Elf Lyons: Where have all the old men gone and why aren't they still gods?

I have a problem. A growing one. 

Often I look across the shelves in my local comic-book shop or browse Netflix and its choice of superhero films, and I notice the same pattern emerging... Young, twenty-something heroines, tight clothes, flowing bright hair; strong, strapping thirty-something heroes, steroid-esque six-packs and perfectly non-receding hair lines. Not a wrinkle. Not a stretch mark. No proof of having ‘lived a little’. These heroes are physically perfect. And, from the opinion of a long-standing film and comic-book nerd... it is getting boring.

The monotony of recent superhero films hit me hard when I saw the poster for the new Fantastic Four film. “Change is Coming” was the tag line. ‘Is it?’ I thought. The poster seemed identikit to the film of the same name released 10 years ago: four strapping, good-looking actors with an average age of thirty. All wearing lycra. Where’s the change? 

Many comic-book readers will argue that many superheroes are immortal (Wolverine / Thor / Wonderwoman) and thus, they do not need to evolve the way we do. They are timeless. Yet why do they always have to be so young in their timelessness other than for aesthetic reasons? Is it better? Is it more interesting? I would argue that NO, it’s not, and to move forward with an ever-changing global world, our comic-book heroes and our on-screen superheroes need to grow up and age with the rest of us. If Arnie can return as The Terminator in his sixties and if the new Star Wars film can showcase the old crew, more wrinkled and salt’n’peppered kicking ass once again in the far galaxies, why can’t superheroes do it down here back on Earth?

Currently 1 in 14 people in the world is over 65 years old. In twenty years’ time, it will be 1 in 6. ONE IN SIX. Even now the average life expectancy in the UK is almost 80. That’s amazing. 

So why, especially in cinema, do our superheroes suddenly stop working after their 30s and become ‘reborn’ again? It’s ageist! Batman would be fuming if he saw what was happening to his fellow work colleagues! On the page, the screen and in the day-to-day world, we have huge problems in dealing with ageism and inequality. 

We have a rising number of over 65s choosing to stay in work with more than 1 million over 65s working in the UK - surely they should / would like to be represented in this world of super crime-fighters? Would their narratives not be more cinematically engaging and interesting than that of the average twenty-something? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a crime-fighter coming to terms with menopause, applying for a bus pass, dealing with now having to join the WI just for the sake of covering their true identity..?

What is so interesting about being ‘young’ anyway? Nowadays there is more stress than hedonistic pleasure in being in your twenties. If Spiderman was in his twenties and living in the UK he would be struggling to pay off his student loan, be living with his parents because he couldn’t afford rent and he would be exhausted flying everywhere because he can’t afford National Rail travel prices. But Spiderman in his sixties... That could be cool.

This leads to the point that a refresh in how we represent our ‘super’ heroes may help draw attention to long-standing inequalities in the way we treat gender. On the page many male characters are more mature. Batman is in his forties, so is Bruce Banner, Iron Man is fifty and Captain America is technically 90! Yet, female superheroes in comics are almost never allowed to age the same way as their male counterparts. This problem is also evident on screen. Emma Thompson has spoken about “ageism and lack of opportunities for women in the acting industry” alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal stating that, at 37, she was ‘too old for role opposite 55 year-old man’. I don’t think a 66 year-old Wonderwoman would be too pleased if she discovered she was being overlooked in her career for someone younger and more buxom because of social vanities. She’d kick ass with feminist anger. I got excited when I read that Jane Fonda wanted to return for a feminist sequel to Barbarella in her 70s. How empowering is that! "I have a dream”, she stated, “to do a sequel to Barbarella. Not a remake, a sequel! [...] I think it could be funny - and feminist”. This is the type of superhero I want. 

From an emotional point of view, a rejig in how we represent superheroes and their ages could help re-educate us all on how we deal with the subject of ageing. Currently 51% of people over 75 in the UK live alone with 5 million older people saying ‘television is their main form of company’. This is terribly depressing. Perhaps a fresh perspective in our creative mediums could help change old ways of looking at this growing problem in society? If our new Ms Marvel can be an inspiration and an educator on Muslim culture, can we not do the same for the elder generation with an older character? Doctor Who is one great example of an eternal creature that is diverse in his representation. He is reawakened in different ages and visual guises, from Smith to Capaldi and it breathes new life into his story each time, ensuring his timelessness and reminding us that younger does not equal better.

Many debate that if you age one comic-book character, you should age the entire comic universe and that through ageing a character, you impact their longevity. I don’t believe this to be true. I’m not suggesting we let The Hulk one day die - let him forever be resurrected by different writers and artists with their own views of him... But surely, as we allow our characters to live forever, let them actually live in different ages - they are not vampires after all! As our attitude towards what ‘old’ is grows and matures in our global society, so too should our heroes that we see on screen and on the page. 

What I’m trying to say is... I think Michael Caine should be the new Superman.

© Elf Lyons, 2015


About the author: Elf Lyons is an award-winning stand-up comedian, writer, director and performance-maker. In the last few years, Elf has performed all around the world at leading arts festivals in the UK, Europe and Australia. She has directed theatre in Bristol, London and Edinburgh and has acted for stage and screen. She is represented by Dawn Sedgwick Management.

Elf is currently at the Edinburgh Festival performing Being Barbarella, 7.50pm at the Voodoo Rooms: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/elf-lyons-being-barbarella



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