Earlier this week in Slate, Rachael Maddux attempted to explain why tweens—or, as we called them when I was one, children—love Les Misérables, despite the musical seeming, on paper, “decidedly un-kid-friendly,” what with its centuries-old, epic source material and its emphasis on poverty and prostitution and so on.
Among the reasons Maddux cites: the “show’s overwhelming emotional bigness,” the way its characters are all “straining or scrambling toward some unseeable future” (like, e.g., someone on the cusp of adulthood), and the “peephole” the show provides into “grown-up stuff.”
Having seen the musical when I was 9, on its first U.S. tour, all of those reasons sound right to me. But there’s another one, perhaps more particular (but not unique, surely) to boys, which only hit me when I watched the new film adaptation: Jean Valjean is a superhero.
It’s not just that he’s both great and good and the protagonist of an epic tale—the term applies fairly specifically. For one thing, Valjean has super strength—the strength of “four men,” as Victor Hugo tells us. He also has a secret identity: When he leaves prison after 19 years (the result of first stealing bread for his sister’s starving family and then trying to escape), he breaks parole and changes his name to Monsieur Madeleine. He has a nemesis, too, a super villain named Inspector Javert, who is obsessed with Valjean and magically turns up wherever he goes. Javert first meets Valjean when the latter is in prison; later his beat includes the town where Monsieur Madeleine has become the mayor. Javert is the first person to realize that Madeleine is Valjean; he becomes suspicious when Madeleine saves a man’s life by singlehandedly lifting a wagon that has collapsed.
Just like a superhero: outed by the noble use of his super strength.
The parallels between Valjean and the protagonists of DC and Marvel do not seem to be widely noted, though one blogger did make the case earlier this year that Valjean is, more specifically, Batman. Perhaps the film adaptation will make the analogy more obvious, given that Valjean is played by Wolverine.
Anyway, for a 9-year-old who already loved Batman and Spider-man, a story like this was instantly understandable, even if my parents did not give me “the whore talk” that Maddux got from her parents. (Thank goodness.)