What Makes a Superhero?


What Makes a Superhero?

Superheroes are, from a theoretical point of view, stock characters that appeared in pulp fiction and have become a pillar of modern pop-culture. These characters are today one of the most often used fictional characters in a variety of media (comic books, movies, video games, TV shows, even literature) and we can say that superheroes have evolved from being pulp characters to being an important part of today’s society. Their symbolic value is quite obvious, but we’re not going to talk about today; today, we are going to talk about the qualities a superhero needs to have in order to be labelled as one.

A superhero is an individual with extraordinary abilities. The source of those abilities can be science and technology, magic or non-human traits (or origins) a character possesses. What makes a superhero super is that he is above the qualities of a regular human being in one way or the other.

In today’s article, we are going to define the word superhero for you and see what constitutes such a character. We are going to discuss the different types of superheroes and give you several examples for each type, and are going to conclude with an answer to the question – can anyone become a superhero? So, keep reading to find out more!

Defining a superhero – What are the qualities of a superhero?

We have already said that a superhero is a stock character that initially appeared in pulp fiction as a superhuman crime fighter. The superhero type of character evolved throughout the years and evolved from being a stereotype without any background to a very complex type of character with a lot of depth. So, why are there so many problems in defining a superhero?

Dictionary.com defines a superhero as “a figure, especially in a comic strip or cartoon, endowed with superhuman powers and usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime”. As you can see, Dictionary.com explicitly states that a superhero has to have “superhuman powers” to be a superhero. But, not everyone would agree.

The longstanding and famous Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a superhero as “a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also: an exceptionally skilful or successful person”. Merriam-Webster, which is certainly a better lexicological source, has a broader definition of the term superhero, which encompasses both superhuman and extraordinary characters. We can only agree with that, as the history of superheroes shows that different types of characters have been considered as such.

This is the basic idea behind the superhero character. The superhuman trait is something that both a narrower and broader definition contains, while the latter – which we agree with – also encompasses characters with other extraordinary abilities. Another thing a superhero has to have is a strong(er) moral compass and he has to do good. He doesn’t necessarily have to fight crime – although he typically does – but has to do good and protect the people around him. These are some of the basic qualities a superhero character has to have.

But, if you don’t believe us and if you want a better insight into this issue, here’s a brief lecture from the man himself – Stan Lee – who needs no additional introduction:

Now that we’ve gone through the basic qualities of a superhero, let us see what types of superheroes there are.

Types of superheroes

Superheroes can be classified according to different criteria. You can classify them by their origins, by the source of their powers, by their moral affiliations, etc. We think that the best classification for the purpose of this article would be based on the source of their powers, since that quality (superhuman or not) is the source of much debate.

Based on the source of their powers, superheroes can be classified like this:

  • Superheroes who are inherently superhuman (non-human sources) – these characters draw their powers from non-human sources, whether it is their origins (gods, monsters, demons, angels, etc.) or their heritage (they come from a different location and stem from a species that is superior to humans). These characters are inherently superhuman – regardless of how they look (they are often human-looking or humanoid) – and would always fit into the category of a superhero.
    Examples of such characters are Superman (a Kryptonian alien), Wonder Woman (a demigoddess), Thor (an Asgardian god), Martian Manhunter (likewise an alien), Aquaman (an Atlantean ruler), Venom (a cosmic symbiote), and others.
  • Superheroes who use magic (magical sources) – these characters draw their superhuman powers from magic, either being magical beings themselves (wizards, witches, demons, warlocks, etc.) or learning how to use magic through learning. These characters can also be human or non-human and would also generally fit into the narrower definition of a superhero, although we can debate whether magic is a “superhuman ability” per se. These characters have to actively use their skills to fight evil in order to be classified as a superhero (this is why Gandalf, for example, is not a superhero).
    Examples of such characters are Zatanna, Scarlet Witch, John Constantine, Etrigan, Doctor Strange, and others.
  • Superheroes that became superheroes through mutation (mutational sources) – this is a very broad group of characters that contains elements from some other types, but is distinctive in the way that these characters were usually just normal humans who were either born with a mutation that gave them special powers or were exposed to some external source (mutation, radiation, toxins, genetic experiments, etc.) that gave them superhuman abilities. A lot of modern comic book characters are like this and they represent one of the largest portions of superhero characters.
    Examples of such characters are Captain America (Super Soldier serum), Spider-Man (radioactive spider), the X-Men (mutations), Hulk (radiation), the Flash (Speed Force), Green Lantern (Power Ring), Dr. Manhattan, and others.
  • Superheroes that use science and technology (scientific sources) – these characters aren’t superheroes according to the narrower definition, since they are just ordinary humans with peak abilities that possess absolutely no superhuman powers. Yet, they are extraordinary and they are superheroes according to the broader definition of the term. Most of these characters have a lot of money and can afford the lifestyle.
    Examples of such characters are Batman, Iron Man, Lex Luthor (when he’s not a power-hungry supervillain), Rorschach, and others.

These are the four basic types of superhero characters based on the source of their powers. We haven’t talked about categories such as antiheroes or vigilantes, since this refers to the character’s moral affiliations, and not the sources of their powers.

Can anyone become a superhero? Are superheroes possible?

Now that we know the qualities and types of superheroes, let us answer two important questions:

1) Can anyone become a superhero?

Both of these answers depend on what definition of the term superhero you consider. If you consider the narrower definition, not anyone can become a superhero. The narrower definition requires you to either be born with superhuman abilities or to obtain them, but you have to have superhuman powers and not all superheroes have that. Plus, as we all know, it’s not easy to obtain superpowers during your life.

If you consider the broader definition of the term, then literally anyone can become a superhero with the right moral traits and some training. Characters like Rorschach even prove that you don’t have to be wealthy – you just have to fight against evil and injustice.

2) Are superheroes possible in real life?

If you consider the narrower definition of the term, then no, superheroes are (as far as we know) not possible in real life. We don’t know about any alien species that might be superior to us, we know that radiation kills us rather than makes us stronger, and we know that our genetic mutations usually lead to diseases and not superpowers. In that aspect, obtaining superhuman abilities is impossible.

But, even if you consider the broader definition of the term, becoming a superhero is quite difficult. Let us imagine a Bruce Wayne in real life. He has money, he has the technology and he has the physical and moral predispositions to become a superhero. He would have to deal with the state, the laws and the public security forces in a way that actual comic book characters don’t have to. He might exist, but he would certainly be considered an illegal vigilante and would not be allowed to operate outside the law, as superheroes usually do. So, despite the possibility being more real, the social context of the real world would make it extremely hard for a superhero to exist in our day and time.

And that’s it for today. We hope you had fun reading this and that we helped solve this dilemma for you. See you next time and don’t forget to follow us!

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