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What defines a Superhero?

The goal of this blog is that I want to watch and review at least 100 superhero movies this year. But that leads to the question, what defines a superhero movie. On the tab up top for “The List” of movies that I’m watching this year there’s a brief description, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. Does a superhero have to be in comic books? Were the Incredibles a comic book before they were a movie? I don’t think so, and yet they are a classic example of a superhero team. Does a superhero have to have powers? That’s pretty much thrown out when it comes to one of the most popular superheroes of all time, Batman, and yet no one would hesitate to call him a superhero. Does a superhero have to be human? One of the other most popular superheroes of all time, Superman, is technically not a human even though he looks exactly like one. One of the more popular non-human superheroes that easily comes to mind and doesn’t look human is the Martian Manhunter. Do they have to wear a costume? X-Men origins: Wolverine is a recent movie featuring a bunch of well known superheroes, and yet not a single one of them wears a costume the entire movie. Does it have to take place during the modern day? The new Captain America almost entirely takes place in the 40’s, and Judge Dredd takes place in the future.

So how do I go about deciding what is and what isn’t a superhero movie. Every thing I can come up with to try and define a superhero has an exception to the rule. But let’s take another look at those questions. Does a superhero have to be in comic books? Most of the movies on the list are based on comics, the few that aren’t are almost definitely inspired by comic books and have a certain style that lends itself to being thought of as a comic book concept even if it was originally intended for the screen. And especially for the popular movies, many of them became a comic book afterwards. Movies like Super even go so far as to add comic book style drawings and word bubbles to accentuate that fact. There’s typically a lot of bright colors and action.

Does a superhero have to have powers? No, but nearly all of the movies on the list are based around a superhero that is born with, or gains some sort of superpower. In the obvious case of Batman, he doesn’t have powers, yet he has enough gadgets and training for him to perform superhuman feats. Of course this brings up other questions, like why don’t I consider super spy movies to be superhero movies? They have all sorts of gadgets and training that let them do superhuman things, and yet the only costume they wear is typically a suit and tie. Or action heroes who tend to do superhuman things based on pure will and/or pure luck. Sure, some people could call them superheroes, and yet there’s still some sort of difference between someone who fights criminals as themselves, and someone who fights criminals as an alternate persona that they’ve created, something more than themselves. That’s why I consider Batman and Kick Ass and the Crimson Bolt superheroes, and yet I consider James Bond and John McClane and Lara Croft action heroes. This also tends to extent into sci-fi territory. There’s a lot of action movie set in space that center around a hero of sorts, and yet they are typically just the right person in the right place at the right time with the right skills to get the job done.

Does a superhero have to wear a costume? In the last paragraph I talked about how a superhero has a persona that is different than their own self. But in some cases their own self is greater than the regular people around them, so they don’t always need a costume to differentiate themselves. They stand apart from the rest of the world through their abilities. They may not always have a costume, yet they almost always have some sort of look to them that sets them apart. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a great example, none of the mutants in that movie wear any costumes, yet they all have something of a signature look, or at least special powers that set them apart. If you’re just a regular guy without any powers trying to make a difference, you’re an action hero. But if you’ve got special powers, you’re a superhero.

So that’s pretty much all of my thoughts on the subject. I’d really love to hear your thoughts. Is there anything that I’ve left out? Or is there any examples that fall outside of what I’ve covered here but are still considered superheroes? I think that the closest example is 300, where the soldiers there don’t have any special powers or costumes outside of their typical battle gear, but I suppose I don’t really call that a superhero movie, it’s a comic book movie. Yet it’s in such a comic book style and the fact that I already own it on DVD, that I included it. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.

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About Bubbawheat

I'm a comic book movie enthusiast who has watched and reviewed over 300 superhero and comic book movies in the past four years, my goal is to continue to find and watch and review every superhero movie ever made.

Posted on February 21, 2012, in Blogs and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. This is an interesting question to ask! If it is ok, I may use the same question in s

  2. A nice, thorough discussion of the question, two things occur to me relating to this discussion.

    One is scope, as in the scope of the superhero’s activities. Batman, for example, was originally conceived as a costumed super-sleuth, and leaving aside the costume for a moment, the scope of his activities beyond those of a rank-and-file detective (who may be considered a hero, in a slightly more everyday sense of the word) set him aside as in some sense more than just a hero.

    The other relates to costume, superpowers, secret identity, etc. While all of these may not be required to classify a character as a superhero, perhaps s/he should have at least one of them, hence Batman, with his alter-ego, costume, and secret lair is a superhero despite his lack of powers, and Wolverine is a superhero even if he doesn’t don the blue-and-gold.

    On another note, the characters in Wolverine (for example) may not wear costumes in the movie, but the characters already existed before the movie, and they do have costumes in the comics, so I think that they need to be considered in the larger scope of their existence in the cannon of that particular story, rather than simply in a particular adaptation.

    • Yeah, I think those are pretty much the two biggest things to differentiate “hero” vs. “superhero”. The alternate identity, which is usually a costume, and the above average heroism, which is usually based on having superpowers.

  3. Hi Bubbawheat. I saw your post on the Lamb forums and thought I’d drop by to say hi.

    I really like this question, and think that it probably has a lot to do with the comics as you say. But then I think there are some detective comics too that probably don’t fit.

    I do tend to think of them having superpowers, and it sort of works for Batman too, with his superpower being that he was super rich!

    I was about to suggest that another important aspect I think is having a super villain or set of super villains to go up against. But then there is the famous case of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, who probably aren’t usually classified in this genre.

    Great question, and I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    • Thanks for stopping by, and inspiring a topic for Tuesday’s blog post. I looked at what defines a superhero, it makes sense that I should look at what defines a supervillain, or at least what makes a good supervillain.

      • Cool! I’ll be sure to come back and check it out! Sometimes the villains can be even more interesting than the heroes, and when done really well can actually ask some interesting questions by presenting the opposite perspective of our “hero”.

  1. Pingback: Looking At What Defines A “Super Hero” | Random Rants

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