What is a Superhero?

What is a Superhero?

From Aliens with Super Powers to People With Special Skills to … Vampires?

With so many superhero shows and movies out now, what is a superhero, really? Are vampire, spy, space alien, and wizard stories all just sub-genres within the superhero genre?

After they appeared in books, comic books, and radio; the first superhero serials and movies began a trend in filmmaking that would later become the Superhero genre. Although Superman is generally thought to have been the first superhero, the later inclusion of Batman, Green Arrow, and the Punisher in the popular vernacular opened up the definition of superhero beyond someone with innate supernatural abilities who fights crime.

Many people insist upon referring to superheroes without biologically controlled abilities as “costumed crime-fighters” or some other euphemism. But many superheroes don't even wear costumes anymore, so is that distinction becoming increasingly passé?

If so, how does one define a superhero? Let's take a look.

So far, in rummaging around the Internet, I can find at least five characteristics associated with broader definitions of a “superhero” in common usage:

  1. Has special powers/abilities—either through science fiction happenstance (lab assistant spills chemicals on himself and gains ability to walk through walls), through evolution/mutation (such as the X-Men), through magic (doctor becomes a wizard), through fancy equipment (rich guy builds himself a go-go-gadget car/body/set of weapons), or through a combination of talent, ability, and courage (somebody impossibly good with a shootin’ iron, whip, or just Kung Fu, takes to the streets to defend the defenseless).
  2. Does good deeds for the public, ranging from fighting crime to saving kittens from trees, mostly in a real-world-like setting.
  3. Has a secret identity (or at least a secret past life, very much unlike their superhero life) and might or might not wear a costume.
  4. Has a secret hideout/lair.
  5. Fights supervillains.

The problem? The looseness of this definition (and most definitions available) leave it open to a slew of characters not usually thought of as superheroes.

Special Set of Skills ...

Zorro appeared in comic books, movies, and other media. He had an unusual ability with sword and whip, he fought crime, he wore a costume and had a secret identity, a secret hideout, and fought powerful villains.

But was he a superhero?

What about Robin Hood? He didn’t have a secret identity, but the rest fits. Also, the Green Arrow was essentially a modernized take on Robin Hood. We could take this even farther by looking not only at extraordinary physical skills and fancy tools, but at characters with higher than average cognitive abilities.

Then it gets really tricky. There are characters with a fantastic degree of luck and impossibly powerful fighting abilities like Conan, and those with infinite tech toys like James Bond, but what about master detectives from the past with overpowering intellects to defeat crime such as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple?

Batman and Ironman have a combination of cool costumes, advanced toys, fighting skills, and scientific or investigative abilities. Is it a matter of degree, or of context?

Batman feels like he should be a superhero because of the costume and the company he keeps, but the villains and skills featured in Conan stories were every bit as spectacular and outlandish.

For the sake of simplification, and our own sanity, it probably is best to narrow down part one of our definition to only those who have magical or biologically-based superhuman abilities that reach well beyond anything immediately believable through advanced tools or learnable skills.

Everyday Superheroes?

But then we're left to wonder about all those shows featuring people with snappy powers who just try to act like everyday schlubs and (slowly) have greatness thrust upon them (e.g. "She-Hulk," "Kyle XY," "Heroes," "The Secret World of Alex Mack," "Medium," and "Chuck" ... actually, he did become a super-spy pretty quickly).

So, here we get into a gray area.

Kyle had super powers, and he did do some kitten-saving type things, but he didn’t go out to fight crime and save the day. Alex Mack also had super powers, but she hardly ever used them for anything hero-ish either. Neither of these characters struck me as being superheroes by the above definition, but I could easily argue the opposite opinion if I wanted to.

In "Heroes," for the 2 1/2 seasons I watched, the only characters with the distinct aura of superhero-ness about them in the beginning were Hiro and Ando, Peter, and maybe Noah. By the end of the second season, I'd argue they had all become super anti-heroes—especially Hiro, *spoiler alert* after he betrayed his historical idol and turned him into a supervillain.

Chuck probably came the closest. He had a superhuman power (instant ability/memory recall), fought international crime, had a secret identity (Carmichael vs. Bartowski), had a secret hideout (the “Castle“), fought high-tech supervillains, and eventually had a sidekick (Morgan). It seems risky to classify Chuck as a superhero, however, because that gets perilously close to regular spy story territory (like I said, I wouldn't call James Bond a superhero).

Just Like Magic

I mentioned magic earlier, so let's take a look at that. Doctor Strange is a superhero who became so because he's a wizard who fights crime (sometimes inter-dimensional magical crime, but still ...). So, are all wizards and wizardesses superheroes?

Let's take this to its logical extreme.

Samantha from "Bewitched" had a secret identity and sometimes a costume, and saved the occasional kitten, but while she did battle bad witches, it tended to be for personal gain for herself or her family and friends rather than for the public good. Harry Potter and other such characters come close, too, and their good deeds are arguably done as much for the public as for personal reasons, but the fit to the other criteria mentioned is iffy, so while they most likely would not be superheroes either, I can see a valid argument there.

What about fictional psychic protagonists on shows like "Medium"? The main character had superhuman psychic abilities, fought crime, battled villains with similar or greater abilities, and initially had a secret identity.

Was she a superhero?

Actually ... you could make a pretty good argument either way on this one, so it's a coin-toss.

Super ... natural?

As long as we're reaching into supernatural territory, let's consider vampires. While we’re at it, what about Buffy the vampire slayer?

One of the reasons for the great appeal of vampire shows and movies may be their similarities to traditional superhero stories. For vampires, you’ve got Blade, Nick Knight (from "Forever Knight"), arguably Angel, and more than a dozen others at this point. They fight crime (except every once in a while when their vampire-ness makes them kill lots of innocent people, whoops!), their identities as vampires are often kept secret (at first anyway), and they fight supervillains. Do they have secret hideouts? If they stuck to the legend of having to sleep in the original coffins/dirt in which they were buried, they would. But this does not always appear to be the case.

And, once again, that whole angsty anti-hero thing gets in the way, so I guess I would put them into the sub-sub-genre of vampire super anti-heroes.

As for Buffy, she’s definitely a superhero. She had super powers, several secret hideouts (school library, magic shop, her house) and at least two or three side-kicks at any given time, and she fought supervillains all the time. She had teen-angst in the movie, and got pretty unstable in the later seasons of the show, but aside from wearing a costume, she still fits all the definitions of a superhero—as odd as that may seem.

Gods and other mythological or strictly supernatural beings, such as Lord Morpheus in "The Sandman" or Marvel's interpretation of Thor certainly have to count, so that begs the question: Are all gods and demi-gods who act in a heroic manner superheroes? None of these characters have secret identities, so there goes that part of the definition.

And, this time of year, I can't resist asking the question: what about Santa Claus? Everything else fits, but he doesn't fight supervillains (in most stories), so in general, I'm saying it's a no on this one.

Looking Forward

Alrighty, so if we narrow things down based on all of these observations, we get a new definition with only two requirements:

  1. Supernatural/superhuman physical or magical abilities.
  2. Fights supervillains and does other good deeds for the public, mostly in a real world-like setting.

Is this definition still too loose? Maybe.

To most consumers, the definition of a superhero is any crime fighter in spandex tights, regardless of abilities, especially if they first appear in a comic book/strip. So, it's looking like the classification of a character as a superhero is in continuous transition.

In short, who knows what will be considered a superhero in the future. That's up to us, the artists, writers, and creators to decide.

*Feature photo by Nicolas Soriano (Pexels)

Writing kids animation by day (TeamTO, Nickelodeon) and genre live-action by night, Hilary Van Hoose is also journalist and 2021 RespectAbility Lab Fellow with an MFA in Film & TV Production from USC.
More posts by Hilary Van Hoose.
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