The wound is not just an ontological category, a thing, it is part of a process – from the initial blow or piercing injury to the body, through the healing stages, we still refer to the damaged area as wounded. A wound may bleed, gape, fester, heal; it is part of living flesh, a chapter of a story of the body. The scar, however, is dead flesh. A scar is an old wound, a finished process, unchanging. Scars may have a story attached to them, but they are no longer a part of the story being told. Scars are signifiers of the fixed past, rather than a changing present. This, I think, is one of the reasons that we may associate the superhero with a wound, and a bad guy with a scar.
Our superheroes are often physically unchanging, coming unscathed through their adventures, untouched by natural processes such as aging. The examples of heroes with healing powers, immortality, or both these attributes would form a long list, but some of the most popular are Superman, Wolverine, and Thor. Even the characters who are entirely mortal, such as Spiderman and Green Arrow, heal much more efficiently than we do in the ‘real’ world. See, for example, this interesting breakdown of Batman’s physical experiences , exploring just how much damage Bruce Wayne has sustained over the years. One reason that ‘origin stories’ are popular in film adaptations is that they allow for character development and change. If you come to a hero narrative after a character’s goodness and heroic nature has already been established it can be harder to create dramatic tension. The superhero must overcome a challenge, an injury, and keep on going, but also keep on being good, just, and ‘heroic’. The wound gives a hero something to overcome, some personal difficulty that they must rise above to succeed.
Critics have also read the wounded body as feminised, drawing on traditional western cultural associations between blood, femininity, weakness, vulnerability, and naked flesh. Such associations have a long history, with scholars of the mediaeval and ancient worlds exploring such topics as the recumbent, feminised imagery in depictions of the wounded Christ on the cross, and saints such as Sebastian shot full of phallic arrows. (see Riches and Salih, 2005) and Berzins McCoy, 2013). Readings across this cultural binary could support the idea that the superhero demonstrates the masculine dominance of logical thought over embodied feminine weakness, or conversely the notion that the male superhero is made more rounded a character through their experience of vulnerability, enabling them to understand a traditionally ‘feminine’ perspective. Such cultural associations open up ideas of gendered heroism; are male superheroes examples of toxic hypermasculinity, or sensitive ‘metrosexuals’ destroying the gender binary? A comparison of the display of the scarred body can provide some material to work with in these discussions.
Though the hero may change and develop as a result of their adventures, they have rarely been able to display the history of this development on their skin. Depictions of the superhero body as scarred and damaged are relatively recent developments; as far as I can establish, Batman’s scars were first referenced in the nineteen eighties, and his face remains unmarked. Batman hides the psychological damage done by his parent’s murders, as carefully as he hides the physical damage that results from his vengeance (or penance, if you prefer). Even at his darkest, the knight is on a path to healing and redemption – if not always his own, then at least for those he is able to save. There is hope that at least some of his wounds will heal.
The scarred villain, on the other hand, wears his history most often on his face. His is a defiance, a refusal to heal. Batman’s foes, the Joker and TwoFace, are both created – to some extent – by their own scars. The experiences that led to their woundings, their inability to overcome these events and return to normative lives, leads them to their criminal activities. These are characters stuck in their pasts, unable to develop and change. Even good character’s with scars exemplify this tendency. Though not, strictly, a superhero narrative, I am sure many readers are familiar with Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). Montoya’s scar reminds him continually of the man who killed his father, and he is physically stuck in time, even to the point of repeating the same line again and again, until he achieves his vengeance; ‘hello, I am Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die’ The Princess Bride (1987).
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker (Heath Ledger) provides his victims with many variations on the story of how he received his singular facial scars. The truth is not important, this tells us; what is important is that the Joker has structured his actions, his thoughts, his entire personality since around these markings and the trauma that caused them. The body may have healed, but a scar is often a visual representation of a psychological wound that festers. It is evidence of dead tissue, of something that no longer grows and develops. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that these scarred villains are often depicted as being hypermasculine, like Deathstroke, or feminised. Why does Ledger’s iteration of the Joker disguise himself as a female nurse to access Harvey Dent’s hospital room? On the one hand, growth and new life are often associated with femininity so a hypermasculinity symbolises the lack of these characteristics. On the other hand, effete masculinity has been culturally associated with impotence and/or homosexuality. Embodied representation of a binary pairing such as life and death was never going to avoid gendered expression in a culture so enamoured of binary constructions regarding the body.
Where then does this leave every comic reader’s favourite mercenary antihero, Deadpool?
and the Ugly…
Wade Wilson’s body is essentially one large wound and scar, simultaneously. Though an an artificially engineered healing factor prevents Wilson from dying and repairs damage done to his body, it also accelerated the metastasizing of the cancer he was already suffering from. This constant regeneration and decay cycle also affects his brain tissue, resulting in psychological scarring and damage alongside the physical. In a traditionally binary reading of gender, Wilson’s physical status as a walking wound complements perfectly his affected hypermasculine personality. Deadpool is presented as a slightly more complex character than this however; despite the sexist objectification of every woman he passes, and constant homoerotic/homophobic dick jokes, Wilson is a romantic. Wade hates to be seen without his mask by beautiful women, as seen above, and harbours deep feelings for the girl he loved before he became what he is now. Amoral, violent, sexist, and thoroughly objectionable, Wilson remains on just the right side of villainy. How? By refusing these binary labels, and continually oscillating between his past and his present, his scars and his wounds; his anger and self pity also make him empathic and perceptive.
As has been recognised by many actors who have enjoyed playing villains, the bad guy has a lot more freedom. Free of moral obligations, painful conscience, or social duty, the actions of the villain drive the superhero narrative forward. The heroes are very often reactive, rather than proactive. The villain is, however, trapped by their own body, by their embodied past. The hero, especially those who are immortal or inviolable, exists in a permanent present. With no evidence on their body of their struggles, they can too easily also become trapped in an endless, unchanging present; unable to develop and grow. These two worthy foes are fixed in a revolving pattern, never able to resolve these binary pairings: good/evil, whole/broken, fixed/moving, past/future, masculine/feminine. And perhaps we should be grateful for this. The inability to resolve these tensions opens up new possibilities for character development and narrative tension, and leads us to critically question the stability of the binary structure itself; for example, disability studies asks us to question and critique the whole/broken binary when evaluating the human body’s abilities. This is dangerously close to declaring Deadpool a role model, so I am going to wrap it up!
The implications for reading gender into these particular depictions of embodied identity is, however, made more difficult by the dearth of scarred female characters. Though I have been able to allude to multiple male characters for whom their experiences as wounded or scared is central to their identity and development, there are few female characters of such note for whom the same is true. An exploration of this divide requires a whole post on beauty ideals and associated judgements of women’s worth based on physical attraction. Which, hopefully, will form a later post. I welcome your thoughts on this in the comments.
I just finished a chapter on scar tissue, masculinity and embodied identity for an edited collection on the CW series Arrow. After all the reading and thinking is done, there is always much more to say than fits within the narrow parameters initially set for a 7000 word project. This is the first of two posts drawn from this research. This first post separates the idea of the scar from the wound, the next will look at one recurring scar/wound in superhero narratives that affects both good and bad characters – the damage or loss of one eye.