A lot of ink has been spilled, and far more photons emitted, over the question of why superhero fiction has become so popular. It’s not just a recent thing, though it might seem like it; the recent rise in popularity is due entirely to the success of movies and television that would have been impossible in the last century. Instead, the love of the mysterious folk hero who takes on corruption and stands firm against injustice goes back even further than comic books, as seen in characters such as Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Robin Hood, and even the Biblical figure of Sampson.
The only difference with superhero fiction is that this sort of story is now much more common. It’s hardly the dominant genre out there (as some have claimed), but it’s not the fringe element it once was, nor is it relegated to a child’s fantasy of the good guy beating up the bad guy before lunch. Superhero stories have become complex tales of sacrifice, social commentary, and moral investigation. Many of those tales are contradictory (even self-contradictory), but the fact that they are tackling such issues remains obvious. And I believe that factor, even though the different titles resonate with different audiences, is why these stories have become so popular.
I would propose that, if we boil down the story, we can come up with the following core elements of a superhero story. A man or woman who, realizing they have an advantage that others do not possess or are unwilling to use, and recognizing a higher calling that is ignored by those in normal authority, assumes a selfless responsibility to help others while not usurping that normal authority. This definition is complex, and while I don’t pretend to say it’s universal, I would argue that it is at least very close. It doesn’t cover anti-heroes, but that’s fine.
Of course, it’s also necessary to define “hero.” Fortunately, I already have definitions for hero, villain, anti-hero, and anti-villain due to covering the topic at conventions and with students. Now, these are not definitions used by everyone; in fact, there are three competing definitions of just “anti-hero” that I know of, allowing for semantic differences. These are the definitions I use, though; and as I mentioned recently, the first step when tackling a new and complex subject is to define your terms.
- Hero: A character who performs selfless acts for a moral goal.
- Villain: A character who performs selfish acts for an immoral goal.
- Anti-Hero: A character who performs selfish acts for a moral goal.
- Anti-Villain: A character who performs selfless acts for an immoral goal.
A hero doesn’t require a moral evil to be a hero; it simply requires a selfless action for a moral goal. Years ago, when I started lecturing about this stuff, I knew I had to come up with a definition that would include firefighters; we refer to them as heroes, so it couldn’t simply be about fighting a “bad guy.”
But what, then, is a “superhero”? What makes them more super than other heroes? Powers and advanced technology? No, obviously not, or else Batman and Black Widow and Hawkeye can’t be superheroes.
Well, let’s break down my description of a superhero story.
A man or woman who, realizing they have an advantage that others do not possess or are unwilling to use . . .
That is part of the thing that makes them “super.” They don’t need powers; but they do need some sort of advantage that someone else doesn’t have. It can’t just be a colorful outfit.
. . . and recognizing a higher calling that is ignored by those in normal authority . . .
This is usually a sense of “justice,” rather than “God’s law is greater than man’s law.” History has shown the problems that come with thinking God commands you to take the law into your own hands. Of course, that’s also a very complex topic on its own, so let’s table that for now.
. . . assumes a selfless responsibility to help others. . .
Since all heroes must undertake selfless actions — though, as was beautifully put in the Deadpool movie, of all places, it doesn’t mean a constant moment-by-moment series of heroics — this is a necessary part of a true superhero story. It’s also the way most superhero stories manage to avoid the moral problems of a superhero breaking the law; but we’ll get to that part too.
. . . while not usurping that normal authority.
This last part is more vital than it might seem at first. It’s very hard to set up a superhero story where the character in question is just part of the normal authority. It can be done (the novel Wearing the Cape is a good example, as is the online graphic novel Grrl Power), but it’s difficult because vigilantism is such an important part of the story.
This definition doesn’t require vigilantism, but it does require something “different.” If a superhero is just a member of the local police or the FBI or some other real-world equivalent, it’s very difficult for the author to convey the same weight of responsibility that is such a hallmark of superhero fiction. That responsibility exists for the normal members of such organizations in the real world; the problem lies in conveying it in fiction. As a result, both Wearing the Cape and Grrl Power shift the challenges to things not normally covered by superhero fiction (such as public relations, legal obstacles, and a greater awareness of physics).
So it would seem that the thing that makes these characters “super” is in an older sense: to go beyond. That is, they go beyond the normal aspects of heroism, because of necessity or because of great power and great responsibility. And of course, that’s precisely what the word was used to mean when “superhero” was coined.
Now, in a literary sense, these characters are concentrated forms of “normal” heroes; they’re ramped up for cinematic purposes, but at their core they’re based on what more “ordinary” heroes do all the time. A hero takes point, takes the bullet, protects the innocent, all so others do not have to. But once you magnify it all into one character who can stand in for hundreds, you have some scaling issues. The biggest one is authority, of course. What gives the superhero the right to do what he or she does?
Like I said before, the superhero recognizes a higher authority, over and above the normal (usually civil) authority; and that this is how the stories justify vigilante action. The superhero breaks small laws to preserve the big ones; but this can only work in situations where the big laws are being broken and no one else has done anything.
This doesn’t mean anarchy. It doesn’t mean gang warfare, mob bosses ruling the city, or anything like that. It can simply be that the normal authority isn’t doing its job, rather than that it can’t do its job. The city could be running smoothly, and yet still have a failing system. As Chesterton said, “When you break the big laws, you don’t get anarchy; you get the small laws.”
To do this, the superhero must be held accountable, even if only to himself. That’s where the moral factor comes in. As Catholics, we believe that yes, God’s law supersedes man’s, but that doesn’t mean we can do anything we want in the belief that God is on our side. If that were the case, everyone could claim to be in the right. Rather, we believe that if we run that red light to rush someone to the hospital, we are still responsible for running that red light. God’s law might be superior; but it doesn’t wipe out the civil law we just broke, and we must own up to that.
Though superhero fiction is rarely concerned with the finer points of Catholic belief, this is something that we see over and over. Yes, the vigilante attempts to escape capture; he doesn’t turn himself in even as he delivers the criminal to the police. However, a hero doesn’t try to pretend he’s above the law. He may be heeding a higher calling, but his ends don’t justify the means. The only thing that an end can justify is an end.
This, too, is part of Catholic teaching, and it has a fancy name: the Principle of Double-Effect. It means that if you are faced with a situation without a perfect outcome — that is, no matter what, something bad and perhaps even evil is going to occur — you choose what will result in the greatest possible good. You don’t choose “the lesser of two evils”; you don’t even “allow” the lesser evil. You choose the greatest good.
And that, I believe, is what is so appealing about superhero fiction today. As society becomes more and more enmeshed in confining “small laws,” and we feel that the “big laws” are continually ignored, we can see the appeal in this demonstration of the Principle of Double-Effect (even if the audience has never heard of it). It is the question of responsibility and accountability, the same thing that we see with upcoming superhero stories like the second season of Daredevil, Batman Vs Superman, and Captain America: Civil War. When someone has great power, who has responsibility? Can the one with power be trusted with sole control?
This is perhaps the greatest problem with the trend toward flawed superhero stories. You know the ones I’m talking about, where the hero is so riddled with neuroses, psychoses, and weirdoses that there’s no way he could function in normal society. A superhero story doesn’t depend on a perfect individual, but it does depend on someone trying to be good and live up to standards beyond him- or herself. Only a fundamentally good person can make a right judgement about when they can break the rules set down for them in pursuit of something better. Only a fundamentally good person can look at a set of choices and pick the one that gives the greatest good, rather than the one that is most politically advantageous or just easiest to bring about. Otherwise, all we get are amoral ends-justify-the-means anarchists.
And that, in turn, is the greatest message a superhero story can deliver: the idea that the rules exist less to protect the innocent than the guilty. An innocent person needs no rules. An innocent person is innocent. A guilty person needs rules, because it tells him where the line is, and prevents him from doing evil. We’re all sinners. Without those rules, we go on sinning. Mere knowledge of good and evil does not prevent that; even if we didn’t have ample evidence all around us, we’d know it from Adam and Eve. Doing good and doing evil are both willful acts.
That’s one of the great things that Daredevil did right in season one, and something I’m looking forward to in the second season, which releases tomorrow. It opens — after we see how he lost his sight — with Matt Murdoch in a confessional, struggling with the idea of what he must do to achieve his goals. He asks for forgiveness, so that he can go forward with a clean conscience.
But that’s not how it works. It’s not how either the Sacrament of Reconciliation works, or how a superhero stays on the side of light. You don’t collect get-out-of-sin-free cards; nor can you get a freedom-from-responsibility card. If the superhero is called to act, then he must act in a selfless manner for a moral goal.
And immediately after that scene, we saw Daredevil achieving his moral goal in a selfless way . . . but, even though his goal has been achieved, he lets out his anger on a now-subdued criminal. It was not necessary for what he set out to do; and therefore the result is not the greatest possible good he could have achieved.
If a thing is bad, it’s always bad. It’s not just that breaking the rules makes you just like those you fight; it’s that breaking the rules means you broke the rules. It takes a lot to understand why it might be the best way to preserve the big rules; it takes even more to accept responsibility for it. Matt Murdoch was attempting to avoid that responsibility; one of the major themes of the first season, and perhaps the most important, was him slowly realizing what that difference was.
This idea — that bad is always bad, no matter who does it — is what fuels superhero stories. It’s not might makes right; if it were, then the heroes would be dictating the rules. Instead, it’s that sometimes, the only way to stop something bad is to stop it physically. Superhero stories are stories of last resort, to combat the monsters we see in the shadows — and, even more frighteningly, that we see in the street.
These are the stories we tell to comfort ourselves that evil can be defeated, where once we told stories of knights slaying dragons, and princesses escaping dark fairies. No matter what we cast the danger as, we can’t erase it by filling our cities with light; not, at least, of the electric variety.
There is no fear stronger than the fear we cannot fight; no greater horror than the thought we might have no heroes. And so we tell stories, because stories can convey truths that no amount of plain speech can hope to provide.