First of all, I want to say how stoked I am to officially be joining Avenging Force! I’ve contributed to some posts in the past, and have left several dissertation-length thoughts down in the comments section, but am super excited to now be a bona fide Avenging Forcer. (Force Avenger? Hmm.)
For my first non-guest post, I wanted to talk about a topic near and dear to my heart. This is something I’ve thought about at length, and spent a lot of time enthusiastically debating, both in real life and on the internet. I guess you could say it’s one of my Defining Passions.
That’s right. Let’s talk about superheroes.
The world is awash with superheroes right now. Movie theaters are plastered wall-to-wall with posters and life-sized floor displays for Deadpool, Batman v. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange – and those are just the movies releasing this year. Turn on the TV and you’re likely to stumble upon DC’s Arrow or Legends of Tomorrow or The Flash, or Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter, or the recently rebooted original series Heroes Reborn. Even Netflix has carved out its own piece of the superhero pie with its original series Jessica Jones and Daredevil, and that’s just the beginning.
And that’s not even touching on the numerous animated series, comic books, graphic novels, and full-length novels that are constantly pouring into the market, causing the superhero canon to blow up like Giant-Man on steroids.
So I think it’s safe to say that fans love a good superhero story. But what is a superhero? Have you ever thought about what truly defines a superhero story from every other story? Is it the action? Is it aliases and costumes and secret identities? Is it the presence of a supervillain, or the hero’s calling to protect The Innocent Masses from looming destruction? Is it superpowers, or fantastic tech, or advanced expertise?
Much as I’ve always loved superheroes, I have a hard time finding an umbrella they can all fit under.
It has to include both Clark Kent (Superman), who has pretty much every power his creators could dream up, and Bruce Wayne (Batman), who’s just a really angry guy with a lot of money and some serious fighting skills.
It has to cover Peter Parker (Spider-Man), whose whole life revolves around keeping his true identity secret, and Tony Stark, who announces he’s Iron Man on national TV.
It has to include both Matt Murdock (Daredevil), who takes on hoards bad guys using his extensive martial arts training, and David Dunn (Unbreakable), who never lands a single punch.
It has to encompass light shows like DC’s The Flash and dark movies like Batman v. Superman; heroes that refuse to take a human life, like Charles Xavier (X-Men), and heroes like Oliver Queen (Arrow) who for a while was pretty much a ruthless killing machine; heroes who are driven by the need to protect the innocent, like Steve Rogers (Captain America), and heroes who are driven by a thirst for vengeance, like Eric Draven (The Crow).
And don’t even get me started on Deadpool.
I think most people know a superhero when they see one, but when asked to nail down a definition, I’ve found it can vary significantly from person to person. I’ve talked to someone who believes superheroes simply must have powers, which would mean Batman is not a superhero, and to someone who believes all it takes is a larger-than-life heroic act, which would mean John McClane (Die Hard) is a superhero. I’ve talked to people who believe it hinges on the secret identity, on the villain, on whether or not a hero has comic book origins, on the number of people saved, or on the hero’s personal quest.
For me, a superhero doesn’t necessarily have to have powers, but they do have to be larger than life in some way. Whether that’s through powers, or tech, or being from another time or planet, or advanced fighting skills, they need to be more than just an Every(wo)man. Just a glimpse of their costume or a mention of their name should spark a thrill in the inhabitants of their world, either of joy or of terror, depending on which side of their fight you’re standing on. And a Superhero’s quest is constant — they don’t turn away from their path after the bad guy has gone to jail or the innocents have been saved. No, a true Superhero is committed to their mission, day in and day out, for better or for worse, for as long as they can keep fighting.
At least, that’s my definition.
What I’ve taken away from this discussion is that, for most people, superheroes are defined more by a combination of elements than a single unifying factor. While many superheroes will wear costumes, or adopt an alias, or have powers, or come from a comic book, not all will. And even if a story is missing one of those key tropes, if enough of the others are present, most people will still point to it and be able to say with confidence, that’s a superhero.
But what about heroes that ride the line, like The Matrix’s Neo or The Bourne Identity’s Jason Bourne? What about Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), or Sydney Bristow (Alias), or Chuck Bartowski (Chuck)? Which are superheroes and which are just (occasionally superpowered) action heroes?
To help answer that question, I’ve created this handy dandy quiz, which factors in most common superhero (and non-superhero) tropes, then determines how likely it is that a character is actually Super. Don’t worry, I didn’t only use my personal definition — there are numerous categories of hero a character might fit into, some Super, some not. So next time you’re watching or reading something and thinking to yourself, is this a superhero? I’ve got you covered.
How about you? What defines a Superhero in your eyes?
Keep an eye on the blog for the followup to this post, where I’ll be writing about my all-time favorite superhero movies that are (gasp!) not Marvel/DC franchise juggernauts.
*Apologies for referencing Karen Page’s (terrible) article from the most recent season of Marvel’s Daredevil, but it was just too perfect.