Understanding Superheros

Superhero Genre
Paper 1 of the WJEC Film Studies course now demands that teachers and students study the superhero genre from 2011 as a two year course, and for all courses from September 2012. Superhero films have moved from the cult-geekish sidelines to the main spectacle of Hollywood blockbusters. Recently, the superhero genre has since a rise in popularity due to the use of digital special effects in films and the influence from the main studios creating new franchises. We see superheroes today in television shows (such as Heroes) and films, animation and CGI, in comics and in merchandise.


What is a Superhero?

A superhero is committed about saving the public – at some point. This can be their city, as in the case of Batman or Kick Ass, or the world, like Superman or Iron Man.

Some superheroes are anti-heroes and, like Hancock, need to be taught how to use his/her powers as a force for good, rather than destruction.

What makes superheroes more than just a hero protecting others, can be the superhuman powers or abilities they have. If they do not have an innate super power, they will have superhuman ability, like Rorschach in The Watchmen who has super ‘skills’.

Alternatively, they are considered costumed crime fighters. In 1930s comic book lingo, these were also known as ‘mystery men’. They are also considered stock characters; a fictional character which relies upon stereotypical qualities (speech, costume and personality for example) and cultural types. This allows superheroes to both fulfill and subvert the codes and conventions of stick characters.

Superheroes look to establish an equilibrium of lawfulness. This is either to combat criminals themselves or to go beyond the law (and what police can do) in order to fight crime.

This is where the Supervillain comes in. They have similar powers / abilities and are the polar opposite of the hero/ine.

Audiences can expect both psychological and physical battles, between the archenemy or nemesis and the superhero/es.

Superheroes are associated with Western culture and can demonstrate political and social issues of the day, just as much as they display a positive and idealised messages for the audience.

This can be for example, national identity (Superman), representations of disability (X Men) and gender (Wonder Woman).

Superheroes became popular in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and as iconic heroes for the World War II audience. They originated in the medium of comic books. The main publishers of these are DC and Marvel comics.

DC Comics Key Facts

Founded in initially in 1934 as National Allied Publications
Called DC due to it’s popular series Detective Comics
It is the publishing unit of DC entertainment, which is a Warner Bros. Entertainment company, owned by Time Warner
Characters include Superman and Lex Luther, Batman, Robin, The Joker, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, The Justice League
List of all DC Publications
Link: Official Site of DC
Marvel Comics Key Facts

Founded in 1939 as Timely Publications, in 1950s become Atlas Comics and Marvel in the early 1960s
The Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009
Characters include Spiderman and The Green Goblin, X Men and Magneto, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, Thor, and Captain America
Most of the stories are set in the Marvel Universe, which has real cities such as New York, located in it
List of all Marvel Publications
Link: Official Marvel Site
Differences Between DC and Marvel Comic Superheroes
Stan Lee arguably created the divide between the two approaches the great comic publishing houses took.

Marvel created more relatable characters for the public. This can be seen with the daily and domestic issues seen by Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. The FF did not even have a disguise! They were however a family, had squabbles and looked out for one another.

The Incredible Hulk is just Bruce Banner in a bad mood. This brought in a new dimension; superheroes who did not want the power or responsibility. They were not highly thought of by the public and often had teenage hormones to deal with like Spiderman. DCs superheroes are just that – super. Superman and Batman were originally confident and decisive.

The interval versus external weaknesses can be seen as another factor. Marvel weaknesses are internal, and DC are external. Superman can be rendered powerless and can be overpowered by a normal man once he nears Kryptonite (green rock from his planet). With Batman (in the comic) it is his belt.

The Green Lantern needs his ring, and so on. What is interesting is that cinematic versions have focused more on internal struggles, normally with a beautiful human / love interest / elderly family member involved.

Lastly setting is another distinctive difference, with Marvel using the Marvel Universe with know cities and locations, where as DC create fictional locations.

An example of this would be New York being the backdrop for X Men and Spiderman (Marvel), whereas Batman fights his adversaries in Gotham City, and Clark Kent (after leaving the small town of Smallville) is a journalist for the city paper of Metropolis, The Daily Planet.

Codes and Conventions

Superhuman abilities, powers of skills – ability to become invisible, move time, fly for example. Other characters may have a prop to enhance their powers, like Wonder Woman’s bulletproof bracelet or Wolverine’s claws. Otherwise superheroes may also have technologically advanced props or costumes, like Iron Man’s armoured costume and Batman’s gadget filled suit
A backstory explaining how they came by these powers
Something that can defeat them or a weakness
Incredibly wealthy like Batman, or have a job where they do not need much management (Clark Kent, Peter Parker)
Secret identity in order to protect those around them – including a dramatic name
Secret base like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude or The Bat Cave

Strong moral code, “With great power there must also come great responsibility” in Spiderman for example
Iconic costume – including a cape, mask, a symbol, form fitting and functional suit
A theme or motif; Spiderman can climb walls, spin a web; Batman looks like a bat when in his cape and has Bat-things like the Bat Mobile
A clear enemy or enemies for them to fight; these can be super villains, or a nemesis/arch enemy/ alter ego or alternative identity who reoccurs in several narratives. They do not keep their identity secret
Supportive and recurring characters – who can add the internal weakness and either support or be a threat to his identity
Set in a city – the population provide lots of opportunities for people to save, and new stories with new characters

The use of highly populated areas, such as cities, allow narratives to encompass both social and political messages. Bruce Wayne often meets with politicians and in fact, one of his villains, the less than subtly named Two Face in 2008, was once the ‘hope’ of the city.

Another factor is the manner in which the superheroes also get away from the city, to fight their internal battles and regroup. Batman, Spiderman, the X Men, The Incredibles, Catwoman and the Fantastic Four all have a secret (often highly domestic) area in which they can retreat to, when not being the public face of the hero.

Many of the locations appear to be in American type cities, or the real thing. The inclusion of geographical icons, in films like X Men (2002 ) and Batman (2005), help the films also appeal to a global market. Audiences post-9/11 relate to the city being under threat in a new sense, and the use of images like The Great Wall of China, Hong King city and London all bring in two key messages – they show the superheroes living in a parallel world to us, and allow the audience to relate to this – even if they do not live in an American city.

Mentor / Father Figure

One of the main themes, in terms of relationships is the lack of a father figure, or the acquisition of a mentor.

These can be seen a pivot emotional points in the films for the superheroes. The person behind the mask (or cape as Superman is concerned) needs the words of his father for wisdom.

Clark Kent looks to Jor-El for help, just as Bruce Wayne has the memory of his father. Arguably Alfred and Fox both look after Batman in a fatherly fashion too.

In the 2002 Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, Peter Parker is given the motivation to continue putting on the suit due to the dying memory of Uncle Ben.

Otherwise there are ‘replacement’ fathers who often become the villains. These characters often give advice or training to our heroes to begin with. This can be seen in Spiderman with Doc Oct and Norman Osbourne, or Ducard in Batman Begins.


Although the genre attracts both the male and female audience, the characters are still sadly more often than not, stock characters.

It’s possible that the new Batman: The Dark Knight Rises 2012 with Anne Hathaway as Catwoman may challenge this.

However, the norm is for strong male characters with clear authority, whilst the female characters are typically weaker victims.

One area which shows this is the costume choices for female superheroes. Men and women both wear tight fitting costumes, but many of the females’ are more scanty or, like Mystique in X Men, not there to begin with.

Catwoman is a good character to analyse for this, either with the 1992 Batman Returns (Michelle Pfieffer’s Selina Kyle) or Catwoman in 2004 (Halle Berry’s Patience Phillips).

This film was poorly received and the fact that the two lead characters were women (Sharon Stone played the supervillain, but was not really even a match for Penguin or Mr. Freeze), and the backdrop for the narrative was the cosmetic industry.

The costume of Catwoman for both of the actresses wear revealing and suggestive. This can be seen to appeal to the male audience, more than the female.

The balance of power can be seen with Potts and Iron Man, Storm in X Men and in the Fantastic Four.

Their role is to look good, help win the cause, look after the children / public / victims and allow the males to crack one liners and save the day.

The more cult-geek films, like 2009’s Watchmen and Kick Ass have been aware of this. With the inclusion of a foul speaking, pre-pubescent girl as one of the stars of Kick Ass and a few comments in Watchmen about the Silk Spectre’s costume:

Silk Spectre: “Do you remember my costume? All that tight latex I mean it was awful.”
Nite Owl: “Yeah, yeah, awful.”

We can now see that the industry – at this level – are aware of their female viewers.


There are representations of both negative and positive treatments of disability in the genre.

Negative representations can be seen in Batman films with The Penguin, The Joker and Two Face (scar victim) illustrating the fear, horror and suspicion the mutated are treated with. This can be compared to both Science Fiction and Horror films.

On the other hand, Charles Xavier’s ‘School for the Gifted’ illustrates how positively disability is treated in X Men.

He himself is ‘bound’ in a wheelchair but can control all the elements and thoughts around him.

The ‘mutants’ who he shelters from ‘normal’ people is a clear message about social values. The outsiders here are something special and deserve our respect.


In superhero films there are clear themes which either the characters need to address, or the audience does. In the case of teamwork / family, we learn that we can overcome evil when we work together. We also know that the superheroes need to sacrifice their past, friends / love interest or personal desires in order to protect the public – which can be a lonely and thankless task. Just ask Batman or Hellboy.

Binary Opposites: Good versus Evil
Team Work / Family
Sacrifice and Responsibility
Loneliness and Isolation
Accepting the Past
Brief Timeline

Action Comics was published. Superman was depicted in his American red and blue costume with Superhuman powers. Superman’s powers were from an alien plane. As the first of the comic superheroes, Superman is sometimes called the Father of Comic Books and Superheroes.


Wonder Woman was introduced as the first female superhero/ heroine, as part of the Justice League Society secretary. Her power was from the gods, and she knew how to accessorize.


This saw the birth of television so many of our capped crusaders were left in the shadows. This led publishing houses to tweak some of their characters.


Just when DC comics were thinking of keeping the Bat Mobile in the garage forever, the television series launched in 1966. This then led to the Batman film and a future animated series.

1970s / 80s

The 70s and 80s saw Wonder Woman hit the small screen. There was also a twist needed as the audience now wanted to see the personal less shiny side of superheroes and anti-heroes / the darker side of villains.


Three Batman movies secured the relationship growth between audiences and The Dark Knight.

2000 Onwards

Superheroes are now key summer blockbusters with Spiderman, Batman, X Men, and The Fantastic Four franchises dominating the box office. We have also seen the subverted, alternative / cult superheroes grace our screens; Kick Ass ($20 million on opening weekend), The Watchmen ($55 million in its opening weekend – that’s more than the last Superman film) and Scott Pilgrim (production value of $60 million est.). These cinematic runs are often seen as the trailer for DVD and BluRay sales, and fans get upset by the mainstream blockbuster launches for their deep-genre cinematic retellings.

Franchise Dates

Superman – 1978, 1980, 2006, 2012
Batman – 1966, 1989, 1992, 1997, 2005, 2008, 2012
X Men – 2000, 2003, 2009


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