The Essence of a Superhero
The most essential distinction of a superhero is to commit so completely to heroism itself—not just to heroism bounded by any circumstance —that the commitment forms the person’s identity.
Perhaps not every superhero, as written, makes this commitment, just as not every superhero, as written, wears a costume. Speedball and his team, for example, do not seek heroics so much as TV ratings, and their efforts at reality TV lead to Marvel’s Civil War. The more intentionally a hero commits to deeds of salvation, however, the more he or she is essentially a superhero.
King Arthur and Robin Hood are similar to superheroes for this reason. They and their men, the Knights of the Round Table and the Merry Men, make intentional, moral commitments to justice, if not to goodness itself. They bear an additional likeness, too, because of their principles, the Round Table and “robbing the rich to feed the poor,” which imply an equality among themselves and those whom they benefit. I will say more about equality later. The almost-secret identity of Robin of Locksley makes him still more like a conventional superhero, and his distinctive woodsman garb does the same, so far as it is distinctive.
Nonetheless, Arthur and Robin’s commitments are bounded by their regions. These men grow from their regions, like shoots from native soil, and act within those regions and for their sake. Tall and brilliant shoots, these heroes may be, and perhaps they seem to have a higher nature than the surrounding greenery, but they are very natural to the place.
That is, however much Robin is Robin Hood, Robin of Locksley is who he is, on my reading, and therein lies the contrast. One of Batman’s best lines is delivered by the elderly Bruce Wayne in an episode of Batman Beyond (“Shriek”). A supervillain uses a device to project a voice so that Wayne alone can hear it, and over the course of the episode Wayne seems to lose more and more of his sanity. When his protégé, Terry McGinnis, asks him how he knew that he was not going insane, Wayne replies: “the voice kept calling me ‘Bruce.’ In my mind, that’s not what I call myself.” McGinnis asks him what he does call himself, but when Wayne does not answer, then he understands who Wayne is.
Peter Parker makes the same point in the narration at the beginning and end of Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire’s voice tells the viewers: “Who am I? I’m Spider-Man.” But I wish to turn to one of the most interesting commentaries on superheroes’ dual identities. It comes from Quentin Tarantino, not in an essay or an interview, not in a story of the genre, but in his unique style, as it should: popular and yet elevated, “trashy” (so one might say for its violence and profanity) and yet intellectual, genre-based and yet not limited by genre-conventions.
Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S,” that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears—the glasses, the business suit—that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.
–Bill, Kill Bill: Vol. 2
On the first time through it, Bill’s speech may seem to argue against me, but I take his argument rather to be on my side. He does not claim that Superman is unique in what I call the most essential distinction of a superhero, namely, that his heroic identity is his true identity. Bill claims that Superman’s uniqueness lies in that he has always had his heroic identity and has come to appropriate an civilian identity, whereas other superheroes have always been civilians and appropriate heroic identities.
I do not wish to debate at the moment whether Superman differs on this point from Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Thor, or Silver Surfer. A more interesting debate is whether Superman has not two but three identities–Clark Kent, Kal-El, and Superman, as Christopher Reeve played him, I just read–but I do not wish to debate that at the moment either.
At the moment, I wish to make the point that the more truly a hero makes a commitment not bounded by any circumstances, the more completely that commitment forms who the hero is. Bill might collapse Superman’s heroic and Kryptonian identities, but, however that matter stands, I take his implication about Superman to be true for all superheroes. The more completely the commitment forms a hero’s identity, the more essentially he or she is a superhero.
Naturally, it follows from my argument that the one who commits to heroism but does not perform any heroic deeds is that much less a hero. He or she completes his or her heroism in deeds.
I concede that superheroes make their commitments under specifically formative circumstances. Bruce Wayne becomes Batman after he sees his father and mother gunned down by a crook in an alley. He swears off the use of any gun and becomes a figure of the night, like Zorro, to spook criminals, “a superstitious, cowardly lot.” He takes a bat as his symbol when one leathery-winged rodent crashes through his window. Alternately, in Batman Begins, Wayne takes inspiration from his childhood fear of bats, and his family leaves Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele in the middle of the performance, not The Mark of Zorro after its conclusion, because of the opera’s bat-like acrobats. Again, Superman, comes from another planet, but he learns Midwestern values and “the American way” from the Kents. He may also use Kryptonian material from his spacecraft to make his costume and his “S” shield may be the house crest of El, depending on the iteration. The list continues.
I also concede that superheroes generally correspond to their cities or regions and respond to the needs in them, especially the ones with a richer iconic quality. Batman lurks in Gotham’s shadows. Superman flies over Metropolis skyscrapers. The Flash races through Central City. Daredevil haunts the brick-and-puddle alleys and rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen. Spider-Man swings through New York. Black Panther rules Wakanda. The list continues again. (I note here that some superheroes act outside of their cities or regions. Superman flies around the globe and even off it. Black Panther sometimes assembles with the Avengers in America. The X-Men seek to promote human-mutant relations everywhere.)
I also concede that how the deeds are sung perhaps makes a great difference in whether a hero is a superhero. I have said that the distinction of a superhero comes into view in deeds and that to sing is to let the deeds take form of themselves. But a singer might select some deeds rather than others to sing, and even the same deeds can be sung with marked differences. Perhaps a hero of any sort can be sung to look like a superhero, even if the hero does not make the commitment that I call most essential for a superhero. I do not assert it, but one might appeal to the difference that singing can make in order to explain some things, for example, why other heroes can seem so similar to superheroes, or again, why other heroes (like Thor and The Sub-Mariner, a myth and an antihero) come to be placed in the superhero genre.
But I insist that superheroes intentionally commit to respond to a need that has no boundary: the urgency that good should overcome evil.