Defining “Superhero Films”

Collider Videos is publishing a series on YouTube titled “Top 50 Superhero Films,” and in that video series they present their collective ranking of the best superhero films of all time. In that spirit, I decided to do the same thing, but ran into an issue: how do we define “superhero films”? At first glance, it may seem easy: Wonder Woman, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America, and the other obvious ones…but then we run into questions. Are we including these people because they’re based on comics, because they have powers, because they’re just what we think about when we hear the word “superhero”? It get’s pretty complicated with gray areas and blurred lines, so let’s dive in and try to get to the bottom of this…

Superhero Title BannerAt the very basics, I’d say that a superhero film is about a hero with at least one superhuman trait. So, Spider-Man films, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Thor, and Hulk can all be checked off…but what counts as a superhuman trait? If Iron Man and Batman can be counted as superheroes, what makes them super? They’re regular humans with superhuman wits and riches, but if Elon Musk went around at night and fought crime in some pantyhose, would he be a superhero? Let’s say “…yes…?” since the brain is a muscle, having superhuman strength and superhuman intelligence is comparable if not traditionally capable of defining a superhero.

super.jpgWhat about films like Kick-Ass and Super? These are two films in which the protagonists want to be heroes, so they dress up and run around to fight crime. However, they’re just normal people…no superhuman intelligence or money to help them out. Are they just heroes? If they can be considered superheroes, then what about a James Bond? Bond has incredible fighting abilities, but would he be considered “superhuman”? Let’s say “no.” So far, a superhero has to have a trait that makes them super with a part of the body like a muscle, including the brain.

From here, we can split into two different directions: science fiction and fantastical powers. For sci-fi powers, one can “explain” them using theoretical or actual science: Captain America is given a super steroid that makes him strong. Plausible, sure. Spider-Man is bitten by a poisonous spider that bonds the DNA of the spider to him, emphasizing certain characteristics while maintaining human form. Um, okay. Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk by suffering an extreme amount of Gamma radiation, interacting with the chemicals in his brain so that they only initialize when his heart rate rises, usually due to anger. Okay…I can’t disprove that.thor-ragnarok-hulk-fight.jpg

On the other hand, Wonder Woman and Thor come from mythology that doesn’t make sense in our reality. Yes, we are limited to understanding “reality” within a 3-dimension / 1-time linear world and there may be others that don’t abide by those rules, but we currently could assume that it doesn’t make sense with our science. Superman, on the other hand, could be explained with the different planetary gravity (gravity being a theory that we can observe but can’t explain), which sort of makes him plausible. I digress, they are still superheroes whether or not we can explain why they are super because they have at least one superhuman trait. Moving on.

The Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Hellboy and Hancock are also superheroes, and I only feel that these should be mentioned because they’re obviously superheroes but since they aren’t DC or Marvel, they don’t often get grouped into the “superhero” genre. Chronicle, Unbreakable, Jumper and The Mask are superhero films as well; they contain people who discover that they are superheroes but from here, we can be split into two more categories. Now, we have those who are born super, and those who become super. Those who become super can also be split into two categories, but we’ll get there in due time.


Often in superhero movies (or many action-fantasy franchises), you’ll run into the Hero’s Journey which gives us the idea of the Chosen One. This “monomyth,” as it’s often referred to as, presents us with the idea that our hero was destined to be the hero, and according to the “prophecy,” is the only one who can save the world. People who are born into this life are, of course, the aforementioned Thor and Wonder Woman, but also the unlikely candidates such as Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. “Not a superhero,” you say?

Well… why not? Harry Potter carries a tool that allows him to do magical things, and he was born into this superhero life. What makes him different from, let’s say, a mutant from X-Men? Or Thor? Luke Skywalker in Superman’s mythology may be able to fly on Earth; either way, he has the super power of The Force and since all Star Wars films are prefaced with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” we can assume that this takes place in our reality and our dimension, making him a superhero alien… who looks human and speaks American English (Insert theory of how no religion on this Earth makes sense if you take Star Wars mythology into account).

giphy.gifIf Harry doesn’t have his wand, however, is he a superhero? He’s only super with his wand, sort of making the wand the hero, and he just a vessel for the wand to act through… or the opposite. Maybe he’s a superhero but must have his weapon in order to use his superpowers; since the wand chooses the wizard, one can say that the wand is an extension of the wizard’s superhuman traits as it bonds to the wizard of it’s choosing. Thor, however, is still super without his hammer which is also just a tool through which to use his innate powers. We could rule out Luke Skywalker if we want to say that he’d be normal without The Force, but then what would make Doctor Strange without his mystic arts? Smart, I guess.

(Is that the excuse for every hero that becomes super? They’re already smart? It almost seems like these comics were all written by the same few people. Here’s an analogy: if Bruce Banner took a boat load of xanax, would he be a superhero? In that instance, he wouldn’t be super smart and (unlike Batman, Iron Man and the like), he wouldn’t be able to just “put on his suit” to become super. His heart rate would stay low and he wouldn’t give a flying f%#* about a city burning down. The Hulk would most likely be dormant and Bruce… not of use. Aha, I did it! A superhero doesn’t always have to be able to be a superhero. And that complicates things, doesn’t it?)

What about those who become super, and I don’t mean those who simply learn about their innate abilities later in life like Luke or Harry. Those who become super like Hulk or Spider-Man live a normal life until something incredible happens, turning them into a superhero. An argument could be made that they had superhuman intelligence before their transformation, but that can’t be said about Captain America. If anything, his pre-transformation superhuman trait would be “guts,” but then throw James Bond and Ethan Hunt into that mix if we count the willingness to take extreme measures to save others.giphy (1).gif

Universal has come under fire recently as they’re tried extremely hard to emulate Marvel in creating a universe of superhumans that connect through an Avenger-like culmination. That being said, they have failed…twice. The movies that I’m referring to are Dracula Untold and The Mummy, the former of which is undeniably a superhero film and the second one could also be considered a superhero film, but they’re not supposed to be. A superhero film is not simply a film that contains a superhero: it’s a genre that usually follows a structure that makes sense. Since this is a genre on it’s own, i’ll come back to this point later.

That being said, Universal sort of already has a superhero franchise in The Fast and the Furious (watch this passionate expression on what Universal is doing with their characters). Of course, many may argue but if you watch Fast Five through F8, they obviously become heroes with at least one superhuman trait. If Tony Stark is only a superhero when he’s in his suit, then Dominic Toretto can be a superhero when he’s in his suit: a car. However, Tony Stark has superhuman intelligence but Dom doesn’t…so what makes him super when he’s not in his car? He’s hilariously strong and seemingly fireproof. How else would you explain him driving a car at 200mph into a moving plane, and stopping within 20 feet? In order to go from 200mph to 0mph in 20 feet, he’d be dead. He’s a superhero…4502448-tumblr_mnf4qcqcj01r2nspeo1_400.gif

With the preceding paragraphs, we’ve discussed how a superhero is a hero with at least one superhuman trait (trait defined as something a part of them, and not exclusively through a weapon or tool that they carry), that they are either born with or come into later in life via destiny or luck, I suppose. The willingness to be a hero without any superhuman traits does not make one a superhero, just a hero. Sorry Kick-Ass and Super, you are not the father. Nor are you superhero movies.

The only reasons why some might consider the two films “superhero” films would be that they resemble superhero films, and they are based on comic books. If that’s the case, then Despicable Me resembles a superhero film and American Splendor is based on a comic book. And so is Wilson. Obviously, these are not good basses from which to define “superhero,” but a point could be made for the film resembling a “superhero film” as being good grounds on which to define a film as such. If we think of “superhero film” as a genre of film in which somebody learns of their “destiny” and then acts upon it to save the weak(er), then many films may be considered superhero films.BVS-20305.jpg

To get into philosophical notions, what about the enemies of Superman: those with beliefs different than his? One might say that these are the villains, but what if nobody’s wrong and there are just two differing opinions? Would Superman be a democrat or republican and which side of that battle would he fight on? If you’re not wrong but you disagree, how could Superman be a hero to everyone? He couldn’t: a hero is subjective to the hero’s subjects. A xenomorph, for example, would be a Superhero on many planets if the xenomorph agrees with your intentions. The same could be said for the Predator, for that matter, as they would be more powerful than the weaker beings. What if Superman came to Earth and was weaker than everybody else? The location and relative abilities of this “outsider” determine if they can be “super” or not in that relative location.

DF_09972_rgb.jpgRecently, we’ve seen how the superhero film genre has grown beyond simply the classic definition, to include subgenres that Deadpool (adult comedy), Logan (western), the upcoming The New Mutants (horror), Guardians of the Galaxy (space opera), Doctor Strange (mystical fantasy), Iron Man (action), The Dark Knight (crime thriller), Spider-Man Homecoming (coming of age) and many more. The Superhero genre is just as variable as, say, “drama,” as it can blend into other genres with no problem. It’s adaptable and growing quickly, which is why an exact definition is hard to pinpoint.

I think I have the answer, though…

A superhero movie is a movie in which -a person has at least one superhuman trait or ability -this trait or ability can allow them to stand up for the weaker people and save those around them (they may choose not to do anything with these traits, but often they do) -there is a distinct nemesis (usually also with superhuman traits or abilities) that they must take down to save others -the hero becomes super either via birth or transformation of some kind -the hero must be stronger than the vast majority of peers, or else the superhuman trait will be less “super,” depending on where the hero is and lastly, –a blue beam of light must shoot into the sky during the climax of the filmiron-man-battles-aliens-avengers.jpg.cdbbe68e772959291f496f8889cf66ee.jpg

The last one doesn’t have to be in the film, but a superhero movie would be lying to you if it didn’t have one of these bad boys. All in all, I’d hate to end this long article with something along the lines of “defining a superhero movie is a subjective act,” but that’s sort of what it is. Some may say that Star Wars and Godzilla are superhero movies, and some may say that Kick-Ass is, but neither one of them are wrong. This is just my own opinion based off of my long list of film references, and this genre is a very large gray area.  I guess a good way to end this article: thanks a lot, Collider. Guess I won’t make a Top 50 Superhero list after all.sad-ben-affleck.gif

Published by Blake Carson Schwarz

Indiana University graduate in Media and Creative Writing. I love to write my own stories as well as experience the work of others. On this site, I post reviews, essays, and other fun posts that I hope you have as much fun reading and I have writing. Please share any comments you have, I'd be happy to hear what you think! *Never a critic, always a fan*

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