Why do we love superheroes? Is it because we fantasize about having powers that make us greater than what we are? Is it because we long for justice in an unjust world? Is it because we’re bored and there’s nothing better to watch? Yes, but there is more to our fondness of the superhero genre than entertainment. In this article, we will discuss what is a superhero, the history of the genre, supervillains and why we love superheroes so much. 

Watch: Superheroes Unmasked — History of Superheroes

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Superhero Definition

How do we define superhero?

From Marvel to D.C. and everything in between, superheroes have become a significant part of mainstream culture. Comic books, movies and television are just a few of the places you will find superheroes. Before we can understand why, we must know what a superhero is. 

SUPERHERO DEFINITION

What is a Superhero?

A superhero is a character with extraordinary powers that performs heroic actions. Unlike police, firefighters or doctors, all of whom are heroes in their own right, superheroes are defined by their unique capabilities, such flight, strength, speed or invincibility (to name a few). Superheroes are also expected to act on a strict moral code. They are always categorized as “good” and rarely, if ever, stray from this path. Finally, a superhero needs to be sympathetic. If the audience cannot identify with the character, then the superhero isn’t much of a hero at all. 

Types of Superheroes:

From gods to teenage mutants, superheroes take on many forms. Here are a few of the more common archetypes.

  • God/goddess: These are supremely powerful beings that are born with numerous powers. Examples include: Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor
  • Gadget user: These characters usually lack superpowers, but make up for it with skill, cunning and technology. Examples include: Batman, Iron Man and Black Widow
  • Speedster: These heroes rely on superspeed to overwhelm the bad guys and solve their problems. Examples include: The Flash and Quicksilver
  • Magic user: With a reliance on magic and spells, these characters' powers are often only limited by their imaginations and will power. Examples include: Dr. Strange and Green Lantern
  • Power house: These heroes use unbridled strength and endurance to smash the opposition. Examples include: The Hulk and the Tick
  • Shapeshifter: Able to change their size and form at will, giving them unparalleled adaptability. Examples include: Plastic Man and Ant-Man
  • Supernatural: Their powers come from a world beyond the mortal plane. Examples include: Ghost Rider and Spawn

Superhero Characteristics

What makes a Superhero?

What is the difference between a hero and a superhero? As previously stated, the three superhero characteristics that are most important are powers/abilities, morality and sympathy. 

Superpowers can come from a myriad of sources. Some are born with their gifts, such as mutants in the X-Men series. Or, there can be a freak accident that blesses them with special gifts, such as a radioactive spider biting Peter Parker. Superpowers are a key factor of what makes a hero super, because this is the first thing that draws in an audience.

Many people dream of doing the impossible, be it flying around the world, or picking up a truck with ease, because fantasy helps us escape from the harsh reality of our world. The more interesting a superpower is, the better.

Turning water into yogurt may make for a fun party trick, but it doesn't make for much of a superhero.

Morality is another important factor in the makeup of a superhero. The characters we look up to in fiction (or even in real life) are often a reflection of the person we want to be. That is why superheroes are always the “good guys’” in a story. The majority of humanity strives to do good in this world.

However, our flaws and mistakes create a world full of difficulty, struggle and strife. The superheroes we admire can fight terrorism or save loved ones from burning buildings, because we can’t. Superheroes stand for truth and justice in a world that needs both of those things.

Read The Black Panther script and you'll find a hero with internal conflict. Watch the Best Superhero Movies and you'll discover there is a humanity to these characters that keep them grounded.

With that said, there needs to be realism in the superheroes we look up to. A hero with “perfect” morality is boring, predictable and unbelievable. It’s a paradox of humanity: we want to do good, but we often do the opposite. A well written superhero has flaws and makes mistakes.

Here is a video on Stan Lee’s superhero definition. 

Stan Lee on what makes a Superhero

This is what makes them sympathetic and relatable. Vigilantes like Batman and Daredevil break the law to fight crime, because the justice system they are protecting is broken. Tony Stark is a narcissist and an alcoholic. Black Widow used to be a spy and an assassin till she turned her life around. 

Oftentimes it is the humanity of a superhero that makes them so likable. Seeing them in believable situations that you and I experience on a daily basis makes them feel real. Spider-Man fights crime in his spare time, but also has to deal with high school drama. Wonder Woman has to live a normal life despite being an immortal goddess. It is the combination of both the normal and the super that makes a hero truly spectacular. 

WHO WAS THE FIRST SUPERHERO?

Who was the first Superhero?

When you ask someone who the first superhero was, most people will say Superman. While this answer is not entirely wrong, it’s not exactly right. 

There were many “prototype” superheroes that came before Superman. Characters such as Hugo Hercules and Tarzan adorned newspapers and magazines. The Green Hornet and the Lone Ranger wowed audiences on the radio. There were even comic book heroes who arrived before Superman, such as Doctor Occult and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

That being said, Superman is the first true superhero, as he would become the basis for every superhero that would soon follow. 

What is a Superhero - Superman - Action Comics 1

Any Superhero definition starts with the Man of Steel

Superman first appeared on the cover of a D.C. published comic book called Action Comics #1 in 1938. These panels covered the now famous origin story of the last son of Krypton. A baby is placed in a spaceship to escape a dying world. On Earth, the child would grow and develop magnificent powers, changing the course of history.

As a champion of the oppressed, Superman would take the superhero genre to new heights. Detective Comics would go on to create some of the most popular superheroes ever, such as Batman, Wonder Woman and The Flash. 

Of course, with success comes rivalry. A comic book company known as Timely Comics produced various publications. While it would never achieve the same success as D.C. However, the company would hang on and eventually begin publishing under a new name, Marvel Comics.

A History of Superheroes  •  Marvel Comics Timeline

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would go on to write tiles such as the Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. Marvel would go on to become D.C.’s primary competition, arguably surpassing them in the current age of movies and media.

SUPERVILLAINS

What is a hero without a villain?

As Vision once said, “Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict...breeds catastrophe.” Compelling heroes need compelling villains. Common thugs and mobsters only go so far. If a superhero is to be truly tested, both in power and morality, they need to fight someone who is as strong or stronger than they are. In storytelling, we refer to this relationship as the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist.

The greatest supervillains are more than just the “bad guy of the week.” They are either the antithesis of superheroes, or a corrupted version of them. Superman is a peacekeeper and protector of humanity. Lex Luthor believes Superman is the greatest threat to humanity. So, he has taken it upon himself to destroy Superman by any means necessary.

Both Professor X and Magneto want to build a better world for mutants. However, one wants to do so through peace, while the other wants a violent uprising. Whatever a supervillain’s motivation is, it needs to bring them into direct conflict with a superhero.

A great hero can only be truly tested by a great nemesis. Here is a list of some of the most notorious villains of all time. 

Types of Superheroes  •  Top 20 Supervillains

UP NEXT

Best Superhero Movies

The abundance of superhero movies on the market can be overwhelming at times. There is only so much time in a day and prioritization is key to maximizing entertainment. That is why we have assembled a list of the greatest superhero movies ever made.  

Up Next: Best Superhero Movies of all Time →
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  • Jonathan received his B.A in Cinema Arts from CSUN and his M.F.A. in Screenwriting from APU. He works as a writer in Southern California.

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