I wept quietly through the first Lord of the Rings, not because I was moved by Peter Jackson’s valorous drama, but because I didn’t get what in the ever-loving hell was going on. Newly married, I was aiming to please, watching the movie at my in-laws’ house, trying to be a good sport.
My sister-in-law’s fancy massage chair was the only thing that got me through it. I claimed the buzzing, shuddering machine for every one of those three-plus hours that passed like epochs, and I wouldn’t have given up those good vibrations for anything, not even for the stone in the sword or whatever they call it in that murderously dense King Arthur novel a middle-school friend once tried to force me to read. Bogarting the awesome neck-to-knees chair was a fair trade, I figured, for having to sit through The Lord of the Rings and fake my absorption and enjoyment. In the end, though, even the tingly sensations under my bottom couldn’t offset the torture.
Don’t hate me because I don’t like fantasy. From Star Wars (any of them, all of them, and how is the whole business different from Star Trek again?) to Game of Thrones to whatever the hottest new fantasy franchise might be (the one I won’t know about), I just can’t click with the otherworldly genres that seem so culturally and emotionally crucial to nearly everyone, especially my Gen-X peers. I respect the elaborate artistry in these institutions, the universal message (except you might have to explain to me who’s on whose side again), just as long as I don’t have to watch or read any of it.
I must have been on another planet—a bland little planet devoid of billion-dollar theatrics—when the seeds that nurtured Comic Con and cosplay and all this keening superhero nostalgia were planted. Meanwhile, others my age were apparently threatening their baby-making parts with light sabers, making sure their future offspring would enjoy apocalyptic spectacles of good versus evil from the womb onward.
I love Molly Ringwald and Alice in Chains and Eminem and the works of Anne and Charlotte Brontë—although I think their big sister is overrated—and the more obscure biographies of Sylvia Plath. I read, all the time. Bad Santa is my favorite Christmas movie. So I am not an intellectual, and I am not an anti-intellectual. I like to think I’m eclectic, but really, I’m just too lazy to be any sort of aficionado. Costumes and complicated alternate universes leave me cold. I don’t get the appeal or the plotlines. It isn’t a stance; it’s a reflex. Instead of a fantasy chip, I have a reality chip, wee and dry as a shed fingernail.
And I passed it on to my son.
Beau, at 8, has only embraced one set of cartoon characters: the gang from Pixar’s first Cars movie. That romance made sense, considering his obsession with vehicles that began in early toddlerhood and ended only last year. But the love sputtered out quickly. Plowing through his dusty matchbox-car collection recently, he came across a few Cars characters—a once-beloved Lightning McQueen, a defeated-looking Tow Mater—and blushed, hard.
“I don’t mind if we get rid of these,” he murmured.
Toy Story never grabbed him, and neither did any of the superheroes, or the modern descendants of superheroes, that have enraptured most of his friends. Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, Transformers, Power Rangers, anything that comes off like a Jedi, he’s met them all with a confusion that some read as disdain.
“Aloof” is how one early teacher described Beau. Educated in the proper play stages of preschoolers, she worried that my 4-year-old was too dignified to like dress-up time. It was unusual, sure, but I considered the other extreme, a high-strung child we knew who wouldn’t take off his homemade Batman costume, ever. This kid (I’ll call him “Brucie”) exploded like an M-80 if his mother even hinted that he should remove his felt hood on a 95-degree summer day at the splash park. Rational adults thought he was cute. They got Brucie. I’m talking strangers, especially strangers who happened to be fellow Gen-X parents. “I’d be Batman all the time, too, if I could, buddy,” they related wistfully.
I decided my son and I were misunderstood.
An old photo I have shows a group of my fun-loving cousins posing at the side an old house with columns. They’ve turned a veranda into a stage, and they’re hidden inside creative, sloppy disguises—wigs, bedsheets, mascara-drawn mustaches—everyone hamming it up for some kind of home-theater performance.
It could be a meme: “’Like’ if you were a rural ’70s kid, and you made up plays after you got tired of watching the two grainy channels on your black-and-white TV.” Except one child ruins the effect: a little girl in a yellow blouse and faded jeans, sitting with her hands clasped around her knees, sourly refusing to participate.
An almost eerie version of my vintage party-pooper photo was taken two years ago at Halloween. It shows my son dressed in the logo merch of a professional skateboarder as his “costume.” Beau started skating at age 6, taught by his dad, who’s always been his main idol. Next to him, his two closest buddies are fully transformed. Appearing as Flash Gordon and the Joker, they smile while Beau affects a tough-guy pose. I’ll dress in spandex when they build a quarter pipe on the moon, his look seems to say.
But the differing attitudes don’t matter much. Overall, this trio’s tight. They play Minecraft together and trade Pokémon cards. Undeniably, both of these pastimes are based on fantasy worlds, so when Beau first became enthralled with them, I figured it was a just-emerging developmental stage, like a tardy tooth.
I don’t think he’ll ever wear the cape of superhero worship, though. Earlier this summer, minding a command from my son’s teacher to “keep him reading,” I took my child to the library with a list, recommendations of graphic novels from an old college friend whose son is now a teen. These were books an elementary-school-aged boy couldn’t refuse, my friend told me. And he was right, because most of them were already borrowed. The many Batman books were spoken for. The Supermans were gone. I found two Pokémon books, the couple Wimpy Kid installments we didn’t already have and a single Spiderman graphic novel.
I checked the Spiderman book out, but before we even got home, I knew my kid wasn’t going to touch this comic. Inside the parking garage, we avoided the pee-soaked elevator and trudged up to the seventh level, looking for our little car. I gave the whole thing one last shot.
“If Spiderman were here,” I ventured, “he would just scale the outside wall and be there already.”
I got a weird glance.
“What?” I said. “That’s what Spiderman does, right? Scales buildings and stuff?”
Beau looked around nervously, although we were the only humans in sight. A younger child might have actually been searching for the webbed climber, open to a miracle sighting. Mine was trying to shut me up, using that informed, vaguely manipulative sweetness that is the superpower of the only child.
“Please don’t say ‘Spiderman’ in public, Mommy. I don’t like it when you embarrass me.”