There are plenty of superheroes out there who don’t have physical superpowers. They are not strictly speaking “super” in any sense of the word, outside of their courage, hard work and determination. Yet you rarely see them dealing with the harsh realities of their own physical limitations. Is Doctor Strange the secret physical therapist of the non-super-powered superheroes? And if he is, does he use magic to treat pulled hamstrings?
I don’t want to scare you, but horrible things are probably happening to your body right now. I’m not talking about old age or diseases that are going to hit sometime in the future, I’m talking about mundane, everyday unavoidable things like sports injuries, food poisoning and even something called “adult-onset allergies.” The really weird part is that if these things are happening to us, how are they not happening to those superheroes we love who don’t have super-strength, invulnerability or healing powers.
Overnight we go from being perfectly functional to massively hindered by nothing big at all. I once knew a perfectly healthy 22 year old who dislocated her hip by stepping over a box. Not a huge box, a really boring box. She stepped over and next thing she knew she was in a cast from her waist to her foot, followed by a year of physiotherapy. This was my first hint that physical well-being was ridiculously tenuous.
Being forced to do half an hour of daily exercises to build muscle to repair a back injury two years ago still irks me. Doing a lot of special stretches and yoga afterwards to stop the new muscle from pulling other things out of wack is a damn cherry on top. Now pollen makes my eyes dry, dust can make me sneezy and it is more unwanted proof that I am very much in the non-superpowered category of people. Growing up I had always hoped that I was going to hit puberty and develop mutant superpowers, instead things seem to be going the opposite way.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the body I have, the mind I have, even the life I have… these are all great things and I could easily have done a lot worse. But like most of us, I don’t exactly love paying attention to all of this maintenance. Superpowers be damned, at this point I’ll be fine with jumping into a new body, like something out of Battlestar Gallactica.
For some reason, no matter how often Batman dislocates a shoulder swinging from rooftops, he never moans about how much weaker it is now. You don’t get him hanging out at the physical therapist with Daredevil saying “Ooooh, my lateral muscle spasmed when Catwoman kicked me in and it won’t unspasm.” Daredevil would explain “I’ve got this great massage therapist, you’ve got to try him. His name is Luke Cage, you’ve met him right? He’s got incredibly strong hands.” Okay that conversation isn’t going to happen. But it should, or at least something close to it. I would read that comic, it would be a welcome change to find out how these guys deal with this stuff.
A physical trainer had to show me some stretches to balance out the tension I was creating in my knees by working out. Did you know that working out without stretching is bad for your body? I did not, but I do now because when I didn’t stretch, everything hurt. A chiropractor gave me a foam roller to “roll out” my thighs after I work out, so that the muscle doesn’t become tight and pull the knees out of wack. I never saw Elektra roll out or stretch her muscles after finishing her ninja training, Stick never wagged his finger at her and said “Remember to always take a hot shower after you defeat The Hand, because otherwise your muscles will really hurt tomorrow.” But she must have done something like that, or she would have been bitching to Garret afterwards about how everything ached, and we know she never did (or did they cut out that too?.)
Earlier in the year I met a world champion female weight lifter. To my surprise, she was a small woman, without much visible muscle definition. Turns out that very strong people aren’t generally all sinewy, so that was interesting. Anyway, I immediately asked about this stretching and rolling out muscles. “Oh yes,” she replied enthusiastically, “wait till you get really into it, a tennis ball is even more intense the foam roller. You can really feel those solid muscles give up against the pressure.” So I guess this is a part of how even strong people take care of their bodies, but if this is a universal truth, why don’t our unsuper superheroes do it? Or if they do it, why do we never see them exercising or stretching? Are they only allowed to show us the melodrama of their lives and not the grit? Is these comic books or are they soap operas?
Way back when Frank Miller was doing Daredevil, I was always fascinated by the odd glimpses of the gym. That was all they were, glimpses, but they showed that he had to work physically hard in a structured environment to be who was was. Same as the brief moments of Bruce Wayne with a towel draped around his shoulders as he cooled off with Robin, you knew they’d been working out off panel. One of my favorite devices of the X-Men used to be their danger room. Like the holodeck of the Enterprise, it could be used for far-fetched stories of adventure, but more often it was a mainstay of their daily existence; a way to regroup and reset when they needed a break from fighting evil. I like that, but more frequently now it seems that these depictions of mundane graft have been crowded out, as if there is no room in contemporary comicbooks for the training montage. Personally I like to witness my heroes in their downtime, working on themselves and their craft.
A few years ago I went to hear Robert Towne talking about his work writing films like Chinatown and Shampoo. He said that at the end of the day he always wanted to write about someone doing a job, that people working was fascinating to him. I think that I feel similarly about my favorite stories; I like to read about superheroes as individuals who are doing a job, so acknowledging the personal physical challenges are of as much value as the external challenges they face.