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What is a Superhero?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The superhero is often called a unique American phenomenon. Inspired by comic books, particularly the Superman series in the early 1930s, superheroes with superhuman strength and a desire to save the world became the stuff of many a child’s, and also numerous adults’ dreams and fantasies. Yet Superman was not the first literary character to which the term superhero could have been applied. Certainly many of the heroes from earlier literature: Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Hercules, Zorro (appearing first in 1919), Sir Lancelot, and others were superhero types.

What made the American take on the superhero unique, at least in its onset, was an attempt to scientifically explain why the superhero had special powers. In Superman’s case, he is actually an alien, and was born on the planet Krypton. He can fly, see through metal (except lead), has extraordinary strength and speed.

The superhero is usually someone who must live a dual existence, concealing his super powers from the world. This idea is not exactly new either; Zorro wears a mask to conceal his identity, and King Arthur spent time masquerading as the Black Knight. With early superheroes, the dual identity gave rise to a common feature — the awkward, frequently geeky character who never gets the girl. Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego is an inadequate, fumbling and bumbling character. A few superheroes lack a secret identity, like the group who makes up the Fantastic Four.

Superman is a born superhero, as opposed to those who are made superheroes. Others are mere earthlings who derive their superpowers from exposure to toxic chemicals, poisonous bites from insects (Spiderman), or genetic mutations (X-Men). A few superheroes do not have special abilities, but instead are effective because of their manipulation of science. Batman is considered a superhero, but relies mainly on fancy gadgets and superior understanding of science, as well as martial arts skills to fight crime. Zorro when considered a superhero is simply a gifted and intelligent athlete and superior swordsman.

Most superheroes sprung to life in the pages of comic books, and very quickly, the superhero genre began to change. Though there were many ideal Superman types, with extremely upright moral principles (Spiderman, Wonder Woman), morally conflicted superheroes also began to emerge. For example, Batman, in certain interpretations sometimes is portrayed as extremely dark, and certainly some of the X-men can barely be called heroes. The Hulk is another example of a superhero who is sometimes overwhelmed by his own power.

Virtually all superhero types suffer a high degree of angst, and in addition to average crime fighting, usually battle against mortal enemies, who may also have superhuman abilities. Most are condemned to live secretive lives and have extremely poor relationship records. The superhero also fights alone, though comic books have spawned a few superhero groups, and have also grouped well-known superheroes together into crime fighting organizations like the Justice League.

Hollywood quickly became immersed in filming superhero stories, at first primarily as television stories, or film shorts. With the first Superman film in 1978, superhero movies became intensely popular fare, though sequels of the film were considered inferior. Batman in 1989 revived the genre, and since then film audiences have been happy to watch Darkman, Spiderman, the X-men, the Hulk, Zorro, Hellboy, the Fantastic Four, the Shadow and numerous others. Actually not all of these film adaptations have been well received, and some have been noted for being exceptionally lousy movies.

Hollywood has also created its own superhero types. The Pixar film The Incredibles features a very enjoyable crime-fighting family. Sky High also continues the trend of the superhero family. In fact, there seems some wish fulfillment in these two last films. Perhaps as directors grow middle-aged, and a little round about the middle, they still would like to be superheroes, or at least recognized for the superhuman strength it takes to parent children! Americans have responded well to these films, particularly Pixar’s movie, suggesting we may only be seeing the beginning of the superhero family genre in film.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Buster29 — On Feb 23, 2014

@AnswerMan, I think it's interesting that many of our superheroes come from traumatic backgrounds. Batman witnessed the brutal murder of his parents. Spiderman was infected by a radioactive insect. Superman was the lone survivor of a doomed planet. All of these characters learned to overcome their traumas and use their powers for good. I think many people find comfort in that fact. Instead of becoming psychotic criminals bent on destruction, these characters chose a more righteous path. It's the ultimate tale of trial and redemption.

By AnswerMan — On Feb 22, 2014

I think society embraces the idea of fictional superheroes because putting a face on God is nearly impossible. We want to believe there are beings somewhere with the power to right wrongs and save our planet. Political leaders can only do so much, and many times their decisions lead to even more strife and conflict. A superhero, on the other hand, is completely altruistic. He or she only wants to see things get better, and he or she has no other personal agenda. Superman could rule this entire planet with an iron fist, but he has too much honor and benevolence to do it.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
Learn more
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