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A funny thing happened on the internet this week. (An increasing rarity, I know.) In an interview with Variety, Justin Halpern, co-creator of the animated series Harley Quinn, noted that during the show’s third season, DC Entertainment took issue with a planned scene where Batman performed oral sex on Catwoman. The reason? “Heroes don’t do that.” Halpern responded by asking, “Are you saying heroes are selfish lovers?” And while that wasn’t the real reason—it had something to do with trying to sell toys—it did get a lot of Twitter users wondering, “Wait, wouldn’t it make more sense if heroes did do that?” (Personal opinion: Yes.)
The reaction was swift: jokes about the easy-access shape of Batman’s mask and billionaires rejecting ethical consumption under capitalism; relief that “Batman’s parents aren’t alive to see this discussion.” Everyone had a hot take, and a take about how un-hot the whole thing was. But it also brought up broader issues about superhero sexuality. Over the years there have been scores of hero, and villain, romances. Clark Kent loves Lois Lane; Black Widow’s soothing voice brings Hulk back to his Bruce Banner self. Wanda and Vision. Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. But these relationships are relatively chaste, even in movies and more adult-oriented TV shows.
Obviously, there are reasons for this. One, most superhero comics stories are still aimed at kids and young adults, so super overt graphic sexuality would be problematic. Two, for decades, the Comics Code Authority all but forbade it. Ever since the 1950s, following the publication of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that comics were harmful to children, the CCA’s code kept a lot of sex out of the medium. This continued in some form or another until the last two publishers pulled out of the CCA in 2011. (Though, the code’s influence had been waning for a while before that, allowing for more sexual innuendo, including in various Batman books.)
But those are comics. For decades Hollywood has been moving comics heroes to screens big and small, where they are at least somewhat more free to do what they want. Ant-Man wouldn’t be able to say that Steve Rogers had “America’s ass” if they weren’t. Hell, Catwoman literally licked Batman’s face in Batman Returns—and that was in 1992. Since then, the era of grimdark, edgy comic-book adaptations has made it possible for heroes to do a lot they couldn’t before. They get bloody, they swear, but they generally don’t copulate. Well, they do in definitely-for-mature-audiences-only antihero shows and movies like Deadpool, Jessica Jones, Kick-Ass, or Watchmen, but the land of superheroes has remained far more virginal—even when it’s clear Tony Stark and Pepper Potts have sex. (They have a child. Come on.)
Now, this isn’t necessarily an argument for copious onscreen, Bat-on-Cat action, but the idea that going down is something “heroes don’t do” is striking. Since it’s been established that Bruce Wayne, you know, has probably had sex before, this stipulation seems more specific to the kind of sex appropriate for someone like the Dark Knight. Which is sad. Giving heroes feelings, and showing them as unselfish lovers, is just good character-building. It makes them multifaceted. They often save the world, but can’t save themselves. They endure trauma; they struggle with their own morals and ethics. Not all of it has to be explicitly on the page or on the screen, but it shouldn’t be taboo to show Batman pleasuring Catwoman. Real heroes do more than wear capes.
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