Where is the Hero in Superhero?

By Lily Warner

Superheroes are not a new phenomenon. The first superhero, in the earliest iteration that we recognize as such, was Superman. He was introduced in Action Comics #1 in June, 1938, almost 100 years ago. Since then, the superhero roster has expanded and iterated on itself to eventually produce what we have today.

That isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Heroes have definitely grown in popularity and number, especially in recent years with Marvel. They’ve also developed into real, complete characters rather than simple motifs. This is good on every front, as it makes the characters much more interesting and available, but along with these improvements there’s been a change that makes superheroes less heroes and more supers.

I cannot remember the last time a superhero movie has had a significant plotline involving normal people, the people that the heroes are ostensibly trying to save. We’ve certainly had massive, far reaching consequences like the Snap, in Infinity War and Endgame, and every superhero fight I’ve ever seen had them blowing through buildings like tissue paper.  

These all obviously affect the average person, but we rarely see it. There’s never a plotline based around how the superhero fights impact the normal people of the world, and so they become nothing but a stage. They become a set piece–something that exists in the abstract,  but not something that actually lives in the world that the superheroes try to save. 

In doing so, it robs the story of a lot of the impact that “saving the world” should have. That’s not to say that it’s a bad writing decision; saving the whole world is a Big Deal, and is very hard to make a consumer internalize. So focusing on the characters fighting for only their closest friends and family makes sense, it’s something that the consumer can identify with.

But, by never under any circumstances letting ordinary people show up in their big superhero movie, the writers make the heroes seem…out of touch. They are closer to Greek demigods, far away and incredibly powerful, than they are to people who are just trying to help where they can. Which isn’t always the characterization that a hero has or should have, but it is important to have such a character exist.

Because they rarely  deal with the consequences of their fights, it seems like they hardly care about the people they’re saving. That isn’t helped by their being a distinct lack of scenes that involve heroes saving normal people. If they’re saving anyone, it’s their family, friends, or loved ones, and that is fine.

That is a good writing choice. They are saving fleshed out characters, which elicit our sympathy more than a faceless crowd. But the faceless crowd also serves a purpose; it makes the world the heroes are fighting for seem real. It makes the heroes’ choices affect the world, rather than just themselves.

It turns the world the heroes inhabit into more than just a stage, into a world where people actually have to live with these people. And it is important that a superhero story explores a heroes effects on those lives, even if it isn’t the main purpose of the movie. It just has to be in there, somewhere, because otherwise the superheroes aren’t ever saving people. 

Most of the time, they’re only acting for those that they love, instead of acting for those that they love and the people they’re trying to save. Trying to act for both creates a conflict between the needs and wants of the hero, and their duty to the Greater Good, and it makes the world seem more real. That facet of heroics is being denied by the current approach to writing a superhero, and that is a tragedy. 

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