importance, a recurring issue that would not merit attention if the female characters from these stories actually received an appropriate level of depth to justify their thematic predominance. In The Wolverine and especially in Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, one can see this how this trend manifests itself. These two films expose how detrimental that is to the overall quality of each film’s story, not to mention revealing Hollywood’s complete incapability in producing complex female characters.


The Wolverine is a gloomy film. Its tone is established immediately through Logan being present at the bombing of Nagasaki during the film’s opening scene. This sequence evokes the staggering longevity of Wolverine’s character; he is a man who has been doomed to witness the worst of humanity in the 20th century. However, like nearly all comic book adaptations the screenwriters attached to The Wolverine seemed to think that parsing the subtle, emotional nature of one coming to grips with a greatly enhanced life-span (Wolverine is NOT immortal despite what the film might say) was not enough. The simple, feckless masses would not find this existential dilemma absorbing. No! What would we do without our hero also being pained by the bitter nature of a lost love?

Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with comic heroes having love interests. Problems arise however when films seek to hang almost the entirety of its emotional core on a relationship that viewers have little in the way of an emotional connection. Such is the case with duo of Jean Grey and Logan. It’s a relationship which, in the first two films (X-Men and X2), was defined by some slight suggestions of mutual attraction and some charming, flirtatious banter. In the third film the intensity was enhanced during the Dark Phoenix storyline, with Wolverine having to shank Jean in order to save the world. What is notably absent from all of these films however is significant intimacy. Wolverine seems to certainly have a thing for Jean, but his feelings are never adequately explored. The audience has very little time to establish a stake in these two characters’ relationship. Therefore, thinking that the Jean dream sequences would resonate is an erroneous notion. Even if the previous X-pics had developed this relationship more fully, the fact remains that the last film in the franchise’s continuity is The Last Stand – which came out over six years ago.  This is an awfully long time to be away from the relationship functioning as the beating heart of The Wolverine.

The lack of past development in the Grey/Logan relationship, and how this contributes to the uninvolving nature of their scenes together in The Wolverine, is only one of the negative effects that the Grey character has on the film. One of the primary themes of the original text is Logan seeking to establish a sense of inner-calm, proving himself to be an honorable warrior and man, worthy of the hand of Mariko. This is one of the critical aspects of the Claremont/Miller material that is brutally masticated by its transition into celluloid. Logan’s struggle to restrain his more feral nature gets only a brief mention during the entire running time of The Wolverine. It is another feature of the character’s complex psychology which only gets addressed in the context of its relationship to Jean Grey. At the beginning of The Wolverine, after the flashback to the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, Logan has sworn off killing, gruffly exclaiming that “It’s not who I am anymore.” What is important here is recognizing how Grey’s death being the catalyst for Logan’s change is detrimental to the overall strength of the character. What it implies is that Wolverine had very little in the way of a moral struggle with the act of killing prior to taking Grey’s life in the third film.

It would be one thing if Grey’s death in X-Men: The Last Stand came about through something that felt like a natural progression of Wolverine’s character, perhaps a situation where Logan lapsed into a berserker rage, and then accidentally and critically injuring her. Yet the actual death scene is a rational and almost merciful move. The film transforms it into a selfless act; it is not something that speaks to some sort of inherent failing on Wolverine’s part. It showcases the same sort of heroic and sacrificial behavior that has become a typical part of his film appearances (such as him transferring his healing powers to Rogue in the conclusion of the original X-Men).

So, instead of Wolverine being endowed with emotional maladies that feel natural or organic the film seeks to instill pathos where there is very little to be found. It makes sense that Wolverine would feel some degree of guilt or remorse over killing Jean. However he should also be able to recognize that the action was the only humane thing to do. The obvious reality of the situation ruins a fundamental aspect of the character’s emotional journey, robbing any power that might have come from him accepting his role in her death in the film’s final scenes.

By having Grey’s character operate as a framing device for the entire emotional journey of the character The Wolverine becomes relatively devoid of drama. The character playing such a significant role in shaping said journey just doesn’t work. It compromises the film through shifting the focus away from the more vicious aspects of the character. It forces his distress to orbit around an action (the killing of Grey) that is one of the least morally ambiguous things he has ever done. The predominance of the character derails the story’s ability to offer up a meditation on Wolverine’s emotional relationship to his rage, his capacity for violence or his immortality. Everything is filtered through the lens of Grey, even during the film’s most poignant moment – which occurs when Logan returns to Nagasaki and Mariko thoughtfully comments that, “Everything in the world finds peace, eventually.”

The look on Jackman’s face during this sequence is easily one of the most affecting shots from the film – a staggering mixture of pain and uncertainty. Yet, what The Wolverine postulates is that its titular hero is not reeling from his history of violence or even the simple fact that he must (eventually) witness everyone he cares about grow old and die before he does. No. What pains this big lug, what he is seeking peace from, is simply his ethereal recollections of a ruby-haired lass, who had been mentally disintegrating and threatening to kill everyone else in the immediate area, and who eventually had forced his clawed hand.

This is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. In fact, giving Logan some closure on this issue is probably justified – as the last shot of The Last Stand depicts an unfazed Wolverine chomping down on a cigar and mugging in front of the camera. However, the fact remains that Jean Grey appears far too frequently in The Wolverine. Even when she is off-screen her presence is still intertwined with Logan’s emotional state. This turns the film from what could have been an awesome deconstruction of the franchise’s most popular character into something far less significant: He’s just a guy with girl problems.


If it wasn’t for the linear plotting, and the Hans Zimmer-free score, one might think that it was Christopher Nolan was at the helm of The Wolverine. An unlikely situation surely, as a defection to Warner’s arch-nemesis Marvel would epitomize treachery and betrayal. However, it remains a plausible assumption due to how thematically similar the film plays to a Nolan effort.

Similar to The Wolverine devastating pangs of lost love hang over the stories constituting Nolan’s cinematic canon. Each film features a wounded, almost impossibly handsome man, haunted by his past and stalked by visions, memories (or, in the case of Inception, “projections”) of deceased women. Nolan’s own foray into the business of superheroes (some would say silliness) is no exception, adhering to many of the long running trends and motifs of his filmography.

His Bruce Wayne (dutifully portrayed by a beefed-up Christian Bale) is appropriately burdened. Yet there is something amiss about his despondency. The melancholia brought out through his parent’s death, and his seething anger at witnessing the disintegration of his hometown appears wholly subsidiary, enslaved to the thematic demands of the character’s true preoccupation: the pitiful character that is Rachel Dawes.

Created to be the lifelong love of Bruce Wayne, Dawes was the brainchild of Nolan and David Goyer; she had no basis in the comic books. Her ethos speaks directly to this origin. This means that she is reflective of the failings commonplace to both men’s cinematic depictions of female characters. Throughout the series she serves either as a sacrificial lamb, a  prop device to depict the character development of the male figures, or a mouthpiece for expository dialogue.  Despite never having been a part of the Batman canon Dawes’ character still looms large over the The Dark Knight Trilogy. Her influence rises to a level where Bruce’s entire emotional state at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises is governed by her passing in the previous film. There is not one mention of Heath Ledger’s demonic Joker. There is also very little connecting Bruce’s isolation and perennial depression to the horrors he experienced in The Dark Knight, which included the mental disintegration, the physical disfigurement, and ultimately the death of Harvey Dent.

Again, there is nothing automatically wrong with a love story being interwoven into the larger tapestry of a superhero drama. Problems arise however when a film wants an audience to feel something about a love story and props it up as one of the central emotional themes in the storyline, yet does nothing to justify that emotional investment. What material did an audience have to chew on regarding the Dawes/Wayne dynamic you ask? Well, let’s examine it. In Batman Begins (which is the entry in the series where the Dawes character was handled the most appropriately) they primarily interacted as little children, obstinate tots gallivanting around the Wayne family garden (before Bruce took his fateful tumble). The film then moves almost 25 years into the future where we are expected to believe that somehow Wayne and Dawes have remained connected, even romantically pulled towards each other.

This is the moment where audiences are first asked to suspend their disbelief regarding this pair. Viewers are bullied by the pen of Goyer and the camera of Nolan, forced to swallow that a scene of childhood romping and a sequence where Rachel admonishes Wayne after Chill’s death, somehow lays the foundation for a legitimate romantic connection once Wayne returns to Gotham. An axiomatic quality of Nolan’s cinema are these assumptions, where the filmmaker seems to assume that just because he told an audience that there is an emotional connection between two characters we are automatically expected to feel it. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t depicted anything on screen that would help support the emotions his characters proclaim to feel! That would be too much to ask!

This problematic tendency is exacerbated as The Dark Knight trilogy moves into its second movie, with the shortcomings of the Rachel Dawes character being highlighted as her impact over the entire Nolanverse expands. In the second film, The Dark Knight, Dawes transitions into her role that she would occupy for the remainder of the film series: the central reason for Bruce Wayne doing anything.

In the transition from first to second film Rachel Dawes somehow becomes of paramount importance to the series, even being referred to as the sole factor which may influence Bruce in relinquishing his Batman persona. She is the emotional core driving not only the story of  Wayne but attorney Harvey Dent as well. She serves as the impetus for most of Wayne’s and Dent’s actions throughout the story, underscoring Wayne’s drive to solidify Dent as his more socially acceptable successor or adding pathos to Dent’s frenzied actions at the story’s conclusion, where his homicidal rage is fueled by her passing.

Yet, as in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight hinges on the viewer buying into a specific idea. That idea is the love that the film tells us both men have for this woman. It attempts to argue that something like her murder (at the hands of Joker) could plausibly provoke Wayne into a full-on, two-movie-long, eight-year-spanning (movie time) depression, or precipitate Dent’s decent into madness, murder and the abandonment of every single ideal he ever had.

In the case of the Rachel Dawes character there is no real reason to buy what Nolan is trying to sell us. Just like Batman Begins we are certainly told things about how each man relates to Dawes, yet we are shown very little which would help support the impact Nolan’s story suggests she holds. For example, during the scene where Bruce assures Rachel that Harvey Dent is becoming a source of hope for Gotham (that until now only Batman had been able to fill), she grimly responds by saying that he shouldn’t make her his one hope for a normal life. Rachel’s dissolution and chastisement of Wayne’s ardent, lovesick efforts in this scene are incredibly intelligent. They warn a character, but, in a way, are words that should have been articulated to the actual director of the film.

Positioning a love interest as the motivation of the titular character for an entire trilogy is problematic. You have to show us why she is so compelling. You have to show us significant content which speaks to the realistic development of a relationship. In The Dark Knight Trilogy Wayne’s conception of love is childlike. It is only a small step away from Brick Tamland (from Anchorman) habitually asserting that he “loves lamp.” This of course simply means that Wayne is loving Rachel because someone is forcing it upon the character. It’s an obligatory facet that his character must display.

Harvey Dent’s connection to her is handled slightly better, with an implied shared history actually being present. Yet, what’s still missing is our stake in their love. This is why when Dent inevitable disfigurement eventually comes (which occurs simultaneously with Rachel’s murder) the shot of him screaming in his hospital bed after hearing the news of her death, although visually powerful, rings hollow. The simple truth is that Rachel Dawes doesn’t emotionally resonate, and an audience can’t develop a bond with the character because there is simply no character there.

Rachel Dawes has no shades of grey, no complexity, no contradictory behavior, and really no expression of her own autonomy aside from a few scenes in Batman Begins where she investigates Jonathan Crane. Raising her up to the level of importance that she occupies throughout the trilogy highlights the weakness of her character dramatically. When a director strives to cultivate emotion he or she is obligated to justify that request for the audience’s emotional bond. In The Dark Knight Trilogy’s case Rachel operates as the main force behind its titular character’s actions, yet obtains little more in the way of character development than any of the mindless, nameless henchmen that Joker, Bane, or Ra’s al Ghul employ. The consequences of this blatant unevenness in her character are obvious. It paints certain scenes which maybe should have been the heart of the film, scenes such as Wayne’s tearful conversation with Alfred (following Rachel’s murder), or Dent’s unhinged scream that he lost his family (meaning Rachel), in a profoundly dubious and unfortunate light.


What we can now see is that both The Wolverine and The Dark Knight Trilogy feature female characters who are extremely influential in regards to the story dynamics, and to the character development of the central male figures. The problem however is that there is unevenness in their characters – meaning that either the characters themselves, or their relationships with the central males are ill-defined at best. This is a detriment to the story, not only because it powerfully highlights the lack of complexity in the female characters, but also because it undercuts the emotion that many scenes in each film attempt to create, producing a perfunctory viewing experience.

In concluding our exploration of this topic one is left with more questions than answers. Why is a predominant love interest such a common occurrence in superhero cinema? Why does it seem like such an obligatory plot point? It could potentially be that the studio suits think we are, in a word, stupid, and that we are incapable of accepting a film unless it adheres to some sort of formulaic assumption (there MUST be a love interest for the male lead). Perhaps it’s laziness or lack of talent? Could it be that someone like Nolan is incapable of depicting the inner-life of Wayne? Can he not evoke his central character’s psychology aside from creating a female character who is devoid of her own individual personality? Could he not write a character that functions as something else aside from Bruce’s object of desire, or the force which helps develop his moral compass?

More than likely the answer is an amalgamation of the two components. Yet, even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Because the main factor which governs most of the paradigms in big-budget cinema is greenbacks. These are products after all; mass entertainment powered by grotesquely engorged budgets. These monstrosities are literally required to appeal to the broadest audience possible. For fretting executives and hang-wringing stock holders the absence of a love interest for any of the beefy, muscle-bound heroes we find in these films would be too daring, too risky. It would leave the film vulnerable to losing out on key demographics who the suits stereotypically paint as being uninterested in superhero cinema without the inclusion of a love interest: meaning, of course, women of all ages.

It is somewhat futile to hope that somehow we will see a shift in the development process behind these massive entertainment properties. Even more unlikely would be if  superhero films began incorporating female love interests only if they do in fact serve the story in ways occasionally separated from the central male. This is not to say that depictions of love should not be incorporated, but for an audience to get behind it they must not only have a connection to the central male. They must also relate to the female characters, which unfortunately can only occur when talented screenwriters and directors step up to the plate and provide their cinematic women with real personalities.

Until that time we will continue to get listless female figures who barely justify their existence on-screen and leave their respective films (which place a huge emphasis on the love story) feeling deflated. We will get scenes like the one in The Dark Knight Rises, where Bruce bizarrely tells Alfred that the entire reason for his hermit, Howard Hughes-style life is because of the death of a colorless woman who he spent a few years with as a child and kissed one or two times as an adult. We will get recurring sequences similar to the one in The Wolverine, where Logan returns again and again to nightmares revolving around a woman who he had no real relationship with. Finally, we will get sequences like the one which occurred in the most bombastic superhero film of them all, Man of Steel, which provides a grating yet remarkably intuitive summation of this entire topic.

During the climactic sequence of Man of Steel Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, for no reason at all, has found herself aboard the plane which is carrying a weapon designed to be the salvation for humanity. As one might expect she inevitably falls out of the plane and is rescued by the one and only Superman. As they alight upon the ground they are framed by the smoldering wreckage that once was the downtown area of Metropolis. Suddenly, although not really unexpectedly, Lane kisses Superman, a move that based on the contextual circumstances is not only incongruent with the scene but wildly incomprehensible.

What’s important here though is how this encapsulates the problems of the superhero love interests. The sequence comes off as nothing else than fake, forced and designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It speaks to superhero cinema being beholden to the demands of certain groups, who are unwilling to accept a Superman who at least once doesn’t snatch Lois away from the jaws of certain death. It also indicates the power of money in forcing these stories to include a love interest even if there isn’t really a place for one. Yet, what it most vividly highlights are the filmmakers who want to push the love interest front and center, yet don’t want to actually invest in them. We can see this process when Wolverine, sniveling and shaken, pleads for ghost Jean’s forgiveness or when Nolan’s camera lovingly fixates on a picture of Rachel in an ornate frame in Wayne Manor. Most predominately we can see in Man of Steel, where Lois acts in a way contradictory to what every other human would do in a similar situation, stealing a smooch from the boy scout even while her city burns and her neighbors die.

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