genre superheroes

What is a superhero anyway?

So okay, if I’m gonna talk about superheroes all month, I should probably define my terms, right?

Superheroes are heroes. Who are just super.

…okay, that’s probably not enough.

The problem with the superhero genre is that it’s broad, and inclusive, and has very fuzzy boundaries. Well, I say ‘problem’, but to be honest it’s more like a positive feature because it means so much cool stuff can be included in there. But it gets confused when the genre reaches out to absorb other genres, such as pulp or ‘weird adventure’. Is Hellboy a superhero? Atomic Robo? The delightful Marineman, which you should check out? They’re all larger-than-life characters that have impossible adventures, but the label seems out of place. And I’ve seen attempts to classify characters like Indiana Jones and Perseus as superheroes, which is definitely stretching things too far.

At the same time, some readers want to exclude characters that to me are obviously superheroes. After The Avengers movie came out, I saw a lot of viewers say ‘Hawkeye and Black Widow aren’t superheroes’, which bamboozled me. They wear costumes and have codenames and possess special skills and they’re in the Avengers, so how can they not be superheroes? Usually the logic is ‘they don’t have superpowers’ – which is true, but that’s true of plenty of superheroes. I mean, by that logic Batman isn’t a superhero – and when I said that a few people agreed and then I had to just drink rubbing alcohol until the pain in my head went away.


So it’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and defining it would be hard work for a Saturday morning. So, rather than do the heavy lifting myself, I’m gonna quote someone else who already did the hard yards, comics journalist and Batmanologist Chris Sims at Comics Alliance:

In his very funny Super Villain Handbook — available now at finer bookstores everywhere — War Rocket Ajax’s Matt Wilson does a very nice job of defining what separates a super-villain from an everyday crook. The dividing line there was theatrics, and I think the same holds true for super-heroes. There has to be some kind of sense of grandeur to it.

I do think costumes and codenames are a definite aspect of it, although that doesn’t necessarily mean capes and tights. It means there needs to be a distinctive look for the character…

It’s also pretty crucial that they have abilities far beyond those of a normal person, even if they aren’t outright super-powers. Even characters like Batman and the Punisher, who “don’t have super-powers” are still defined by being way more determined and/or pissed off than any real person could ever sustain, even before you get to stuff like a lifetime of combat training and a family fortune.

And because they have those abilities, they need to be called on to do things that no one else could possibly do. The threats that they face should be on a level that’s somewhere beyond realistic, because the characters themselves have abilities that are beyond realistic…

To me, it’s very important that super-heroes lives up to that title; as obvious as it sounds, they need to be heroic. There has to be an aspect of their character where they’re putting some kind of moral or ideal above themselves, with an element of sacrifice or altruism as the motivation. And that ideal can be as vague or specific as it needs to be…

Thanks, Chris!

I think I’d add something else to that – that superheroes need to be unique but not one-of-a-kind. By that I mean than an individual superhero must have a unique identity, rather then being just Cyborg #17 and there are twenty others running around who are just the same. But at the same time, they shouldn’t be the only super-character in the world; there need to be other unique characters around for them to interact with, whether allies or enemies. I say this because stories about lone super-beings either pull away sharply from the genre, or pull it apart and deconstruct it. I’ve certainly never seen one that remained within the genre and had a central character that remained either ‘super’ or ‘heroic’ by the end.

So those are the points that make the definition for me. In the end, superheroes are like pornography (a quote you should feel free to take out of context): I know what they are when I see them. If a few of them are edge cases, that’s okay; genres have boundaries and some characters sit on or near them, and talking about those characters can be fun. We may not all be on the same page, but at least we’re hopefully all reading from the same book.


Which, again, could be confused with porn.

3 replies on “What is a superhero anyway?”

I think one of the reasons I keep coming back to your imminence vs transcendence model of Marvel vs DC is that in a post-religion society, we lack examples of betterment. Which isn’t to say that superheroes are _good_ ones, but I do think we’re collectively searching for examples of how we can improve.

That may just be wishful thinking, though.

I like your first definition more; second one trips the Bond problem. Bond’s not a superhero but hits almost every definition of one.

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