Scott Pilgrim vs. Love: How Superheroes Battle Romance

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It all started at the turn of the century. In 2000's X-Men, Wolverine learned that romance gets spicier once you've got superpowers. Three years later in Spider-Man, Peter Parker found out that along with the other powers he'd gained after a radioactive spider-bite, he suddenly had the capacity to woo Mary Jane Watson. And from there on out, superheroes were the heroes of our most compelling romantic comedies and dramas, Wolverine the bad-boy with a sensitive side, Hellboy the misunderstood outsider, Batman the guy who loves the girl and leaves her, Iron Man our Rhett Butler. And this summer, we came full circle. In Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, regular guys don't have a chance of making it in love, or in life, unless they get a jolt of something extra.

Kick Ass's Dave Lizewski is hopeless with girls until he invents a secret identity and acquires superpowers in the form of a father-daughter pair who follow him around cleaning up after the disastrous situations he gets himself into. Suddenly, the hottest girl in school wants him to get rid of her large, African-American, criminally involved abusive boyfriend, and to have sex with Dave in back alleys.

Scott Pilgrim's path involves fewer Dumpster-enabled hookups, but the principle is the same. In order to win the girl of his dreams, one Ramona Flowers, Scott has to call on capacities he didn't know he had previously, whether it's to pull magical swords from his own chest, to create giant beasts through the power of rock and roll, or to give girls lethally spectacular orgasms via back-of-the-knee tickles.

In the end, both guys manage to go back to something approximating normal life. Dave hangs up his suit and heads back to high school, his lone remaining quest to look after the former Hit-Girl, the pintsized trained psychopath who used to fight on his behalf. Scott may end his journey and the movie that bears his name by walking through a magic portal, but he's presumably headed off to smooch with his emerald-locked lady-love, rather than to continue the battle.

But both boys are able to continue their lives, satisfied and different, because they've figured out that they have capacities and strengths that other people don't. Even if they're not exercising those skills, Dave knows he can pilot a Gatling-gun-armored hovercraft to the defeat of a nefarious gangster, and Scott knows that, whatever the dubious commercial value of his bass-playing, he's capable of kicking supernatural ass when he wields his pick in righteous self-defense. I suppose there's something nice in having those sorts of skills and experiences in your back pocket.

Superheroism's all a metaphor, of course. Falling in love does feel like the biggest thing in the world, when it finally happens. In conventional superhero movies, our heroes learn that enhanced strength, unbreakable bones, or incredible speed can't actually clarify human emotions or bridge the gap between lovers who can't touch—and powers can't compensate for the ache of those failures either. There's something lovely about the basic human weakness of our superheroes, their commonality with our problems.

If conventional superhero movies say something compelling, true, and even beautiful our powerlessness against love, less conventional ones like Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim have a more depressing message. Dave invents a secret, super-heroic identity because he can't find his way through the morass of social interaction on his own. Scott needs to be threatened by utter destruction and to win a series of escalating, supernatural battles in order to find the basic decency to apologize for cheating on two girls who love him. Are our heroes really so deficient of basic human values and social skills that they need to be wrenched into functionality by the extraordinary? And if it's this hard for Dave and Scott, what does it mean for the rest of us, trying to figure out the difficult passage between adolescence and decent adulthood without the aid of miraculous events or talents?

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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