We have become used to the idea, rather recently, that our live action superheroes resemble those drawn on the page and in animations, in terms of their exaggerated physicality. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was certainly well-built and muscular, but his simple lycra onesie revealed only the general outline of the heroic man, not his constituent parts. Henry Cavill’s outfit, by contrast, ensures that the viewer is left in no doubt as to how and where his hard-won muscle groupings lie. The Batsuit, interestingly, underwent this change in live action before animation, as charted helpfully by The Verge. These changes accompanied the rise of publication’s such as Men’s Heath magazine (launched 1987 USA and 1995 UK), and the rise of what we might term ‘gym culture’. A current project of mine explores the intersections between fan cultures, gym culture and the superhero body diet, through the changing representation of Wolverine – so there’s a longer topic for another day in this! Today, I want to pick apart the visual associations and histories of anatomical display, and focus on the face rather than the body.

There is some excellent scholarship on the subject of anatomical models and illustrations, and some great public exhibitions have been held about these models and images recently. Check out the Smithsonian’s informative, but poorly optimised, site on papier-mâché models or search the term ‘wax model’ in the Wellcome Institute’s online image archive. The anatomical models and images of the past, these flayed men with their skin stripped off to reveal musculature beneath, were created over time for a variety of reasons; they educated medical students about anatomy before cadavers were commonly available for dissection, were displayed for prestige by doctors, and used as side-show entertainment to scare the public about the horrors of contagious disease. They were designed not only to teach the viewer about the body, but also to be beautiful aesthetically, and often morally.

Putting the inside on the outside of the on-screen body performs many of the same functions for the cinematic audience. The superheroes’ strength and resilience, their preternatural ‘health’, is demonstrated through their unusually developed muscles – almost a parody of the ideal of health, more than human. Yet, the idea of the inside coming out also works for the presentation of the villain, acting as a cautionary tale. Bruce Wayne’s insides are metaphorically opened out in his suit to reveal his strength and his stoicism. In The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) Harvey Dent’s body is literally opened out to reveal his instability, his broken-ness, as the villainous Two-Face. The image of Dent (Aaron Eckhart), post-explosion, is a skillfully rendered nightmare. Reminiscent of the death’s head, the skull beneath the skin. Compare it to the clever waxwork from the eighteenth century, designed to remind the fashionable and (potentially) immoral of the impermanence of life and earthly pleasure – including vanity.

Cultural images often use visual metaphors of the body to explore morality. Logically we all know that having body fat isn’t an automatic sign of laziness, that physical ailments are not punishments handed down personally by a vengeful god. Yet, these ideas persist in cultural tropes of normality and beauty, in our fictions and our narratives of worth and belonging. We fear our own mortality. In stripping away Dent’s flesh, the filmmakers are not only terrifying us with an image of pain and suffering, but with an image of living death. Traditionally, the living dead are the bad guys.

Reading Dent as a warning against vanity, is it useful to do so?

In the last cinematic outing for the character, as played by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever (Joel Schumacher, 1995), there was little explanation behind Dent’s villainy. Just the act of becoming scarred in the course of his work as District Attorney is enough to turn Dent to murderous criminality. A warning against vanity is quite easy to read into this depiction; since Dent is unable to  continue his chosen lifestyle, he develops a rage against the injustice of his ugliness and pursues a criminal lifestyle explicitly designed to pander to his ego. In one illustrative scene, two beautiful women compete to present him with tribute!

A less charitable viewer might reverse this reasoning, seeing instead a representation that simply links ‘deformity’ to moral instability. Instead of seeing Dent’s former good looks as the mask that hides his ego-driven lust for power it is possible to read his becoming scarred as a transformative event, that destroyed his moral worth as it destroyed his body, rather than a revelatory act. Both readings, are, a little too essentialist for my taste – relying on the idea that there is an immutable truth linking body and soul. Yet, is Nolan’s more nuanced and ‘realist’ superhero narrative any less deterministic?

The introduction of a third-party caught in the attack that injures Dent, the loss of his fiancée Rachael Dawes, complicates notions of vanity. Batman had to chose between saving Dawes and Dent, choosing based on their contribution to the safe administration of the City of Gotham. Dent, as the public face of the campaign against corruption and criminality, is prioritised. Yet, Dent’s public face is ruined in the attack – could he ever have been as effective a symbol of hope for the city, returning to work as a DA looking like the walking dead? Once again there appears to be an element of essentialism at work – Dent is a dead man walking. No longer what he was, possibly unable to be what he was saved to be, and losing his will to live, he embarks upon a suicide mission against the Dark Knight. It is all about what he seems to be, what he is, and what he wishes he was.

Perhaps he is quite well-suited to the role of 21st century Vanitas after all? Whether we think we need, or want one.

Royalty-free clipart picture of a caucasian male super hero flying with one arm forward, on a white background by Rosie Piter, COLLC0023. This image is protected by copyright law and may not be used without a license. No free use allowed.
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Royalty-free clipart picture of a caucasian male super hero flying with one arm forward, on a white background by Rosie Piter, COLLC0023. This image is protected by copyright law and may not be used without a license. No free use allowed.
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This post was inspired by conversations started by my fellow Reading postgraduate student, Verity Burke, on Twitter. Verity has been curating the We the Humanities  feed this week. A tweet from Dr Ian Jenkins of the Cole Zoological Collection and Medical library, sparked all manner of thoughts about insides becoming outsides.