Examples: “Ordinary” Heroes
As I said in the previous section, superheroes are not the only heroes with secret identities, superhuman powers, costumes, and names. Sir Percy Blakeney has no superpower, but he calls himself The Scarlet Pimpernel and uses costumes to disguise his identity. Don Diego de la Vega, Zorro, has a secret identity, a costume, and a name. Like Batman, he only lacks a superpower. But they are not commonly thought to be superheroes. I would have to classify The Scarlet Pimpernel with Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers. Zorro seems to fit most comfortably with The Lone Ranger and pulp heroes like The Shadow and The Green Hornet.
Knightly heroes may also have some or all of four traits and yet not be proper superheroes. They may gain items that charm them with magic, and one could count the charm as a superpower. But even without magical items, they often wear suits of armor. Armor functions like a costume, especially if it is customized. An animal or some other theme or insignia serves on the one hand to identify them, so that they may rally friends and intimidate foes, but on the other hand to conceal their identities and the vulnerabilities that come with being known.
These knightly heroes are sometimes known by their epithets in addition to their true names. King Richard “Lionheart” comes to mind. But they might also refuse to give their true name altogether in some situation and use only their epithet or give a false name instead, whether their purpose is temporary or permanent. “The Black Knight” of the Medieval trope operates along these lines.
Mythical heroes also bear comparison. They usually do not keep their identity any sort of secret and are more likely to announce their name and lineage at the beginning of a battle. They may wear distinctive gear or armor, but artists have often depicted them in the nude or in a state nearly like it. The depiction resembles the conventional superhero’s “second skin,” but neither the nude state nor the armor and gear constitute a typical costume.
Nonetheless, mythical heroes resemble superheroes more than any other sort in their superhuman power. Presumably all of them exhibit powers beyond that of a human being, first of all, strength and speed. For example, Homer writes that Diomedes lightly hefts a huge stone, “which no two men could carry such as men are now,” hurls it at Aeneas and destroys the other hero’s hip (Iliad 5.302-05). Again, Virgil writes that Camilla, the Volscian warrioress, could run over fields and water so swiftly that she would not bruise the ears of corn or wet her feet (Aeneid 7.808-811).
Mythical heroes also sometimes exhibit knowledge that a mortal would not, as when Odysseus and Aeneas perceive Athena and Aphrodite even though the goddesses have disguised themselves as mortals. This knowledge may not be telepathy, but it is an ability that presumably no human would have.
In addition, mythical heroes occasionally manifest unique powers. Achilles roars so tremendously that he drives the spirit out of some of the Trojans and they die. Cuchulainn’s anger is on him and he shines “the hero-light” from his head.
Lastly, mythical heroes sometimes gain superhuman abilities from objects that they acquire or specific actions from the gods. With Hermes’ sandals and Hades’ helmet, Perseus becomes swift as a bird and invisible to the eye, and with the Gorgon’s head he can turn men to stone. Under the Nemean lion’s hide, Hercules becomes invulnerable. Aphrodite and Apollo lift Paris and Aeneas out of battle to set them down again in safety. Zeus and other gods occasionally rejuvenate the Trojan heroes from wounds and fatigue.
More examples are unnecessary. I will have more to say about the godlike quality of mythical and superheroes, but for now I may say: that which defines a superhero is the same as that which defines a hero, action, although it is action of a distinctive sort. I would entertain the idea that the distinguishing trait of a superheroes is a contemporary setting, but that idea already leads in the direction that I have in mind.