I have the power: The problem with superheroes
I’d imagine that the very title of this article is going to get me in trouble with a lot of people. Superheroes are after all modern cultural icons, with repeated films from Marvel and DC raking in the billions every year, and fans ranging from hardline comic collectors who can tell you in detail what kind of polish Ironman uses on his suit or what the current price of Wayne Enterprises stock is, to casual film watchers who just love to see people in funny costumes spout off quips whilst dodging explosions and throwing buildings at one another.
Yet the honest truth is, that no, I do not like superheroes. This dislike goes beyond dislike of a given hero, universe or continuity, and into a dislike of the concept as a whole. It is entirely possible that this dislike of mine is simply an irrational prejudice, however being as I do tend to think about matters from an overall writing perspective, I am inclined to consider my dislike to have some sort of justifiable basis behind it, particularly because there have been occasions in the past I have enjoyed superhero stories, albeit less mainstream ones such as the anime Tiger and Bunny, Mercedes Lackey’s secret world chronicle or (depending upon the definition of superhero), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, indeed I even played a mutants and masterminds tabletop game with a group of superhero loving friends for a solid seven years, and had a great time, (my character was a battle suit wearing concert pianist called Silver Knight).
I was also quite disheartened when doing some research on the subject of superhero dislike, to find an unpleasant group of people who express their dislike for superheroes, as a direct and insulting attack on fans of superhero fiction especially fans of the comics. So, first a disclaimer. This article is not intended as an attack on anybody, rational disagreement is always welcome, just an expression of my own opinion and the reasons why I hold it.
Also, just because I have an issue with the concept of superheroes in fiction, doesn’t mean that the concept cannot be, and has not been executed well in the past (see my article on formula).
My main issue with the idea of superheroes can essentially be split into two problems, the problems of power, and self-obsession, or roughly speaking, the problems of being “super”, and “a hero”.
It is part of the very definition of superheroes that they are “super”, that they possess powers and abilities (most frequently martial ones), which raise them above the level of ordinary humans. Therefore, right from the get go you start with a fairly major problem in building conflict into a story, since things that could affect a normal person, bullets, falls from a height, punches from thugs, steel doors, are not obstacles for superheroes. Thus, you have already by definition got a character who is at an advantage in most normal situations and must manufacture ever more abnormal situations to give that character obstacles to deal with, usually in the form of people with similar levels of power for the character to fight against.
Unfortunately, because the superhero is by definition super and therefore “special”, the obstacles which an author must have them confront must in their turn be specially tailored to the hero as well, and this leads directly on to the second problem, the problem of self-obsession, or of being a “hero.
Because the superhero is inherently more powerful than those around them and can only be challenged by similarly powerful situations, the author must also give the superhero a strict moral code to prevent the hero from simply taking advantage of others through their power. Superman doesn’t simply punch open cash machines and grab money out of them because he knows stealing is wrong, even though he very much could.
This unfortunately gives the hero not only physical power, but moral power as well. Indeed, even in cases where the author flaunts with the idea that the hero might have some sort of temptation to use their power for personal gain (Batman’s vengeance), we know ultimately that either the hero will refrain from such actions, or if they give in to such once or twice, will inevitably repent it.
So with a hero who must act in generally morally good ways, i.e. ways that promote the good of others, and is chiefly defined by conflicts created by the author to test that hero, the hero becomes the absolute focus of the story, not merely a player in events, or a person caught up in something larger than themselves, but the ultimate authority in that universe upon which moral actions are to be judged and for whom conflicts occur. In the worst cases, this can lead to either heroes whose moral choices are so transparent they are not choices at all, or worse, heroes who are so much the centre of their own stories, that the entire universe is divided not merely into right and wrong actions, but those expressly for, or against the hero. Indeed, in really extreme cases, this can lead to occasions where even the hero’s emotional conflicts are entirely self-focused: “It is so terrible for me! That this thing has happened. Everyone is relying on me to solve the problem, how can I risk having a romantic relationship when I am a hero”.
As I noted in my article on Dark Lords, one of the most beautiful things I find in fiction is the opposition to the idea that might makes right, positions where the powerless, not the powerful succeed.
Many superheroes, however nice their moral code directly go against this premise, Indeed, my own ideal “hero”, is someone much more like Frodo from Lord of the Rings, someone with very little power who undergoes great hardship for the sake of others, endures long lasting consequences and damage, but succeeds in the end despite overwhelming odds.
Of course, the trope of the hero as utter focus of the story, and the definition of the story’s universe solely with reference to that hero is not unique to costume wearing superhero fiction, and might be seen just as much with a character like Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan, however the problem is more serious for superheroes, firstly because they are almost exclusively defined with reference to their super powers it’s usually in the name, Spiderman, Iron Man, Wonder Woman and so on. And secondly because those powers are almost always either the result of some inherent specialness, most often in born or due to exclusive access to personal wealth or resources, or made inherent to the character through some sort of fortunate accident.
Indeed Hitler’s favourite philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche, a firm believer in might makes right and a huge proponent of the idea that overpowered individualists should force those around them to bend to their will actually called his moral ideal the “Übermensch”, amusingly enough usually translated from the original German as “Superman”).
There is also a major difference in a character who has simply acquired certain skills through practice, skills which many others possess, and a character with abilities unique to themselves that others do not have. After all, any fantasy kingdom might be chock full of awesome sword fighters, and after all even the best sword fighter can be overwhelmed by numbers or superior skill or weaponry (in cases where this literally isn’t the case, we might be dealing with an incipient superhero).
Equally, it’s not true that all characters with inherent special powers are necessarily bad ones either, provided those powers are not the defining trait of the character, and that the character isn’t the absolute focus of the world the character lives in.
Of course, in a world where the gap between the few people with power and the many without it is ever increasing, I do see the attraction to wish fulfilment fantasies of power and admiration. However it is at this sort of time that I personally would see the powerless heroes, and characters undergoing a complex journey as more, rather than less important, since whilst with great power might come great responsibility, with little or no power, responsibility must be something everyone needs to take for themselves.