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What is a Superhero

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What is a Superhero

[some spoilerish stuff about Harrison Bergeron and the Watchmen. If you haven't read either, you should read both.]

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Harrison Bergeron of literature andfilm is not a superhero. At least by any definition I can find online, or in the rule books for the various super hero RPGs. Neither is the Harlequin of unrepentant fame. And yet, yet they seek to rescue society. And Harrison, at least, displays superhuman strength and impressive intellect. Why aren't they superheroes?

"What is a superhero?" seems like an easy question. But perhaps it is more like porn ..."I know it when I see it." What's the difference between a wizard, Gandalf, and a wizard, Doctor Strange? A Norse god in Asgard and one on Earth in modern times? There seems to be something of time and place, of expectations and possibilities in the defining of a superhero. Wikipedia defines superheroes as: A superhero is a type of stock character possessing "extraordinary or superhuman powers" and dedicated to protecting the public and has some visual characteristic (typically an outfit) that makes him/her identifiable.

What's It take?


Superman Is a Superhero

It's easy to classify Superman. Cape, superpowers, dedication to positive ideals: he's a superhero. In any definition, he will have to fit the criteria. Batman is not quite so easy: no superpowers but money and a fanatical dedication to his view of justice; a view which is not necessarily in-line with the law. Deadpool and Lobo are harder still, they're not really heroes at all though superpowered and not outright villains. The Badger and Rorschach are nigh on impossible to fit into conventional definitions, except any protagonist in a superhero comic is a superhero. And that just begs the question.

From the wiki definition, intention is an integral part of the role, a dedication to protecting the public, or Truth, Justice and the American Way. Yet for every definition, there are many who do not fit comfortably within the words. From the Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias and Rorschach are on vertices of a triangle. Superpowered versus paradigm of human potential plus money versus vigilante schlub. Ozymandias intends to save the world, Dr. Manhattan has nothing to tie him to it, Rorschach cares about each crime as he comes across it with a general feeling things used to be better. Ozymandias destroys the world in order to save it. Dr. Manhattan destroys one man to keep it saved. And the man destroyed, he's a psychopath obsessed with justice. Which one, if any, is the superhero?

What Does it Take To Be A Superhero

Superheroes need to be unique. If you have 500 people in armored suits fighting crime, now they're the police or soldiers, not superheroes. Iron Man loses unique status when his parts are off-the-shelf. But you can have a lot of (not super)heroes with the same powers. There were an army of heroes within the police, fire and emergency workers on 9/11. These men and women risked their lives to save others, fitting most definitions of "hero." Superheroes need the heroic, need that spirit plus something else. Normally it's a power or powers and normally it is specific to and unique with them.

In the Wild Tangents 2e book, superpowers are described as: "We also call powers “Miracles.” That doesn’t imply that they have some divine origin (although in your game they might; it’s up to you), but to drive home their sheer impossibility. These aren’t works of extraordinary skill or adrenaline-fueled feats. They’re beyond anything human."

Are Batman's powers beyond anything human?

Clothes Make The (Wo)Man

I don't think, re Wikipedia, that there's a necessary visual cue. The cape does not make the hero. Nor spandex, battle armor, spells or any one particular thing. Harry Dresden is not a superhero, although he has an amazing array of powers and a costume. So what is it? Why not Harry or Constantine, but Dr. Strange is? I think it is the setting. It's not the clothes but the entire universe.

A world has to recognize superheroes to have superheroes. Seemingly this begs the question again, but setting is a key to the definition. Middle Earth has heroes. Angels, demons, wizards and rangers. It has common folk. But it has no superheroes. Earth, in the DC Universe has wizards, demons, angels. It has common folk. It has heroes. And it has superheroes. Harry Potter's world has no superheroes. But this is not a genre, fantasy versus science fiction versus pulp or crime milieu question. Fantasy worlds can have superheroes as well as conventional worlds, Marvel's Supernaturals series, and one could argue for superhero fiction being a spawn of fantasy fiction rather than a nod to science fiction(mutations and gamma rays aside).

Superhero Is as Superhero Does

David Dunn is a superhero. He discovers he has powers, he uses them to track down villains, the day is saved. Except he lives in a world, our world, where there are no superheroes. Unbreakable was an attempt to show what it's like to be a superhero in a world without them. But it cheats, it's already decided to be a superhero movie. A movie with no superheroes can be set in a superhero universe. One might show up later. But a movie with superheroes cannot be set in a world where superheroes don't exist.

Harrison Bergeron, of strength, and grace and looks and intellect, dies. He dies with no one rescued. No one will remember him in fifteen minutes except as a garbled memory. He lives in a world without superheroes. And he lives in a non-superhero world. It's not that he failed (if he did fail), it's that there was never the possibility he could be more than human.

Definition of a Superhero

The key to being a superhero is to manifest unique, superhuman powers combined with a heroic attitude in a world that is primed to recognize superheroes. (Despite discussion to the contrary and the intention of the writers, Batman's abilities seem to go well beyond the pinnacle of human achievement and into the extraordinary or supernatural realm.)The protagonist must exercise these powers in the pursuit of his or her ideals on a somewhat regular basis rather than as a one shot affair (there may be counter examples). A suit and private identity are not required but a public identity as a hero is necessary and the recognition and acceptance of the general populace is key to being a superhero. A superhero cannot work behind the scenes exclusively, pulling strings and making things happen without a public face.

I'm not positive this works to differentiate between Buffy and Blade. Buffy is the best a human can hope to obtain, maybe, whereas Blade is not human. Buffy is not a superhero. Blade is. People like Frank Castle, John Sable and Batman are humans, but Castle and Sable are more human in many ways and don't count as superheroes, whereas Bats is definitely a superhero.

I'm still working this out. Tell me what a superhero is in a way that cuts out the wannabes and almost-theres, leaves in the canon and somehow excises the grey areas one pixel at a time.

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