We talk often about what makes a superhero "super." It's not always about powers, and its not always about a costume, though it often is about these things. Pete Coogan, of course, has a well-developed argument about the definition of the superhero which he published recently as Superhero: The Origins of a Genre. Jess Nevins, author of Fantastic Victoriana and those wonderful annotations to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, has a useful counter-argument which he presented at this year's Popular Culture Association conference. And both of them are ultimately arguing against Frank Miller's perfectly quotable definition of the superhero: "A person in a funny costume saving innocent people from bad things."
But I don't want to talk about what makes the superhero "super." I've been wondering what makes him a hero. I don't think this is a silly question, even though we take the heroism of characters for granted much of the time. When we say we want our heroes to be more heroic, what exactly do we mean? The answers are, I think, more complicated than they first appear, and often contradictory.
We like our heroes to face overwhelming odds and triumph. Note that the form of these overwhelming odds can vary tremendously, even for a single character or within a single story. In the recent "Dark Knight" film, for example, Batman is almost always confronted by multiple foes at once, be they Joker goons or SWAT members or Arkham inmates. No sooner does he defeat this batch but he immediately leaps/swings/glides to the next half dozen and lays into them. But overwhelming odds does not have to be represented solely by sheer numbers; sometimes the hero faces a single foe who is, as far as we can tell, vastly superior to him. We see this in Iron Man, for example, when Stane's Iron Monger armor is huge compared to Tony's, and we see it again in Norton's Hulk, when the Abomination is similarly over-large. (Hollywood likes to rely on "big" as short for "more powerful.") The "Matrix" trilogy uses both types of overwhelming odds in sequence, with Agent Smith set up throughout the first film as an unbeatable foe, only for him to be relegated to an army of minions in the second.
Power Loss and Recovery
Related to the notion of "overwhelming odds" is the concept of "power loss." A hero often loses his powers, and must either defeat the hero without them. This makes the hero's struggle more dramatic, and makes his victory more satisfying. Again, see the finale to Iron Man, when Tony's energy supply fails in the battle with Stane, forcing Tony to rely on good old fashioned explosions to save the day. Power loss often occurs as a kind of sacrifice or denial on the part of the hero, who decides the cost of being a hero is greater than he is willing to pay. Bruce Wayne gives up being Batman once Harvey Dent proves he can take on the Mob, Peter says "Spider-Man no more" so that he can be with Mary Jane and have success in school, and Banner gets rid of the Hulk just as the rampaging monster becomes necessary. These instances of the hero giving up his own powers so that he may later reclaim them under duress seem to be a variant of the classic "hero's choice," in which the hero is forced to decide between saving someone close to him personally on one hand, and an anonymous stranger on the other. In this case, the "anonymous stranger" is a stand in for the heroic life in general. The hero is forced to choose between selfish and selfless behavior. And this leads us to ...
It's tempting to call the hero a martyr, but that word has many negative connotations in our modern capitalistic society, and it is perhaps less loaded to simply call the hero a consciously selfless individual. That is, the hero wants what we all want, he needs the same things we all need, and he would like to take the easy road through life just like we all do. However, the burden of being a hero means that he must do what is difficult, not what is easy. He must sacrifice things important to him in order to be the hero. This often manifests in damage done to his personal relationships -- his marriage is a shambles, his children are alienated from him, his home is a soulless den. While he wishes for a time when he does not need to be the hero, and even occasionally tried to deny his heroism, his moral code is such that he must take action when confronted by cruelty and injustice. When he takes this action, it sets his own friends against him either because they do not know that he is a hero, or because they do know and they fear for his life. Now, related to this is the hero motivated not by a sense of altruism or a moral code, but instead by revenge. This is an old trope. Shakespeare milked it for thousands of lines, and he didn't invent it. It's not unrelated to the concept of Selflessness, but seems to be a reactive version rather than an active one. That is, the Revenge Hero still suffers the loss of personal relationships -- family, loved ones, friends -- but this all happens before he becomes a hero, so that he has nothing left to lose and this is what makes him dangerous. The revenge hero is not heroic because of his need for revenge, he is heroic because in the quest for his revenge he also faces overwhelming odds, looses his power and regains it, or what have you. His revenge is, if anything, an anti-heroic quality -- which probably accounts for why so many people like revenge heroes.
And here, I think, is where it gets complicated. Because we want our heroes to face great numbers and terrifying foes, we want him to sacrifice, and we want him to persevere even when he has no powers at all, but we also refuse for him to be a powerless wimp. And before everyone gets up in arms about how a hero doesn't need "powers" to be a hero, of course I am talking about powers in a relative sense. In a world like that of the Batman films, Batman has powers -- his incredible martial arts skill, his arsenal of gadgets that include everything from body armor and spring-loaded batarangs to ultrasonic bat-callers and cars that drive on top of buildings. Within the context of the science fiction trappings of the Iron Man movies, Tony Stark has powers -- he's smarter than everyone else.
In any case, try to imagine Tony Stark who wasn't all that brilliant, and the whole house of cards sort of collapses. Bruce Wayne actually has his moment without powers when Ras finds him in the Chinese prison. At that moment, Wayne is just a brawler. He's just a man who beats people up. That's fine, as far as it goes, but what he really needed was the power to become invisible, the power to terrify. There are films which investigate this question of the non-powered hero, the everyman, the schlub. Mystery Men comes to mind. But ultimately by the end of Mystery Men the characters have demonstrated that they do, in fact, have powers, and those powers are what led them to succeed. I think the only one who actually gives up being a hero is the Bowler, who unwisely decides to go back to grad school. I thought she was smarter than that.
Looking back, its easy to see why suddenly writing heroic stories is a lot harder than it seems to be at first glance. We want our heroes to have extraordinary ability, but they can't be too good, because if they walk through a dozen foes without breaking a sweat that gets boring fast. The hero has to have some kind of power, but also want to give up that power in order to be an ordinary person. He has to be selfless and think of others, but his preoccupation with his own powers means he is also always thinking of himself. We want our heroes to be recognizably like us, and yet also overmen who are unfazed by all those petty concerns which annoy us in real life. The hero is wish fulfillment on one hand and catharsis on the other, both greater than any of us, and yet somehow more stepped upon, more taken for granted, and more a victim than any of us would dare to allow.