Nerd Factor: A Close Shave

Superman with a beard.

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     Shaving is a daily ritual for many people, but for the superhero population this basic routine of personal grooming offers exceptional challenges. The implied goal of the superhero’s costume is to hide the identity of its wearer, thus protecting their friends and loved ones from attack by supervillains. This adds additional pressure to the task of maintaining facial hair. 

     Fully masked superheroes have a certain advantage here. Although his identity is publicly known, Tony Stark’s visage is fully covered by his Iron Man armor. As with many other choices in his life, Stark grooms for vanity’s sake. Likewise, Peter Parker does not really have to shave every day thanks to his mask. His tendency to do so regularly was no doubt instilled in him by Uncle Ben, whom we can imagine taught his nephew that a regular routine of daily grooming was a matter of great responsibility. 

     Ironically, it is the superheroes that have superhuman physiologies who face the greatest challenges in this regard. While their metahuman natures may offer them protection from harm, these enhanced protections complicate the maintenance of the old mustache and beard. 

     Superman, for example, must rely upon his heat vision for any and all follicle removal. Using a curved piece of the spaceship that ferried him as an infant from the doomed planet Krypton, Superman calculates the complex geometry needed to render his face as smooth as it was the day Kal-El arrived from outer space. Outracing speeding bullets, overpowering locomotives, and leaping over buildings are all amazing accomplishments, but to me, this has always been one of Superman’s most impressive feats. Just imagine the skill needed to bounce heat vision off at all angles as any mistake could burn down the surrounding environment and injure innocent civilians who live near Kent’s apartment. 

     This explanation is in continuity by the way. While the creators of Superman stories have gone to great lengths to show this process, we must imagine the process for other characters. 

     Wolverine, for example, has enormous regenerative powers. How exactly does his hair know to stop growing? Logan is often depicted with chin stubble, a look that adds to his 1970s anti-hero mystique. But why does he not have a full-on beard in about a half-hour? We do know that he sometimes cuts his own hair with his claws. Does he do this with his face too? He could, of course, just use a lot of inexpensive razors. 

     Invulnerable characters, as the case of Superman shows, cannot use any old Gillette cheapie. Thor presumably has access to incredibly sharp straight razors when he wants to trim down his whiskers. Magical weapons are a major Asgardian industry.  

     The Hulk offers a particularly complicated challenge as he combines both problems. Bruce Banner’s transformation into the green-skinned Goliath should result in an explosion of hair. Yet we rarely see the Hulk with a five o’clock shadow, let alone the kind of hirsute beard that the ultimate steroid of gamma radiation theoretically should produce. Perhaps this is an artistic choice as the Hulk is often given a sense of childlike innocence in his stories. 

     Still, this all begs the question. If the Hulk were to shave, would the resulting stubble shrink back to normal size once the Hulk turned back into puny Banner?

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