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Opinion If even superheroes can’t have fun sex, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Michael Keaton in “Batman” (1989). (ScreenProd/Photononstop/Alamy Stock Photo)

Batman may be a hero in Gotham’s streets. But apparently, he doesn’t meet that standard between the sheets.

The co-creators of an adult-oriented animated series about supervillain Harley Quinn recently revealed that, when the show planned a scene depicting Batman as more giver than receiver, company officials declared, “Heroes don’t do that.” The issue, in writer and executive producer’s Justin Halpern’s telling, is that DC Comics is in the children’s toy business and “it’s hard to sell a toy’” for kids if their parents associate anything sexual with the character.

Whether Batman is good, giving and game may not seem like a terribly serious matter of national importance. But his dilemma does express a contradiction at the core of America’s most popular cultural products. Aimed at adults but constrained by what’s considered appropriate for children, superhero stories have become sterile — if not outright celibate. Super-people may take it on themselves to save the world for the next generation, but they’re mired in their own fertility crisis.

The increasing celibacy of American pop culture is hardly confined to a single genre. As Raquel S. Benedict put it in a widely cited essay about the perfecting of the American body and the corresponding drop in cinematic sex drive, in contemporary movies, “No one is ugly. No one is really fat. Everyone is beautiful. And yet … No one is attracted to anyone else. No one is hungry for anyone else.”

To a certain extent, superheroic celibacy mirrors a larger moral panic about Americans’ intimate lives. A 2018 cover story in the Atlantic warning of a sex recession provoked a widespread and still-ongoing debate about how bad the problem is, if it is in fact a problem and what its causes might be.

Still, there’s something odd about the spectacle of a bunch of spectacular-looking people with high-profile jobs acting like nuns and monks in their off hours.

Marvel goes to dramatic lengths to keep its heroes from going to bed with anyone. Captain America is separated from his true love by the decades he spent entombed in ice. Thor and his astrophysicist honey get stuck when the bridge between their worlds is destroyed. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff can’t get over their respective anxieties about the rage that turns him into the Hulk and the hysterectomy that was part of her assassin training.

At least in the DC cinematic universe, Lois Lane uses pregnancy tests, implying that she and Superman have sex, and Wonder Woman has the hots for Steve Trevor. Still, both women’s lovers end up dead, at least temporarily.

Superheroic celibacy is deflating. If even people this fit and talented can’t get their sex lives together, what chance do we normies have to find intimacy and romance — much less to form families?

Though the absence of marriages and children are striking in franchises that are about beautiful, accomplished people in their prime mating and childbearing years, there are some exceptions: The sharpshooting Marvel superhero Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) stashes his family at a bucolic farmhouse. Ant-Man has a daughter, as does Tony Stark.

But these fictional children simply show up. No one longs to have them. No one has the sex necessary to conceive them, at least not on screen. When witch Wanda Maximoff gets pregnant in “WandaVision,” it’s a virgin birth. Her twins are the product of her mind and magic, part of a larger fantasy world Wanda has created in response to the trauma of losing her partner, the android Vision.

Maybe superheroes are just behaving like Americans whose only special powers are their higher educations: waiting to have children until their careers and finances have settled. After all, it’s hard to arrange child-care when you have to jet off to Lagos or Madripoor at a moment’s notice. And what superhero could possibly qualify for a life insurance policy?

But another way to look at it is that superheroes are behaving a lot like the activists who think it’s immoral to bring children into a world wracked by climate change. They’re so consumed with staving off wave after wave of disaster that they never get around to creating the future they claim to be fighting on behalf of.

This is a decidedly arid vision of adulthood, and maybe that’s the point. Keep audiences PG-13 forever, and the studios that make superhero movies can continue raking in money from the widest possible range of ticket buyers.

But the pop culture that brings people together, both at home and around the world, needs to show audiences what heroes are fighting for. Sexual pleasure and the joy of parenting are among the things that make life worth living. If Batman can’t have a little fun with Catwoman, if Superman and Lois Lane don’t get to have a kid, if Captain America is at risk of dying a virgin, then why not let the Joker, General Zod and Thanos win?

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