I suppose I should start this off by saying I’m not writing this piece to condemn the connections of any two characters, and by extension any two human beings, experience. I wanted to strictly focus on how relationship dynamics in storytelling can make or break the overall stakes being presented to us, and what makes both characters involved feel like living, breathing people trying to make sense of their emotional feelings and boundaries…as opposed to what makes me feel like we’re being given a situation to add artificial depth.
What Works: Superman and Lois Lane
I understand that this is an unusual starting place as we are not talking about two super-powered beings involved with one another. However, I feel as though over the years, their relationship has both stood the test of time and is a formula that is largely followed by other power couples to follow.
”Superman always saves Lois Lane.” That’s the quintessential phrase most closely associated with their relationship to one another, but I’ve always believed that only tells us a fraction of what’s really going on. Because Lois Lane is not written as a weak and helpless character(unless you count the Golden Age where female characters were frequently under-written, which for the purposes of this post I’m not). Lois Lane is confident, fearless, and she embraces her time with Superman in a way that emphasizes that she saves Superman just as often as he saves her, albeit in a different way. These are two characters that appropriately compliment each other, while maintaining their individuality in addition to living their own lives. In other words, they function much as you would imagine a successful real life couple would function. Despite not having powers, she has power as a human being. She is a well respected figure at the Daily Planet and does not need Superman to give her an identity and form. Conversely, Clark Kent does not need Lois Lane to make him human. The whole appeal of Superman is he’s a demi-god born on Krypton and raised in Kansas. No matter what, he is a human before he is Superman. These are well fleshed out characters who can have mature interactions, and you feel the stakes present whenever their closeness is put in jeopardy. And nobody ever needs to outright tell you that you HAVE to feel that way. We know. It leaves both characters feeling grounded, and we truly want to root for them. There is an understanding the two characters share that extends beyond what we have come to expect in how relationships are written.
In short, Clark Kent and Lois Lane work because they both maintain their independence while fully embracing their genuine love for one another. Their connections across alternate universes, multiple storylines, and in quiet, intimate moments all reflect a positive and healthy relationship that doesn’t require a writer to spoon-feed that feeling of love to us. And whenever that relationship is cut short, through tragic circumstances or death, the weight of their pain can follow you right down to the pit of your stomach.
Other examples of couples I think work well for some of the same reasons stated above: Green Arrow and Black Canary, Storm and Black Panther, Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer, Alana and Marko in Saga(A relationship that challenges every aspect of relationships in story-telling, easily deserving of it’s own post, which I might do at a later date).
What Doesn’t Work: Batman and Catwoman
Leather costumes and rooftop encounters aside, the relationship between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne has always done almost nothing for me. Unlike Superman and Lois Lane, time has not matured these characters to the point where there is any weight to their relationship. It is constantly this nebulous thing that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. And again, this post was never in exercise in comparing unhealthy vs healthy relationships, so while this on-again, off-again relationship dynamic is fairly true to life, it’s a story that is told in the most ham-fisted and lazy way possible, which is my actual problem with this relationship. Catwoman unfortunately is relegated to this endless struggle to try and pull the emotion out of Bruce Wayne, despite the much more interesting storylines that could built around her. Selina is absolutely fierce, she’s grounded, and she’s self-assured about the life she has chosen for herself. When she’s on her own, she’ll rob people but leave them their credit cards and licenses because she believes nobody deserves that kind of hassle. And she’s open about how she feels about Batman. She’s a terrific, well-defined character who is consistently wasted in attempt to shape Batman’s character.
And when we shift the focus over the Batman, this is when their relationship truly starts to show it’s weaknesses. Bruce will outright reject the idea of an emotional bond with Selina unless he is in a position of total weakness or frustration, and inevitability he will reject this very same bond shortly after. The goal the writers are trying to achieve here is both give Batman depth while maintaining his status as a brooding, lone-wolf power fantasy and ultimately...this push and pull accomplishes neither. And so, when something threatens their connection in any given comic, you’re left feeling like it’s inconsequential. It doesn’t really matter if one of them dies or the relationship falters, because of the laziness of the writing that goes into their emotional encounters. And even worse, their relationship will stop a story in it’s tracks whenever it becomes relevant. Instead of being interwoven into the story organically, we get some five-page internal monologue from Batman about how he just can’t come to grips with his feelings. The end result is, not only do these characters not enhance each other in a meaningful way, it also does nothing to drive up the stakes of a given story, when at the bare minimum it should seek to do one of the two.
Other examples of couples I think don’t work well for some of the same reasons stated above: I don’t have any real specifics here so much as characters similar to Batman, where the romantic interest is treated a set-piece to shape the character as opposed to creating a real relationship to sink our teeth into. So Wolverine with anybody, and Spider-Man in most circumstances kind of fit the bill here.
Having said all of that, Superman and Batman are some of the longest running comic book characters in existence, so finding examples that fly in the face of everything I’ve said isn’t unreasonable or impossible. They’ve been handled by many writers of various skill levels, so it’s not automatically always done right or always done wrong. However, when considering the overall dynamics that have stood the test of time, the formulas I’ve put forward here are ones I’ve come to see with a large amount of consistency across the board. And I truly feel as though relationship writing is at it’s strongest when both characters are written as two individuals who don’t lose their identity in order to create emotional definition, but at the same time can maturely embrace the things they do feel for one another, because that’s what works in actual relationships.