This weekend sees the release of “Thor: The Dark World,” which, on the surface, is just another superhero film. But, in fact, it also works as a crystallization as to what makes superheroes tick: family issues. Thor’s got to save the universe, but he’s also got an obnoxious brother gumming up the works, and he can never agree with his father, who is also a King. To rub it in, the sequel also seems to suggest that Mom likes Loki better. Things just aren’t going Thor’s way!
But Thor’s not the only one in costume with several trust and abandonment issues. Peel back the psyche of any cape-and-tights type, and you’ll find they all have an assortment of Daddy issues, struggles with siblings, and/or a real attachment to mommy. Seems like you can’t even wear a mask until you fulfill certain criteria of dysfunction: ditch the spandex, and family dinners would still be awkward and uncomfortable. Almost everything is a trigger-warning with these guys. Don’t talk about your folks around Batman. Wolverine absolutely does not care about your unruly brother.
It doesn’t take much to find a hero who has his own problems with troublesome family members, so we put together ten who just can’t seem to get over their blood ties, and how they’ve contaminated their precious, desperate psyches.
What’s The Issue? “I really only have my job because of my father. I’m not sure if I want to take over for him when he’s gone, because I like being out in the field too much. I just found out my pain-in-the-ass brother, who I guess has his own issues, isn’t actually related to me by blood. Also, he’s pretty genocidal, but I don’t know … we’re still brothers.”
How Does He Cope? Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) differences with father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) are classic generational divides, with Thor’s actions in “Thor” disrupting a considerable peace between the Nine Realms. Brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) manipulated this with his usual cunning, making a bad situation worse, though Odin was grateful that Thor resolved the conflict, even if he did so less by diplomacy and more by brute force. That conflict continues in the second film, as Thor’s romance with Earth’s Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) registers as an annoyance to Odin, giving a distinct lack of approval for his new companion.
Thor also has to cope with the machinations of Loki, who, in threatening Earth in “The Avengers,” indirectly placed Jane in harm’s way. The brotherly love in the first “Thor” mutates into betrayal, though it has shifted to contempt by the time Thor whisks Loki back home to face Asgardian law. The majority of ‘The Dark World’ is spent with Thor constantly second-guessing his brother when they are forced into making an alliance once again: Loki, it seems, still has one ally in the family in their mother, Frigga (Rene Russo).
Prognosis: Like most of the characters in the onscreen Marvel universe, Loki seems pretty invincible, so Thor’s going to have to live with his traitorous half-brother constantly causing trouble. At some point he’ll have to choose between family and retribution. Odin’s also going to need a firm answer on whether Thor wants that throne or not: it can’t be fun at the family dinner table when you reject Dad’s promotion.
What’s The Issue? “My mother and father basically abandoned me as an infant, and I’ve never known anyone from my race, so I’m an orphan in the extreme sense. My adoptive parents on Earth tried their best to raise me, but my new Dad passed at a young age after imparting wisdom, and my mother still can’t see the world through my foreign eyes. Also, nothing my original father left behind comes with a manual of any kind.”
How Does He Cope? As Clark Kent, Superman’s at least attempting to set down some roots on Earth. But unlike the comics, Superman’s courtship of Lois Lane hasn’t resulted in marriage: by “Superman IV” and “Superman Returns,” she doesn’t even know that Clark is Superman, and in “Man of Steel” they’re really still getting to know each other. The original films at least had a connection to his home world, as he could communicate with his parents thanks to Kryptonian crystals utilized in his Fortress of Solitude. But those, like the zip-drive ghost played by Russell Crowe in “Man of Steel,” are basically specters of a past life, not people whom which to build a relationship with.
In “Superman Returns,” his explicit encounters with his past (a visit to shards of his home planet in deep space) only prove painful, and when he does plant roots, it’s by cuckolding Lois’ new beau, poor Richard White (James Marsden). “Man of Steel” features more of an outward rejection of his origins, as the hopes of a reborn Krypton are destroyed by the hero. He tells last living Kryptonian Zod (Michael Shannon) that “Krypton had its chance” before snapping his neck. Yeah, that’s not bringing your father back, man.
Prognosis: The recent Superman seems to be trying to get past his own absent parentage by assuming a patriarchal role towards humanity, give or take a few thousand corpses. Perhaps a finally trustworthy, welcoming relationship with Lois as lovers and co-workers is the first step towards mellowing what is a very angry young man. Superman is a nomad in “Man of Steel,” and a 9-to-5 job at the Daily Planet will allow him to settle into a real identity, not a hormonal punching blur.
What’s The Issue? “I never knew my parents, nor do I even know what happened to them. I guess things are okay with my Aunt May, who raised me into the man I am. But I committed a selfish act and my uncle died as a result. I feel like my supernatural abilities have given me a legacy to live up to, but is it my uncle’s, or my parents’? Am I asking totally leading questions here?”
How Does He Cope? In the Sam Raimi films, Spidey (Tobey Maguire) is relatively well-adjusted. He takes responsibility for Uncle Ben’s (Cliff Robertson) death, but his search for a father-figure is mostly an afterthought. The hopes were that he had them in Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) and even Curt Connors (Dylan Baker), but they all had to go and be villains (or, in Connors’ sake, hint at becoming one). Sometimes he gets visits from Uncle Ben in his dreams, but his supportive Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) keeps him grounded, and by the end of three films, he’s ready to settle into marriage with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). The issue of his parentage is never breached, except when he explicitly refers to Uncle Ben as his father.
In the new films, it’s a lot more troublesome. Young Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an outcast at school and at home, regularly giving lip to Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) as he back-burners them in a quest for information about his late parents. Turns out their mysterious deaths may be tied to the strange substance in Peter’s blood, suggesting that he’s had a part of his folks inside him all along. The one possible surrogate for him is Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), the police chief father of his girlfriend. And yet, he feels so strongly about him that he disobeys his dying wish shortly after the funeral, in the span of about ten onscreen minutes.
Prognosis: If the new films intend to follow up on certain plot threads, then things are about to get much worse for Peter, as he’s once again going to fall in with the Osbornes while new information about his parents comes to light. Perhaps instead of spending that nice afternoon in the lab with an obviously-foreboding mad scientist, Peter should try some afternoon picnics with May and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), appreciating what he has instead of trying to figure out where things went wrong with mom and pop.
What’s The Issue? “I completely wussed out as a kid and made my parents leave early from a show. They got mugged and killed, and I blamed myself and vowed that would never happen to anyone else, even though eradicating crime in Gotham City is like polishing the silverware with nukes. Escalation and all. Anyway, I have a father figure in Alfred, but I really want to build my own family, though when I take a ward, I fail to notice he’s college-aged and quite capable of managing on his own. Maybe it will be alright if I leech off Alfred’s family and indoctrinate his niece into a life of crimefighting. Or maybe this untrained cop can handle the albatross that is my career, he’s sort of another age-inappropriate son-type. What, you want me to actually be running around fighting crime with a real boy?”
How Does He Cope? We’re really talking two different characters, maybe even four. To make this easy, the original four films will be collectively referred to as the Burton Batman (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney). And that one is a real headcase, a guy who so internalized his feelings about bats that he sleeps upside down after sex and treats his beloved butler Alfred (Michael Gough) not as a father figure but as a nattering hindrance. His visits to Crime Alley show that he still has fond memories of his folks, but his quest seems entirely selfish, pathological even. Burton’s Batman suggests that his parents’ death was merely a catalyst for his obsessive nature, bound to manifest in other ways had they survived.
Later on, Burton’s Batman attempts to build a family with the arrival of Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and later Alfred’s niece Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone). But the one person that attempts to alleviate his guilt about his parents’ death, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) is summarily treated just like the rest of his girlfriends, forgotten and discarded. It’s only on his deathbed when Batman opens up to Alfred about how important the man has been in raising him, as the four Burton Batman films establish a character who is at last learning how to let go of the past and embrace the future.
Nolan’s Batman (Christian Bale) differs because his psychosis seems more familiar. He travels the world to “understand the criminal element” but it’s clear that the massive industrial success of his father is a pressure he seeks to avoid. His concern for symbols gets in the way of his concern for real life: when he’s forced to burn down Wayne Manor, it’s not the home he’s lost that causes worry, but the foundation that his father has built, burned to the ground. There’s no statue, no painting of the Waynes, though Bruce still keeps the pearls his mother wore the night she died—loaded, that. He soon starts calling Gotham “my city,” but as father figure Alfred (Michael Caine) eventually reminds him, he has no debt to pay, allowing him to retire in peace after vanquishing one final threat.
Prognosis: You’d have to believe the Burton Batman kept fighting until he retired, finding the support system he never had with his parents and building a small family of younger crimefighters to carry on his legacy. The Nolan Batman, however, couldn’t move on from the death wish that is Batman until, like his father, he “died.” His dreams of settling down were with the late Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but now that he’s with Selina (Anne Hathaway), he’s supposedly going to enjoy being untethered by the Wayne name and maybe adventure on the high seas as the Most Interesting Man In The World, his parents a forgotten, bittersweet memory. The victory in the Nolan films isn’t that the League of Shadows is vanquished, but rather that Batman is finally fairly well-adjusted. Have a drink, Bruce Wayne, and try not to be recognized in that crowded cafe by anyone with eyeballs!
What’s The Issue? “My wealth and genius are unparalleled, though I inherited both from my boozehound dad whom I was never close with in my youth. Retroactively, I question his influence, given that he trusted an obviously insane rival with company finances, one who later tried to kill me. He also buddied up during World War II with a newer associate of mine, one with a completely backwards sense of the modern world and a terrible sense of fashion.”
How Does He Cope? Alcohol! Though it’s never spoken out loud in the films quite the way it is in the comics, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is an alcoholic, always with a drink in his hand even when staring death in the face. This attitude allows him to remain flippant about what he’s done with Stark Industries, the company his father built. Formerly a weapons manufacturer, now Stark Industries contributes to energy projects, creating rather than destroying. The fact that father Howard also had an interest in such technologies (having fused some of it into Stark’s bloodstream at a young age) makes his feelings towards his Dad outwardly ambivalent. Those early experiments ended up saving Stark’s life during the events of “Iron Man 2,” but it also showed that he was something of a guinea pig for his late pop.
Prognosis: There’s still a lot we don’t know about Howard Stark, who seemed to love the bottle just as much as Tony. His desire to be a better man than his father seems honest, but he also can’t seem to resist a little daredevilry: Tony’s implicit acceptance of his own reckless ways (like, say, showboating with his home address in “Iron Man 3”) seems to point at his father, a womanizing lush much like him who nonetheless built an empire. If dad can be bulletproof, Tony is arguing, me and my army of robot suits will be fine. All things considered, if Tony wants to distance himself further from Howard, maybe he should put down the bottle, for starters.
What’s The Issue? “I love my father very much, but when he got cancer, I gave my soul to the devil to heal him. Unfortunately, the devil’s deal was rotten, and he immediately killed my father soon after. We don’t talk about my Dad much.”
How Does He Cope? He’s the Spirit of Vengeance now, so coping isn’t much on the agenda. Making Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) a soldier of the devil basically gave him eternal life, so it’s almost as if he’s assimilated his father into his own existence. In the first film, Blaze is long removed from the tragedy, though his vague insanity (watching monkey videos, eating jellybeans from a champagne glass) can be seen as dissociative traits, particularly considering he is, like his father, a stunt biker. Eventually, he develops a kinship with an older Rider (Sam Elliot), a bond that helps re-affirm his new adult identity as a hero.
Prognosis: In the second film, Blaze is now a haunted ghost of sorts, and his loneliness is batted away with the same spirit existing in a young boy named Danny. He has become his father, passing down the powerful burden to cheat death. His curse is now his lineage—guy’s doomed, but he seems to handle it pretty well.
What’s The Issue? “My father was a mob enforcer, but when a tragic accident blinded me, he went back into boxing to help keep me on the straight and narrow, away from the criminal element. This got him killed by his former employer, so naturally, I kind of felt like this is my fault. Ain’t no guilt quite like Catholic guilt. If we’re talking about family issues, I suppose I should let you know my girlfriend’s name is ELEKTRA. I mean, seems relevant.”
How Does He Cope? Jack Murdock’s (David Keith) death leads young Matt (Ben Affleck) to become the Daredevil, a hero who seeks vengeance against those that evade justice. The hero’s name is taken from a nickname given to his father, the first of several complex links to his father. Murdock doesn’t discuss it. Another is the Irish Catholic upbringing that Murdock doesn’t shed, even when he’s using extra-legal means to pursue baddies. He’s his father’s son, jumping headfirst into trouble, and eventually ending up face-to-face with his father’s murderer, Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan).
Prognosis: Murdock finds some peace in defeating the Kingpin, but he’s never going to really shake being responsible for his father’s death. One of the side effects to his accident is increased senses, and you get the feeling that includes enhanced angst as well. Basically, DD isn’t the type to lighten the mood.
What’s The Issue? “I don’t know, bub. I have amnesia.”
How Does He Cope? Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has lived multiple lives over a couple hundred years, and his history is so convoluted that if the next ‘X-Men‘ film revealed that he traveled back in time to become his own father, it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. In truth, Wolverine was a sickly boy that resulted from a farmhouse affair, one that left him with the feral Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber) as a brother once they ran away from home as children. As Thor can tell you, it’s just no fun having a homicidal brother, and when Sabretooth offs too many friendlies over the course of a few world wars, Wolverine isolates himself. These issues come back to roost when Sabretooth “murders” (oh boy, is THIS a long story) Wolverine’s girlfriend, forcing him to declare all-out war on his sibling. Naturally, they end up teaming against a common enemy, father figure General Stryker (Danny Huston), who convinces them to be guinea pigs for his own gain, working under questionable orders from the government. Wolverine’s rejection of this surrogate (who is no doubt considerably younger than him) is immediately followed by memory loss, which renders these issues moot.
Prognosis: Though General Stryker was successful in basically shooting Wolverine in the memories (don’t try it at home, kids), they’re still basically repressed, occasionally creeping up in the later ‘X-Men’ films. They’ll eventually return en masse, perhaps kicked back into place by the time travel in next year’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” and when that happens, the flood of experiences involving rejection and betrayal are likely intense enough to drive the increasingly-domesticated Wolverine into an untamed state once again. If Sabretooth is still around, perhaps now is a good time for him to change his number.
What’s The Issue? “My mother got some strange to give birth to me, bitten by a vampire while pregnant. I was born a Daywalker, a vampire who can walk in the daylight, ‘passing’ as a human, while also existing in an underworld where almost every other bloodsucker is white Eurotrash. One might say I’m a motherfucker who iceskates uphill.”
How Does He Cope? Blade (Wesley Snipes) doesn’t cope, Blade just slices through fools. The first film certainly tested his identity issues, however. Believing he’s alone, and completely separate from the vampire world, he later learns that his mother was actually bitten by his nemesis Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), making that thug the closest thing to a father. Further complicating matters is the fact that Frost has kept Blade’s mother alive all these years, and when she comes face-to-face with her son, she wants him to end her life as Frost’s slave. After a few minutes of anguish, Blade honors her request and then kills the shit out of Frost, which, judging by later films, proves to be the most therapeutic way to deal with that issue.
Prognosis: It’s likely the revelation that his mother was still sleeping with Frost that bred distrust within Blade, as he eventually rejected the partnerships established in the following two movies. Blade did develop a close relationship with Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), but any moment the old geezer offered questionable advice, Blade was quick to scoff. Family isn’t a word destined to be used by Blade anytime in the near, or distant, future.
What’s The Issue? “I never knew my father. I followed in my mother’s footsteps, but her sexuality always seemed a little more, I don’t know … ‘liberated.’ Now that I’m older and retired, I’m pissed off that she still hangs around with this skeezeball she used to work with. Say, you don’t think he’s … ?”
How Does She Cope? It’s the original Spectre’s (Carla Gugino) dalliances with the reckless jerk the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) that likely lead Spectre II (Malin Akerman) into the arms of impotent nice guy Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson). Sure he’s sweet on her, but that seems like more of a formal act of rebellion than anything else, particularly after leaving the increasingly dispassionate, fatherly Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). If earlier she sought acceptance, now she desires happiness, and she finds that by breaking her retirement and getting back into the costume with her new lover. Unfortunately, this fragile new mindset is ultimately shattered by the revelation about her true parentage. There’s also that global act of terrorism perpetrated by an old associate cramping her style.
Prognosis: The end of “Watchmen” finds her still socializing with mom, suggesting that she’s made peace with her calamitous origins. Perhaps a bit of pity has crept into their interactions, forgiveness about why mom hasn’t been very forthcoming about the past. Among the characters in “Watchmen,” it seems like hers is a slightly sunnier future. No, Warner Bros., that was not an invitation, so please don’t.
This is just the first ten of a list that could easily add another ten. Steve Rogers/Captain America, Bruce Banner/Hulk, every X-Men…it seems a prerequisite to put on some spandex or wield some power must come with some kind of character flaw, haunted background or easily exploited emotional barrier. What are some of your fave superheroes who battle personal issues in addition to super villains? Let us know below.