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What makes a work of fiction a superhero story?

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Stan Lee, who taught me that with great power comes great responsibility. May he get to Valhalla before Mephisto notices he’s dead!

(At the moment, this thinkpiece doesn’t relate to anything I’m actually doing, as I have no plans for writing superhero stories at the time. This is just something that came up in a discussion with some friends, and I decided to share it with the world, because, why not? Also, in case this is not obvious: Not all stories need to be superhero stories, and even if something doesn’t meet my criteria, it doesn’t stop it from being just a good story. However, if you’re aiming for a superhero story, but fail these conditions, there may be problems with what you’re doing.)

There are probably many definitions of a superhero story floating around, and being incredibly lazy, I don’t think I’ve read any of them. Instead, pretending the field is a vacuum, I propose that in order to qualify as a superhero story, a piece of fiction must have the following elements:

  1. Abilities that set the protagonists far apart from other people
  2. Identity that is unique, recognisable and central to the story
  3. Society that is somewhat familiar, and has an interesting relationship to said abilities / identity

These should be seen as necessary conditions, but they may not be sufficient conditions; i.e. something might fulfill all three requirements and still, somehow, not be a superhero story. However my thesis is that if a piece of fiction does not have all three elements, then it’s not a superhero story.

Also: Intention counts – mostly negative intention. This means, that if you set out to make something other than superhero story — say, a cyperpunk/fantasy/space opera — you most likely will not accidentally end up with one. (This may be just me being cautious. There are a couple of examples for this further down.)

There’s another level of this argument: if something is a superhero story, is it, in the context of being one, a good one? Not “is it a good story with superheroes”, because a piece of fiction can be a good story and a superhero story, but still miss being a good superhero story. This is, in fact, my main gripe with several (but not all) Marvel movies. I’ll elaborate more further down in a future post.

Also note, that my definition of a superhero story also includes supervillain stories! They are essentially the same when it comes to trope recognition, which is kind of important.

Abilities

This is pretty straightforward: there’s something that the protagonist can do that sets them far apart from their peers. The abilities must be explicit and a part of the story substance – this means that Tintin’s luck, for instance, does not count. Usually, but not always, they are by definition superhuman powers (Captain Marvel’s flight, strength and durability) but they could as well be impossibly honed skills (Batman’s athletic and detective abilities) or advanced technology (Iron Man’s armour). So far so straightforward. However, many non-superheroes can also have explicit, extranormal abilities – take your average cyberpunk character with super-strong metal limbs, or the magic wielded by Bob Howard of the Laundry series. Superhero stories are not merely about being more capable than everyone else.

The abilities need not merely be explicit, they also have to be well defined. What counts as well defined then? It’s hard to say, but the more defined the abilities are, the more likely it is that we’re dealing with a good superhero story, and not just something posing as one. (A basic test: when the superhero is faced with an obvious challenge, is it easy for the reader/viewer to estimate, whether it’s going to be routine, difficult or next to impossible for them? I’d say that with the best superhero abilities, the reader should be able to make a good guess. For a good example of well-defined abilities: see most classic Spider-Man stories. For an example of not-at-all-well defined abilities: see Doctor Who.)

Vaguely defined abilities present a problem for a superhero story, as a good superhero story often has a bit of ability rock-paper-scissors going on – because if not, you’re not using one of the aspects that makes the genre interesting. If you lack this, due to the hero’s powers being “whatever makes the plot move along”, you lose something of the fair play involved in the genre. Classic mysteries need to play fair with the reader having all the same information as the detective; the best superhero stories have a similar sense of fair play in determining how the superhero can overcome their obstacles. Often what the hero can’t do is just as important as what they can.

Another important signifier is that the abilities need to be unique, or at least not capable of being mass-produced. You cannot reasonably train an army of Batmen,  the super soldier serum will never work on anyone except Steve Rogers, and Superman needs to remain the last son of Krypton. The further you stray from this, the weaker your case for being superheroic fiction becomes. (For instance, Green Lantern can be a problem: when he’s adventuring on Earth, he’s definitely a superhero, but when he’s off in space with the Corps, he’s just another space cop.)

Identity

A superhero (or a supervillain) needs to have a superhero identity. This is not necessarily the same thing as a secret identity; rather it’s a definite adopted persona that sets them apart from the people around them. The identity is somehow weird and different – this may be a cause of anxiety, celebration or both, but it’s definitely a bit out of context for the world. This is the part that includes but is not limited to a code name, a costume, possibly arch-enemies, and some sort of moral standing. Superhero characters need to have a simple, recognizable identity that defines a large part of who they are – it may not be the only one they’ve got, but it will be the one that has special relevance to the story. A superhero needs to accept, if not embrace, their identity.

You can have an identity without a code name or a costume (though they do help); the point is, that a superhero identity is not easy to hide. When the identity is present, you cannot treat a superhero as “just one of the guys” – you generally cannot forget what they are. If the character is not automatically recognised for their identity (without a fancy disguise, at least), then sorry, but it’s not a superhero identity. A costume and a name help with this. Buffy Summers does not have a superhero identity, since she can easily pass as just another teenager. The Netflix version of Luke Cage on the other hand, does have one, since everyone knows he’s “the protector of Harlem” and will never (in the context of his stories) not be recognised as such. (Does Jessica Jones in the same continuity have an identity? Mmmmaaaybe, but she’s definitely an edge case. John Constantine is another difficult one; I’d argue that he doesn’t. Anyway, John’s misadventures fail the third required test easily; more on that in the next bit.)

Identity needs to set the hero apart from others – it has to be singular. “World’s Greatest Detective” is singular, since there’s no uniform pool of detectives to draw from. “The best Star Fleet captain in history” is not, since (even if the title was uncontested) James T. Kirk is just one of the many people in the context of the story who are Star Fleet Captains. “The worst Iron Fist ever” is singular, since stories of Danny Rand typically only have the one Iron Fist (and most people don’t even know what an Iron Fist is). And so on.

Superhero stories practically always have a morality component, and a superhero always has some kind of a moral standing. (Even if their moral standing is nihilistic, this is an element of the story.) Part of the morality component is related to the hero’s identity – what will they do, and maybe even more importantly – what won’t they do – but actually the biggest part of the morality story is included in the third part.

Identity is probably the most difficult bit of our definition. A good superhero story has a strong identity component. A well-defined moral standing, motivation and just being one of a kind are a part of this. The more your protagonist is “just working here” or “the fifth Robin recruited by Batman”, the more likely you’re to stray from superheroic fiction into something else. Also, generally, the further out-of-context the hero’s identity is with regards to the surrounding world, the more superheroic the story will generally feel.

Society

A superhero story cannot be just Hydraulic Woman slugging it out with The Ferocious Five on a remote moon somewhere. While public perception of a superhero story believes that it is all about a (violent) conflict between extraordinary people with garish costumes, but I’d posit that it’s actually about (not necessarily violent) friction between an extraordinary individual and society, where the society doesn’t automatically have the upper hand.

Superhero stories have to take place in a recognisable society, and the society needs to be an active participant in the story: it needs to react to the superhero. The reaction can be worship, adoration, acceptance, suspicion or outright hostility, but it needs to be there. Furthermore, the hero has to be a significant force in the society: not only must they have interaction with it, but this has to relate to the hero in some peronal way. It’s not enough, for instance, that in an X-Men story the society fears and hates all mutants: the society needs to fear and hate these particular mutants, this particular character. Even better is if this hate is not just because the society is being a dick about things, but because the character presents an actual, reasonable (if theoretical) threat to society. A good superhero story has some merit even in the point of view that looks at the superhero from the outside.

If a story takes place in a completely alien society, or totally hidden from the view of anyone except the main characters, then it’s not really a superhero story. If the characters are completely accepted, or subjugated by the society, then it is not a superhero story. The relationship between the characters and their society has to be dynamic.

This sort of relates to the part about identity: a superhero has to be recognised, and the story needs to have characters / forces that do not actually interact with the hero, but still need to relate to them in some way. A superhero is significant – as per their identity, they’re a bit out of context – and this is recognised in the substance of the story.

This is where John Constantine fails: his exploits take place hidden from the general public, and thus they are horror or urban fantasy stories, not superheroics. This part is also where we re-introduce morality. A superhero will have their personal code of conduct, which may or may not align with that of the general public, and this will cause tension. At the simplest level, being a vigilante is not strictly legal, so what should be done with someone who catches criminals outside the law? Or, if the superhero is legally sanctioned, what if the world around them demands they do something they do not approve?

The more the thing a protagonist does is normalised in the world, the less likely it is we’re dealing with a superhero story. Just as the identity of a superhero needs to set them apart from everything else, there has to be the “everything else” that is actually shown to contrast them. Also, this “else” needs to be recognised by the viewer, or otherwise it turns from a superhero story into some other kind of speculative fiction story about a strange society. The point of a superhero story is not to introduce a society to the reader, not as its main point; rather, it paints a what-if scenario in a society the reader already knows.

A bunch of super mutants roaming a post-apocalyptic wasteland is usually not a superhero story, even if the mutants have abilities and identities that set them apart from other survivors, since there’s probably no society to speak of. Elfquest is not a superhero story: even though some characters can be said to have abilities and an identity that’s a bit out-of-context, the society is too alien. Again, the further you stray from the society that is “just the world outside your window”, the further you move from a superhero story.

All of this conflict between dreary, ordinary society, and an extraordinary individual may sound a bit Randian, and indeed, it kind of is. It has been said that a superhero story is by definition a story about fascism; I’m not entirely sure I agree, but it is certainly not a story about democracy. Even bright, shiny, universally loved Superman carries this undertone. Nobody elected Superman to be Superman, but does this mean that he should stop? This is not something that should be dismissed or glossed over – there are numerous approaches to this conflict, all worth exploring! (I personally prefer the simple approach stating that “with great power comes great responsibility”, but I recognise that it’s still stating that what an individual with power decides matters more than what the society around them states that they do.)

Applying the rules

Let’s see how my theses work with pieces of fiction that might or might not be superheroic!

Watchmen (comic book) – We’ve definitely got identities and a conflict between society and the superheroes. We also have abilities – Doctor Manhattan’s, obviously, but the skills and gadgets of everybody else also kind of qualify. (They are not particularly explicit, though, apart from Ozymandias’ big brain.) Superheroic.

The Dark Knight (movie) – Both Batman and Joker definitely have abilities (the Joker less explicitly though), identities, and are in conflict with society. It’s a no-brainer. Superheroic.

Wild Cards (literature) – Abilities, and a society reacting to these abilities, is the main point of this series. Some, though not all, characters definitely build an identity around their powers, others have one thrust upon them by society. No doubt about it, this is Superheroic.

X-Men (comic book) – Not even bothering to explain this one. Superheroic.

The Avengers (movie) – Abilities, identities, conflict with society. Superheroic

Guardians of the Galaxy (movies) – What abilities do these guys have, exactly? Groot has tree powers, but that’s about it. How about identities? How would you define any of the Guardians? Scoundrels, the lot of them. The society around them definitely wants to throw them into prison, because they keep stealing and breaking stuff, but this society is neither familiar to us, nor are they particularly out of its context, or a real danger to it, more like a nuisance. So GotG is not a superhero movie, it’s a sci-fi / fantasy adventure.

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy (movies) – Everyone wielding the Force has obvious superhuman abilities. However, only Darth Vader has an actual, recognisable identity. Also, we hardly see anything resembling a society, and Darth Vader is an integral part of the little we do see as a fearsome warlord and the Emperor’s right-hand man. So again, not superheroic but a sci-fi / fantasy adventure.

Planetary (comic book) – The mystery archeologists have vague abilities, but most importantly, they try to do all of their work in secret, and have no recognisable identities. Even though there are some stories that are exceptions, Planetary is mainly not superheroic, it’s genre-hopping weird fiction that often touches on superheroes.

Astro City (comic book) – An interesting case, as AC typically has the superheroes (with powers, identities, natch) as supporting cast for stories about ordinary people. Since the focus is on small-scale societal reactions to heroes, I’d see no problem classifying this as a superheroic story or stories, even though I’ve only spoken about heroes as protagonists earlier.

Giant robot manga/anime (various) – Typically you could mass produce mecha, so they’re very much in context of a society. However I’m sure there are cases where the mecha is unique and considered a big, strange deal by society, and maybe the pilot and mecha even have a distinct identity. Still, by and large these are not superheroic.

Sherlock Holmes (literature) – Being super-smart is a definite ability, but Sherlock’s identity is not particularly strong. Nor does the society around him treat him as he was somehow apart from it, even though Holmes may think otherwise. Not superheroic.

Prototype (video game) – Incredible abilities, instantly recognisable identity that sets the protagonist far apart from everybody else, and a society that collapses because of things that very much are caused by the protagonist. Alex Mercer is not a superhero, he’s a supervillain, but since those count, Prototype is superheroic.

The Punisher (Netflix series) – We definitely have the reaction of society, and Frank’s vigilantism can kind of seen to present an actual threat to it. We also have something like a constructed identity to set Frank apart from the society around him. Even so, he’s not particularly out of context, and he doesn’t have any explicit special abilities: he’s just an angry white dude with lots of guns. So, not superheroic, just action-conspiracy.

Misfits (series) – Abilities aplenty, but that’s pretty much it. No identies, and whatever stupid stuff the characters end up doing will remain hidden from the general public. Not superheroic.

Heroes (series) – No reaction from society, therefore even though it thinks otherwise, not superheroic, just conspiracy science fiction. No, you move!

Edge cases and counterintuitive examples

Suicide Squad (movie) – Essentially the Dirty Dozen with costumed hoodlums. Abilities (Cap’n Boomerang notwithstanding) and identities abound, but: Amanda Waller has these misfits well in control and whipped. I’d classify this as not superheroic but honestly, the movie is so disjointed and contradictory that it’s hard to make any coherent arguments about it.

Robocop (movie) – Abilities, check. Identity, kiiiiinda – Robocop might be possible to mass-produce, but never is, so he remains one of a kind, highly recognisable, and he has definite moral imperatives. Reaction of society an important part of the story – but is the society recognisable enough? It’s hyperviolent, a bit futuristic (at least for the time it came out) and rather cyberpunky, but, at least from today’s point of view, not too outlandish. Argue all you like, but this story is superheroic. Intentionality is probably missing though, which is why Robocop feels more cyberpunk than superhero.

Top 10 (comics) – Everyone has abilities, therefore: they are not extraordinary. Top 10 is not superheroic, it’s a really bizarre police procedural.

Steelheart (literature) – The bad guys have the abilities here, complete with identities and a (total lack of) moral code. How about society? It’s fragmented, sure, but there are bits and pieces of a recognisable world remaining. Even though the Epics are kind of ruling everything, the setting is fragile at best, and they’re definitely in conflict with it but … I honestly have no idea, either intuitively or using my theses. Well played, Mr. Sanderson.

Thor: The Dark World (movie) – Thor is a prince of Asgard, and clearly a part of Asgardian society. The movie also takes place on Earth, but just a bit: Earth is merely something that is in danger of being destroyed, not an active participant. So, TDW is not superheroic, it’s an alien invasion movie BUT! Superheroic fiction is normally told in long-form, and individual comic book issues often have stories that, taken by themselves, are not particularly superheroic. Thor is a weird edge of the Avengers continuity, and I do see it as a strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that it incorporates stories and characters who defy the classical superhero model. If anything, this makes the collective MCU only more superheroic!

Stranger in a Strange Land (literature) – Mike has obvious superhuman abilities, and the society around him sees him as a dangerous outsider – and utterly fails in its attempts to control him. Does he have a superheroic identity then? It could be argued that he does. So you might very well classify SiaS as superheroic. However, as I said, the model does not definitely determine what is superheroic, only what isn’t. I don’t see Stranger in a Strange Land as a superhero story; there’s something with Mike’s identity that does not work for me. Intentionality is also definitely missing with this one.

Runaways (comic book) – Abilities, of course, but identities, not so much. Also, their whole deal is about hiding and not making waves. Verdict: Runaways is not superheroic, it’s a weird conspiracy/adventure story.

What about…

… autonomy? Basically, a superhero needs to have autonomy: he shouldn’t be just taking orders or “just doing his job”. I didn’t include this as a rule, because it sort of follows from identity & society, but it’s something worth keeping in mind. I’d probably have a hard time accepting a story about someone who is just thrust into a dangerous situation and trying to survive as superheroic, or who’s merely working for someone else.

… action? While superficially superheroics is all about action, you can definitely do superheroics without action beats. See: Astro City.

… morality? Again, this is almost worth a rule of its own, since superhero stories need to have a moral core to be interesting. This sort of results from the ease of interpreting the stories as fascist. Just ignoring morality will turn superhero stories into, I don’t know, the shit we had in the Nineties? Nihilism is a possible morality, but it needs to be addressed. However I feel that for the most part requiring the conflict with society sort of includes this.

urban anonymity? Superheroics is, at least superficially, a genre of big cities and huge crowds. This is kind of true, since to some extent, superheroes need to react to crime. This does kind of mean that a superhero is likely to be at least based in a big city, but I’m not sure if it’s an absolute necessity.

… supporting cast? Typically a superhero needs a supporting cast outside of their superheroic life. Again this is partly included with the society bit, but I’d also argue that this is not absolutely required. How many non-superheroic supporting cast members of the X-Men can you name? (I count myself as a fan and even so, I can only name about half a dozen.)

… colourful enemies? Does Spider-Man need Doctor Octopus? I’d say that he doesn’t. I think that a world that just has Spider-Man, JJJ, and a lot of normal criminals would still count as a superhero story, and might even be a really interesting take on one.

archetypes? I don’t think superheroes need to be limited to some kind of Jungian archetypes – they can be well-defined, three-dimensional characters. Case in point: the X-Men, again.

single stories that do not have all these elements – We’ve all read the Fantastic Four story where they’re just exploring Negative Zone or whatever. I’d say that if for some reason it’s important to you to determine if some piece of fiction is superheroic, you should look at the big picture rather than a single issue. Not that there may be a lot of point to this whole endeavour, but there’s surely even less of one trying to determine whether a single, isolated bit would be an example of a superhero story, or not. Unless of course you’re writing a paper on the subject, or arguing with a supergeek, in which case, knock yourself out.

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One Comment

  1. Adept

    An excellent breakdown my friend. Thanks for sharing.

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