Superheroes are pretty popular right now. Many of the biggest movies of the past decade and the most popular current television series are adaptations of Marvel and DC comics, for instance, and various original superhero universes can be found in everything from semi-obscure web novels to one of the most-anticipated animated films of the upcoming year, Incredibles 2. The popularity of the superhero has even bled over into media in other countries, notably in the popular shonen series One Punch Man and My Hero Acadamia (as well as less-well-known ones).
And yet, not long before that, superheroes would have been considered a niche genre at best. That shouldn’t be surprising. Around the time that Hello Dolly’s failure killed off the (non-Disney) movie musical, cinema and media in general have been trending more and more cynical, gritty, and “real”. Superheroes are one of the least cynical and gritty concepts; they’re larger-than-life people who can make things right by beating up some bad guys, while wearing underwear on the outside of their most garish leotards (or, for the women, while wearing gaudy swimsuits). Why have superheroes become so common? I don’t know, but I’m going to take a swing at it.But first, as is so often the case, we need to define what we’re talking about. We need to understand what a superhero story is, both the fundamental traits that apply to nearly all superhero stories and the tropes which show up (whether played straight or actively subverted) in most of them.
At its core, a superhero story is nothing unique to Marvel or DC Comics, nor anything that didn’t exist before Superman and the Great Depression. Superheroes are characters set apart from mere mortals by their iconography (names, costumes, flashy powers), their special powers, and their ability to change the world for the better. They fight forces representing mankind’s ills, ranging from common criminals and wartime lobbyists to natural disasters to supervillains, who are essentially superheroes who have the ability to make the world worse, rather than improve it. Their stories are struggles of these characters, in their dual roles as people and symbols.
No element of the superhero story are unique to it. Most can be traced back to myth, with personifications of concepts and natural forces bickering over who’s the prettiest or tricking their blind buddy into killing someone who should be invincible. Such heroes were humanized in pulps, early science fiction, and other genres from the first century or so of the novel; one need only look at the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which turned 19th-century literary protagonists into a superhero team with remarkably little change needed. Yet something about superheroes makes them distinct.
Perhaps it has to do with the surface-level details? After all, those are all that makes Star Wars a science fiction story rather than a Western or epic fantasy. Those surface elements include the colorful costumes, dual identities, rogue’s galleries, and power levels which often rival the gods of myth…yet, none of them seem integral to the superhero formula. Kickass has colorful costumes and dual identities, but fights common street thugs and one crime boss with pretensions of supervillainy and has literally no superpowers. One Punch Man has the costumes and extreme power levels, but only the thinnest pretense of dual identities and a “rogue’s gallery” of only one or two recurring villains. Hancock has only the power levels. Yet all of these are recognized, in some form or another, as superhero stories. Perhaps we need to dig a bit deeper.
Let’s start with story structure. Comic books are a serial medium, and formative superhero fiction reflected this. Each comic book often had a threat which the superhero would overcome, and then another next book, one after another. This serial nature of evil, or whatever you want to call it, is an integral part of even standalone movies and the like. From The Incredibles to Hancock, superhero movies usually take at least a little time to suggest that they’re always saving the day. There’s always a supervillain to foil, or a train crash to stop, or a robber to catch, or an Arquillian battle cruiser, or whatever. This is almost unique to superhero fiction; some modern genre fiction implies a constant battle between the forces of good and peace, and the forces of chaos and cruelty which oppose it, but nearly all stories imply that such conflicts are either unique or very rare occurrences. Superhero fiction also tends to have parallel (and often intersecting) stories for both the superhuman hero and their normal alter ego—both the super and the hero.
There is also the morality present in superhero fiction. The default divides people into three groups—superheroes, supervillains, and those who are powerless to stop either. Recent fiction often takes the time to blur the lines between these groups, with antiheroes and action-survivors bridging the gap between bystander and Batman, but these three groups are still pillars of superhero fiction. These well-defined roles pair well with the clear symbolism associated with many superheroes. Whether explicit (Superman as a symbol of truth, justice, and the American way; All-Might as a symbol of peace; Red Skull as a symbol of totalitarianism) or implicit yet clear (The Joker as a symbol of chaos; The Hulk as a symbol of losing self-control; the Archer’s Bridge Merchants as a symbol of the common man’s desperation). This symbolism, in turn, allows conflicts between large, complex groups to be distilled into interpersonal drama, which is much easier to make comprehensible and engaging.
Back when I started writing this, the first thing that came to mind to discuss with superheroes is their power origins, so I might as well talk about them now. In the first superhero comics, each superhero had an entirely separate origin; one was an alien, another an Atlantean, another a magical Amazon warrior or the victim of a miraculous lab accident or some rich playboy with too much time and too little therapy, and only later were they brought into the same universe. There are some constructed universes which mimic this style, such as the aforementioned One Punch Man or the webcomic Spinerette. But these are few and far between; far more common are ones where superpowers are, essentially, just a thing that happens. From The Incredibles to Strong Female Protagonist, from My Hero Academia to Worm, the powers or biodynamics or quirks or parahumans are just how the world works. This point is particularly interesting, because it suggests a part of how superheroes are viewed, a shift from how superheroes had to be written when they were only at home in comic books to the essence of superheroics. We go from superpowers being completely unlike one another in every way, from effect to origin, to them each having different effects but being otherwise similar.
What does all of this suggest? Perhaps superpowers act as a metaphor for power. On an obvious level, they are analogous to the magic spells or strange technology or divine gifts or what-have-you of older stories, even when they are not magical or technological or divine. On a less obvious level, struggles between superhumans to decide the fates of the teeming, powerless masses below can symbolize how the fate of the world is often decided by those few lucky enough to be born with or stumble into the right kind of power.
Or perhaps the power-dynamic metaphor is not to be found in the power differences between the Justice League and the rest of the world, but between Superman and Aquaman, between Lex Luthor and the Joker. While the rich and powerful fight in Metropolis, an eternally shining city with the resources to repair itself, the Bat-Family and their peers fight their own set of problems divorced from those in Metropolis. Even in worlds which aren’t as divided between different series, it’s not hard to see cases where the dynamics between more and less powerful superhumans can be compared to those between more and less powerful real humans. Everyone is special, even if we all share common roots, but some are more special than others.
Or perhaps it’s not the dynamics of power levels which makes these stories so popular, but the dynamics allowed by their symbolism and how out-there their powers can be. For all of human history, stories have distilled concepts and classes and more into characters and set them against one another in symbolic conflict, but the conventions of the superhero genre allow these to be more clear and direct than ever before. One guy beating up a bunch of national stereotypes single-handedly and holding his own doesn’t make much sense, but put them in colorful costumes and give them superpowers and you have a superhero story which symbolizes the nations of the world coming together against a great threat.
Or perhaps it’s not that we boil down complex conflicts and themes to relatable interpersonal drama, but that we transform grand conflicts beyond a scale we can truly comprehend into stories about individuals. Ours is an extremely individualistic culture, and superpowers make for an excellent excuse to put world-changing conflicts squarely on the shoulders of these unique individuals with the power of nations. Of course, no genre is averse to doing exactly that, but it’s easier to accept that individuals with unique powers would be able to shape fate on their own than individuals without such powers.
Or perhaps what makes superheroes so engaging is the near-unique storylines associated with the genre. Superhero fiction’s focus on the daily grind of heroism, both in the sense of constantly saving the world and of dealing with daily problems in their civilian identities, is not something you can find in most other genre fiction. Combined with the fact that superhero stories are usually set within a couple of decades of the present, while science fiction is usually set decades or more into the future and fantasy generally in something like our distant past, superheroes feel more relatable than most other kinds of larger-than-life heroes, while simultaneously justifying that larger-than-life-ness better than the likes of James Bond.
Or perhaps the superhero iconography and associated tropes are simply the most fundamental way we have of boiling down those types of stories to their core elements. Superheroes are concentrated hero, everything about Son Goku and Luke Skywalker and Frodo and Van Helsing and Hercules and so on boiled down into its most fundamental, iconic forms. Perhaps the obsession we have with deconstructing our image of a superhero comes from a desire to more fundamentally understand and critique how we see heroes in general.
Or perhaps it’s all of these, and none of them. Superheroes are, in a way, very bland. They’re an acceptable excuse to give characters conflicts with consequences far greater than two guys brawling in the street have any right to hold, which imbues that conflict with greater significance to the characters, which allows more powerful stories to be told and more powerful statements to be made. The superhero template is a skeletal framework which any author can freely build almost anything on without infringing on the audience’s idea of what should be in a superhero story, giving the author almost unparalleled freedom in tailoring the details of almost everything. Each characters can have powers which fit their personality, or which provide an obstacle to their growth, or which excuse their extreme role in the world, without anyone batting an eye.
Superhero genre conventions aren’t a straightjacket. They’re an excuse to do just about anything you want.
1. I’d like to say hi to the Wildbow fans who decided to keep an eye on me after my last essay.
2. I’m not kidding. One of Superman’s first enemies was a war profiteer in Washington, DC, who was trying to get the USA involved in some little scuffle in Europe that didn’t matter to America. (This was well before Pearl Harbor.)
3. And not just because such gods occasionally show up as comic book characters.
4. And many (though not all) of the exceptions, such as magical girl anime, have overt influence from superhero fiction.