From their comic book origins, superheroes have migrated to novels, movies, cartoons, toys, TV shows and especially videogames. Throughout the history of gaming, the number of characters we’ve been able to control with powers that far surpass the human norm is almost beyond counting. Yet only a fraction of these characters are considered superheroes. If Iron Man is a superhero, but Metroid’s Samus Aran is not, it begs the question: What makes a superhero?
Let’s begin with the obvious: Superheroes have powers – superpowers. If they had no greater abilities than the common man, anyone could be a superhero. Cyclops can shoot powerful beams from his eyes, the Flash can run fast enough to travel in time, Spider-Man is strong enough to lift cars and Batman is the world’s greatest detective. Wait … does that last one count?
Batman is among the most iconic superheroes of our culture. Yet his “power” is borne of a lifetime of hard work. Similarly, Green Arrow is just a world-class archer with really good gear, and Guardian, leader of Alpha Flight, was merely a genius scientist who invented high-tech battle armor. By contrast, Dante from the Devil May Cry games has a wide assortment of abilities beyond the reach of mere humans, yet he’s perceived as a bounty hunter, not a superhero. Likewise, many of the characters in the Mortal Kombat franchise can teleport or fire bursts of energy, but few players would consider any of them superheroes. Superhuman powers may be part of the equation, but they’re not the whole story.
Then there’s the matter of secret identities. Superheroes need a second identity in order to make their way through the drudgery of daily life and to protect their loved ones from those who would do them harm. Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Scott Summers all must exist so their super-selves can be effective. On the other hand, Sol Badguy of the Guilty Gear games lives under an assumed identity using any means to keep his true name, Frederick, unknown; but he is just a wandering swordsman, isn’t he?
Of course, superheroes also operate beyond the law. National boundaries and extradition treaties mean little to Wonder Woman, and the illegality of vigilante justice doesn’t deter the masked crime fighters who stalk the streets of Gotham, Metropolis or any of the other incarnations of New York City. To a superhero, justice trumps mere law. At the same time, there are abundant examples of super-teams organized, funded and mandated by their national governments, like Alpha Flight or S.H.I.E.L.D. Far from operating above the law, they’re an extension of the legal system itself.
We must also consider the apparel befitting a superhero. As a whole, superhero costumes have been fairly consistent in appearance throughout their history. The brightly colored, tight-fitting, logo-adorned format has few exceptions. Even characters who wear comparatively dull clothing tend to have something that sets them apart. Rorschach of The Watchmen wears the gumshoe-standard trench coat and fedora, but accents them with a frightening, ever-changing inkblot mask. Yet it isn’t the costume that makes the superhero; anyone can put on tights and a mask. This has been amply evidenced by the regular membership drives for the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the associated high washout rate. (Arm Fall Off Boy, I’m looking at you.) In the end, the costume may be just a bit of shorthand to more clearly mark them as apart from the rest of society. It also makes a convenient bit of sleight-of-hand to keep the general public ignorant of any civilian identities that may need hiding.
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.