I found the introduction to Ink-stained amazons and cinematic warriors: superwomen in modern mythology fascinating, and aside from the reverence of Joss Whedon, I agreed with a lot of it. I struggled a lot with the lack of female superheroes growing up. I also found the first ever Superman cartoon interesting – the thing that struck me the most was the agency that Lois Lane had. Sure, she was stuck in a damsel in distress role, but she was a surprisingly competent reporter for a female character in the 40s.
Both gave a pretty good idea of what makes a character a superhero. The most obvious point is some kind of advanced ability, whether it is fantastical, an innate talent, or achieved through rigorous training. Superman’s are the alien powers he possess that make him super strong, super fast, and indestructible (plus flight).
Another was the conscious choice to do good, which I feel lukewarm about. Of course characters like Superman are objectively good, but I’ve always been more interested in morally grey characters and anti-heroes, because I find them more realistic and relatable.
The article also posits that superhero stories tap into either an existing or invented mythos, which hadn’t previously occurred to me, but I guess is accurate. The thing that makes superhero stories so accessible is that you don’t need to follow them to understand them; all the essential information about Superman is so deeply embedded in pop-culture, that anyone could jump in at any point and understand the characters, even if they aren’t familiar with the specific plot.
Another commonality that the article didn’t cover is origin stories. Origin stories are vital to superhero narratives. They’re often the most well-known stories, and the most well-loved. Those are the ones that get made into movies over and over again. All heroes have them, because none of these characters are born into heroism. They get there through loss, like Spiderman, or school, like the X-Men, or begrudging obligation, like Jessica Jones. We need to know how heroes became heroes to understand their story arcs.