What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

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Which of the following would you consider a superhero?

Batman.
13
20%
Robin.
9
14%
The Punisher.
4
6%
Iron Man.
11
17%
Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
8
12%
Phil Coulson.
3
5%
Sherlock Holmes.
2
3%
Robin Hood.
3
5%
Harry Dresden.
6
9%
The Doctor.
6
9%
 
Total votes: 65

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The Romulan Republic
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What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by The Romulan Republic » 2016-11-07 06:09am

I've been puzzling over this question for a while, and don't really have a satisfactory answer. Granted, the lines between any genres can get very blurry, but I find superheroes in particular hard to define. Everyone "knows" what a superhero is, but their isn't really a single, obvious characteristic or set of characteristics that they all share.

Superpowers? No, of course not. Any manner of super powered beings, from ancient mythological figures to aliens and ghosts and vampires and such, are not generally considered superheroes. And then we have "superheroes" like Batman, who are arguably defined in part by their lack of super-human powers (at least, beyond the normal implausibility of action heroes).

Heroics? Nope. Not only is the definition of "hero" obviously a hotly contested one, but their are many heroic characters, even super-powered heroic characters (see above) that are not regarded as superheroes.

Is it the iconic nature of the characters? Hell, is it the campy costumes? :wink: No and no. For the first, see the previous two points. For the latter, the films usually ditch those anyway, or at least tone them down. :wink:

Is it a particular set of genre conventions? I'm not sure. You can find authors who challenge a lot of these conventions, and a lot of these conventions (the sidekick, the secret identity, etc.) predate, or at any rate can be widely found outside of, the genre.

Is it that they act outside the law? No. The outlaw hero archetype long predates the modern concept of the superhero, of course.

Is it simply being a hero in a Marvel or DC publication? :lol: Again, no. Their are characters outside of those companies who are considered superheroes.

So how does one define a "superhero"? It seems to be widely agreed upon that Superman was the first, but by what unwritten but widely agreed upon definition, for example, is Batman a superhero, but Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood are not? Do you just have to check a certain percentage of the criteria to qualify?

Just for fun, I've tacked on a poll, with some examples to illustrate this conundrum. Four are famous characters who are widely regarded as superheroes, but who, to my knowledge, generally lack innate superhuman powers. Four are famous characters who are not widely considered superheroes, but arguably fit most or all of the criteria listed above. Two are grey area: Buffy is borderline because she drew inspiration from Marvel comics and is described as a superhero in the second episode by Xander, while Coulson is a hero in the Marvel universe, and an augmented one after he loses his arm, but is not generally described as a "superhero".
Last edited by The Romulan Republic on 2016-11-07 06:12am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by Crazedwraith » 2016-11-07 06:11am

Why only one selection in the poll? Multiple people listed there are superheroes. Why would one select Batman and not Robin for example?
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by The Romulan Republic » 2016-11-07 06:12am

Fixed, and thank you very much for catching that in time to edit it.
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by The Romulan Republic » 2016-11-07 06:29am

For the record, voted for everyone but Robin Hood and Punisher. Robin Hood in most versions seems a little too ordinary and archaic, though I'm not sure the latter is a fair criteria, and Punisher seems too heavy on the "anti" part of anti-hero, from the admittedly little I know about the character (although to be fair, I could say the same of Harry Dresden to an extent).
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by TheFeniX » 2016-11-07 10:54am

The Romulan Republic wrote:So how does one define a "superhero"? It seems to be widely agreed upon that Superman was the first, but by what unwritten but widely agreed upon definition, for example, is Batman a superhero, but Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood are not?
I would say Beowulf was actually one of the first Superheroes. Greek heroes were way too messed up to really qualify. Though I'm sure there's accounts of super-badasses way before that.

But Sorbo's Hercules would be a contender. I think Robin Hood really depends on what you are watching/reading. Some accounts of his archery skills are Hawkeye levels of absurd.

I think a lot of it has to do with their counter-part. Without a good supervillian, Superheroes don't have much to do. The Batman is a much defined by the Joker (at least his modern incarnation) as by his Batsuit and gadgets. Robin Hood is fighting a corrupt system: King John or The Sheriff are still just agents of that corrupt system. The Downey Jr. Holmes might count because of the stakes at play and that Moriarty is wizard levels of good. But we still ground it in reality because it just kind of "looks" like it could happen.

But more than that, I think you just have to stick with some version of "over-the-top" to be in the superhero genre. Sure, Batman doesn't have superpowers, but the villains he faces, the stakes, the gadgets: it's just way fucking out there. Tone it down and you're into "Action Hero" territory. Last Action Hero hit on this: it shows how absurd Action Movies are when you think about them, but Superheroes should be absurd at a glance.

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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by Darth Holbytlan » 2016-11-07 11:07am

The Romulan Republic wrote:Is it simply being a hero in a Marvel or DC publication? :lol: Again, no. Their are characters outside of those companies who are considered superheroes.
Actually, Marvel and DC jointly own a trademark on "Super Hero", so this is the one that is closest to being the truth.

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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by Khaat » 2016-11-07 11:33am

TheFeniX wrote:I think a lot of it has to do with their counter-part. Without a good supervillian, Superheroes don't have much to do. The Batman is a much defined by the Joker (at least his modern incarnation) as by his Batsuit and gadgets. Robin Hood is fighting a corrupt system: King John or The Sheriff are still just agents of that corrupt system. The Downey Jr. Holmes might count because of the stakes at play and that Moriarty is wizard levels of good. But we still ground it in reality because it just kind of "looks" like it could happen.
I think you're almost there, in that a "super hero" has to face challenges beyond the scope of "normal" heroism. It isn't necessarily hinged on a villainous counterpart/antagonist, but the threats overcome.
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by Formless » 2016-11-07 06:16pm

Nah, I disagree, unless you want to concede most heroes of legend like Heracles, the Argonauts, Beowolf, Faust (the prototype for the modern anti-hero), Sun Wukong, etc.

Personally, I think they are really just an outgrowth of the same tendency as folk heroes and mythological heroes, to the point where some of Marvel and DC's characters are directly or indirectly inspired by many of those heroes (Thor being an example of being straight up stolen from mythology, in name and everything). So the ones I voted for were: Batman, Iron Man, Buffy, and Robin Hood. In many cases, I probably would have voted for them if I knew more about them, but there is only so much crap I can store in my skull in this lifetime (like the Doctor). Robin Hood is a clear example of a folk hero, Buffy follows most of the modern superhero concepts EXCEPT the silly ideas of wearing a mask and stuff, and of course Batman and Iron Man are a given. Why not Robin? Because he's really just an accessory to Batman, just like Robin Hood's Merry Men. He doesn't really have a mythology of his own, the Batman mythology is often BETTER when he is taken out of it, and indeed many characters have worn the red tights and feel interchangeable to an outsider. This isn't universally true of the sidekick characters in comics, of course, as some of them like Batgirl and Supergirl manage to have followings of their own, but its a short list.
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by Zixinus » 2016-11-08 03:24pm

Essential:
- Some sort of heroic struggle, even if the hero itself isn't particularly heroic. This is essential. Gotham's out-of-control-and-near-mad crime. Aliens, nazis, etc.
- Individualism. Perhaps the most essential component. The stories center on the superhero as an individual, even if its about a distinct individual struggle even if its in a larger context and in the context of acting in terms of a larger group. Captain America is about one guy's struggle and ambition to punch Hitler, not about the Xth Infantry Battalion. The Fantastic Four is group, even if they wear an uniform. Even the X-men follow this pattern: every mutant has different powers and making different path in their lives.
- Exaggeration, the "super" in "superhero". He isn't just powerful, he is super-powerful! Even if his power is within the realm of reality. He doesn't just have gadget, he has super-gadgets! He doesn't just do science, he does super-science! Even just as reputation, like the Phantom who is just a very well trained man who uses his reputation as a weapon.
Preferable:
- A symbol with thematic overtones. This almost always a fancy name, icon and preferably an also-iconic costume or characteristic set of clothes. For Batman it is obviously the bat but it is more broadly the night and its various aspects like nocturnal creatures, such as bats or cats. Bat-cookies and bat-milk is a self-parody. For the Phantom it is the skull and death. But this isn't so much about individual bits of equipment, but the methods of the character, what the character finds power in. Thor's hammer isn't just iconic to him because of its power but its relation to him, why it was given to him, what it means to him.
- Supervillains whose super nature is somehow a match to the hero's. Not always present but a common and useful element. Preferably foil supervillains, especially if its persists as a nemesis. Batman who has very rational goals in mind (if irrational methods) vs the insane Joker who himself doesn't know what he wants. Virtuous, selfless Superman vs egotistic, amoral Lex Luthor. Also opponents that somehow comment or reflect the hero. Batman is about justice while Two-face is also about a twisted form of justice.
- A set time, environment and circumstance. Batman and dark, corrupt Gotham full of criminals. Superman and idealistic, shiny Metropolis full of incredible achievements. Spider-man and New York skyscrapers with all their zaniness. The exact details change but it is always about place, time and what the heroes are doing in that circumstance. Of course it is usually punching things but also why they are punching things, what are they doing under those circumstances (punching even when its a bad idea), etc.
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by Zixinus » 2016-11-08 03:42pm

One more optional element:

- An iconic and essential piece of equipment that is a thing within itself. Green Lantern's ring but better example is Thor's hammer. It isn't just being a physical avatar of the superhero's power but also carries meaning to who and what the superhero is. They represent the willingness to use that power, the element of fate, the right and righteousness of using that power. Thor's hammer requires a worthiness to be his. Without this, the superhero is lacking, incomplete, even its lack of presence a gaping hole. A non-superhero example is Excalibur for King Arthur.
They are NOT just pieces of kit. Batman is still batman without his utility belt or even without his cape and cowl. Iron Man's suit is iconic but it is still an expression of him and cannot really exist without him (any other suit would be LIKE his suit but not IT).
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by Tribble » 2016-11-08 04:32pm

I voted Batman because Zorro wasn't on the list, but he's close enough* :P

*bonus points as it's now established even in DC canon that Batman was directly inspired by Zorro.
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Re: What defines a superhero/the superhero genre?

Post by Batman » 2016-11-08 05:51pm

Traditionally, the movie me and my parents watched the night they were killed is 'The Mark of Zorro' so I don't think that's a particularly recent development.
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