Samaritan and the superhero's twilight years

Sylvester Stallone is cast perfectly as an aged superhero-in-exile in the Amazon Prime Video film Samaritan. However, like a lot of recent onscreen depictions of aged super-beings, the film deals mostly in broad strokes and caricatures.

Aditya Mani Jha September 10, 2022 17:14:08 IST
Samaritan and the superhero's twilight years

When Sylvester Stallone was at the height of his powers as an action hero through the 1980s, Hollywood was still a decade or so away from ushering in the contemporary era of big-budget superhero movies. Had the two timelines overlapped, one feels certain that Stallone would be a shoo-in for leading a superhero film, for obvious reasons. More recently, his cameo appearance in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies was widely appreciated.

At 76, Stallone now finds himself leading a superhero movie (of sorts): Samaritan, a moody, lo-fi commentary on the genre starring Stallone as an old garbage-man named Joe, who may or may not be the titular superhero, who (we are told) went into self-imposed exile decades. When a precocious working-class 13-year-old boy called Sam becomes convinced of Joe’s secret identity, he starts following the old man around until the latter is forced to use his super-strength (waned, but still extraordinary) to save Sam from goons on the payroll of Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk, the flamboyant Danish actor who plays Euron Greyjoy on Game of Thrones), the film’s Big Bad.

Cyrus believes in the anarchic movement represented by Nemesis, once Samaritan’s arch-enemy (and tellingly, brother by blood) who Cyrus sees as a champion of the oppressed. Years ago, the explosion that supposedly killed Nemesis also marked the beginning of Samaritan’s disappearance from public life. It’s Cyrus’s mission to resurrect the Nemesis alter-ego, complete with a super-powered hammer which is the only thing that can hurt Samaritan.

Samaritan has certain obvious flaws, it has to be said — the pacing is wildly uneven, with the first 40-45 minutes containing very little by way of plot and the next 15 minutes overloading the audience with retrospective information (ie things that could have been covered with one crisp, stylized flashback). But it does manage to craft a few arresting images that use Stallone’s physicality in an enterprising manner. In one scene, after Sam asks Joe to train him, the young boy busts up his hand trying to sucker-punch the old man. “You know I’m built like a tank, what were you thinking?” Joe asks him even as we see Stallone wincing ever so slightly. There’s a certain bleak beauty in scenes like these, but Samaritan hardly ever invests in moments of stillness. In its eagerness to satirise the comicbook template, it neglects, to an extent, the basic tenets of plot and character development.

The superhero’s twilight years

Samaritan is one of several superhero movies and shows over the past 4-5 years where these super-beings are depicted in old age. One of the better superhero movies of the last decade, James Mangold’s Logan depicted Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in an aged, physically diminished avatar, as he shields a young girl who displays much of the same powers he does.

In the Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson (then the Falcon, now the new Captain America) meets an old Black man who used to be a super-soldier in the Vietnam era. Crucially, it is this former super-soldier—now old and visibly ill—who helps Sam understand the bad-faith actions of the American governments of the past. They experimented on Black soldiers, injected them with super-soldier serum and then spit them back out into society after the Vietnam War, with no financial or educational support and no health insurance.

Certain overlapping themes present themselves in all of these stories — one of which is the inability of the older generation to make sense of a world that has changed at a dizzying pace all around them. The senility of certain characters in this context acts as a metaphor for the world having ‘forgotten’ their superhero alter egos. We see a senile, almost babbling version of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in Logan, for example.

The Amazon Prime animated series Invincible is a classic ‘clash of generations’ storyline between a newer, irreverent generation of superheroes led by the titular Invincible, against the old guard led by his father Omni-Man (voiced by the gruffer-than-thou JK Simmons). Invincible is this generation’s most clear-cut version of the old v young storyline, but it’s far from the only one. In the DC series Titans (2018-21), Iain Holm (Ser Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones) played an aged version of Batman/Bruce Wayne who loses his cool and ends up murdering the Joker after the latter kills his protégé Jason Todd. After he realises what he’s done and its implications, Batman leaves Gotham in Dick Grayson/Robin’s hands.

A wrinkle in time

The French artist Gilles Barbier’s 2002 installation Nursing Home—or rather, a photograph of the same—adorns the front cover of the 2014 nonfiction book Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond by José Alaniz. Barbier’s artwork consisted of dolls or action figures of popular American superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Mister Fantastic and the Hulk—only all of these superheroes were depicted as very, very old and in various stages of physical disrepair.

The Hulk is dressed in his signature purple pants, which are very frayed, and sits on a wheelchair. Superman struggles with a rudimentary walker while Captain America lies prostrate on a nearby hospital bed, looking very ill.

Samaritan and the superheros twilight years

In the book, Alaniz writes about how and why this artwork succeeds in its satirical depiction of aged superheroes. He begins by noting that outside of America, superhero movies are widely seen as representations of “velvet-gloved fascism”; the films are seen to propagate a strongly pro-American-military point of view, among other things. Alaniz then argues that the superhero’s bodies as they usually are—preternaturally strong, forever young and frozen in time—act as a stand-in for traditionally American values. It must follow, therefore, that if one were to forcibly age these bodies, the underlying symbolism about American dominance would also be critiqued. Alaniz explains it thus:

“The ‘super signifier’ of the super-body thus reifies nation, death-denying vigor and sexual potency. This makes Nursing Home a lacerating parody; Barbier reintroduces time, the one element inimical myth, of whatever ideological stripe. He fuses the ‘flash’ of fantastic superheroics and the can-do American optimism it incarnates with the deflating reality principle of the exhausted, decrepit, dying body (Wonder Woman, Captain America and Superman are all represented at something like the age they would be, given the actual number of years since their first appearance in the comics). Nursing Home thereby equates the disabled body of the elderly heroes with the flawed, discredited and obsolete American Dream.”

In a 2021 essay (published in the academic journal Societies) called ‘Representation and Agency of Aging Superheroes in Popular Culture and Contemporary Society’, Katerina Valentová wrote about Kingdom Come, a 1996 miniseries (and later, a single-volume graphic novel) by Mark Waid and Alex Ross where Superman has been depicted as a aged, white-haired man who wear overalls and lives on a farm in Midwestern America. We are told that many years ago, Superman retreated from public life after the Joker murdered his wife Lois Lane and Magog, an ultra-violent vigilante from the new generation, murders the Joker brutally in retaliation.

For such a painstakingly colourful graphic novel (the gouache front cover is one of my all-time favourites), Kingdom Come sees the generational clash in black and white, obstinately so. The new generation superheroes are all ear-ringed, potty-mouthed juvenile delinquents while the older generation is stubborn, mulish and say comically outdated things that make others heap scorn upon them. “Does the S stand for senile”, a young ‘un teases Superman after the latter turns up at a discotheque (really, Supes?) in search of answers.

Valentová writes: “The present is ruled by the young ones, who are the children and grandchildren of the old superheroes. However, they neither maintain nor believe in the old values of their parents. Instead, they instill violence as they fight for the sake of fighting. Whereas the old generation represents the values of truth and justice, the young one is military-based and does not care about humans. While the young ones are strong but with their morals besmirched, the old ones have aged faces and bodies, but they are noble and wise, with a strong sense of justice and welfare, which posits an interesting dichotomy of wisdom and frailty in regard to old age.”

She then explains the failures of this approach in a succinct manner.

“From the psychological point of view, the aged superheroes depicted in Kingdom Come stereotypically embody the tradition and old values, clashing with the young generation of superhumans, portrayed typecast, having bald heads, dyed hair, piercings and tattoos. Both generations do not move from the hackneyed cultural portrayals of the young-old dichotomy and therefore do not challenge any cultural stereotype set in American society. The aged Superman is a result and a biased social portrayal of the elderly in greying America.”

Whether it’s films like Samaritan or Logan or books like Kingdom Come, it’s clear that ageing, mortality and our corporeal bodies decaying are topics that every creator working with superheroes wants to tackle head-on. The only question is whether we will move on from stereotypes about senior citizens; hoary old chestnuts that have, to nobody’s surprise, aged poorly.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.

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