Perhaps the most important quality that defines superheroes are their motivations. Superheroes save the day, no matter what the cost. Several superheroes, made outcasts by society or the disfiguring effects of their powers on their bodies, have forgone opportunities to be "normal" because it would mean giving up helping people as well. Batman and Iron Man have both been paralyzed in the line of duty and come back to fight the good fight. Many have had to set love and family aside for fear of putting innocents at risk, and some have suffered loss and bereavement in spite of those efforts.
Even the remorseless, anti-hero types display this single-minded mentality, if in an altered form. The Punisher, and characters like him, wish for justice and peace for the common man. The difference between a murderous vigilante and one who has taken a vow not to kill is one of faith. The crime-stopper believes the law is willing but unable to protect the people, and requires his help in extraordinary situations. The criminal-killer, by contrast, is convinced there are situations that no agency of law can correct. So he decides to damn himself, to become a monster in order to fight monsters. That is his sacrifice for justice; grim, but a sacrifice nonetheless.
But for every set of traits, there are exceptions. The players of City of Heroes themselves, creating their own superheroes to fight evil and stop crime, have produced villain-bashing accountants, government-paid law enforcement officers and slacker non-heroes who just hang about looking good in costume. There is not any sort of standard; no checklist to get an objective ruling on how super a given hero is.
Let's step back even further. Why do we want to read about a student who fights crime after being bitten by a radioactive bug? Ultimately, what all superheroes have in common is their purpose in the story. A superhero is a symbol that represents the ideal. He is our hopes and aspirations, those qualities we admire in ourselves and in others all writ large, given a face to stare down evil and hands to shape the world for the better. The enemies he stands against, too, are symbols: They are the daily fears which weigh on us. Crime, war, disease, poverty and madness given faces and names so that our hero can confront them on even footing. The superhero is not perfect; he is burdened with greater troubles than ours, and is time and again defeated by the evil he sets himself against. Yet it is because of this, not in spite of it, that he is truly a hero; not because he is strong, but because he does not surrender.
So now we have a definition. A superhero is a character that exists to remind us of our potential, to show us what we should be. Superheroes are ourselves, courageous.
John Evans will be studying journalism at Humber College next fall, and is looking forwards to having the professors tell him how he is doing it all wrong.