What Makes a Superhero? Definition and Movie Examples.


A superhero is a character archetype with extraordinary or superhuman abilities who often performs heroic deeds to protect the public or combat evil. The concept evolved through various media, including comic books, television shows, and films. Superheroes are typically courageous, have moral integrity, and a sense of justice. They are often driven by a personal code or a defining backstory.

The superhero genre has its roots in early 20th-century American comic books, with characters like Superman, who debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938. These characters were initially created to provide escapism during difficult times, such as the Great Depression and World War II.

Here’s the introduction to the 1940s cartoon of Superman that I loved to watch as a kid:

Over the decades, superheroes have evolved in complexity and diversity, reflecting societal changes and technological advancements of their times.

Characters like the X-Men were created in the 1960s as metaphors for civil rights struggles. Similarly, Black Panther (2018) addresses themes of identity and heritage against geopolitical intrigue.

Characteristics of a Superhero

So what makes a superhero a superhero and not just a good old plain ordinary hero in a story? Power. Lots of power! And an alter ego. And according to Edna Mode from The Incredibles (2004): NO capes! Oh, well, some capes then. Let’s break it down.

Superhuman Abilities

Superheroes often possess abilities beyond those of ordinary humans, such as super strength (e.g., Superman), agility (e.g., Spider-Man), or intelligence (e.g., Batman).

These abilities can be innate, acquired through scientific means, or derived from mystical sources.

Alter Ego

Many superheroes maintain a secret identity and wear masks to protect their personal lives and loved ones. For example, Batman and Spiderman wear masks and suits to keep the civilian identities of Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker a secret.

The exact opposite is true for Superman. Superman’s true self is Kal-El – a powerful alien being – and he has created Clark Kent as an alter ego to blend in with how he perceives Earth’s fragile and awkward human population.

Moral Compass

Superheroes typically adhere to a strict moral code, striving to use their powers for good. This ethical framework often distinguishes them from villains, who may possess similar abilities but use them for nefarious purposes.

Symbolic Costume

A cool costume is key, often designed to be iconic and symbolic. It serves multiple functions: concealing the hero’s identity, providing protection, and establishing a visual brand.

It must also be practical and made of material that can stand the hero’s powers. For instance, Spider-Man’s costume is practical and visually distinctive, aiding the character’s recognition.

And then, of course, there’s the costume for the baby Jack-Jack in The Incredibles, which is something else:

The Archetypal (Super)Hero’s Journey

Many superhero narratives follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey framework. This monomyth involves the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, trials and tribulations, and the ultimate return.

Iron Man (2008), Tony Stark’s journey from a self-centered industrialist to a self-sacrificing hero is a good example.

Key Superhero Movie Examples

Below are three superhero movies I consider milestones because they helped define and redefine the superhero genre.

Superman (1978): Directed by Richard Donner, this film lays the foundational narrative for the superhero genre in cinema. It introduces key elements like the origin story, the dual identity of Superman/Clark Kent, and the hero’s struggle against a formidable villain, Lex Luthor.

The Dark Knight (2008): Directed by Christopher Nolan, this film explores deeper psychological themes and moral ambiguities. It challenges the simplistic good versus evil dichotomy by presenting complex characters like Batman and the Joker.

Wonder Woman (2017): Directed by Patty Jenkins, this film highlights the importance of gender representation in the genre. Wonder Woman’s character embodies strength, compassion, and leadership, challenging traditional gender roles.

Summing Up

The superhero is a multifaceted figure whose characteristics and narratives have evolved. From their origins in comic books to their current status as cultural icons in film, superheroes continue to capture the imagination and reflect the complexities of the human experience.

Their superhuman abilities, moral codes, and symbolic costumes provide a lens through which we, as an audience, can explore questions about power, responsibility, and identity.

Up Next: What is a Tragic Hero?


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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