What is a superhero?

What is a superhero?

I recently wrote about upcoming superhero movies and TV shows.

It was harder than I thought.

Not because it was difficult to find them…there are many!

It was more a case of deciding what to include.

What makes a character a superhero?

It seems like it would be a pretty simple question. It’s a compound word: “super” and “hero”.

Sure, there can be some debate about the two words.

I’ve always taken “super” in this case to mean “superhuman”. The superhero has abilities that aren’t part of the human spectrum: you can’t just train yourself up to be a superhero.

“Hero” also has some debate, but everybody would agree that a hero helps other people (whether that’s individuals or society at large). Some would argue that being a hero requires risking or sacrificing something of yours, and others might argue that a hero has to fight evil (I would not be in the latter camp).


There are some characters who are pretty universally thought of as superheroes who aren’t super, and there are others that aren’t called superheroes, but seem to fit the bill quite well.

Let’s start with one where we won’t get much argument.


Superman has “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men”, especially as the character has evolved. No matter how hard you work out, you aren’t going to be able to fly or have heat vision.

Superman definitely helps people in need. He sacrifices a personal life, and despite invulnerability, does have risks (from kryptonite and magic, to name two things).

Spider-Man? Yep, you can’t train yourself to have spider powers. If you don’t get bitten by a radioactive spider, Spider-Man is superior to you, physically.

Spidey risks a lot (and gets injured), and again, helps people.

Those two are pretty clear: they are superheroes.


If I asked people to name superheroes, I would guess Batman and Iron Man would both come up pretty quickly on the list.

In neither case, though, is the person inherently superhuman.

They both have superior technology, and they both have extraordinary (but not superhuman) personalities.

What’s the hard and fast difference between, say, Airwolf and Iron Man?

They both have great technology, and they both fight evil.

I don’t think Stringfellow Hawke would come up in the top 100 if most people started listing superheroes.

You could argue that one difference is that Tony Stark built the Iron Man suit…but does that make Richard Gatling (of the Gatling Gun) a superhero?

Let’s go in a little bit of a different direction.

Superman is an alien with advantageous differences from humans. He helps people.

You know who else fits that description?


Again, I doubt that even most geeks would list Spock as a superhero, but why not? The Vulcan mind meld, the nerve pinch…even clearly physical differences make Spock superhuman. He sacrifices to help others. He fights evil.

Is it because being a “superhero” isn’t Spock’s job?

Remember, Clark Kent probably spends a lot more time being a reporter than being on patrol.

Despite the brilliant monologue in Kill Bill 2, I think Clark Kent wakes up thinking he is Clark Kent. That’s how he grew up: that was his identity. He didn’t just say, “Hey, I need something to hide who I am, so I’ll make up this glasses-wearing dude”. He may not actually need the glasses, but he is that guy. Clark Kent is not a costume…it’s who Kal-El is, even though Clark has the secret of being Superman.

Many superheroes have “day jobs”. I would even guess that Bruce Wayne spends more time on Wayne Foundation business (and his social life) than he does as the Dark Knight.

So, why isn’t Spock considered a superhero?

What about Doctor Who? He clearly seems to work like a superhero. Again, physical (and mental) superiority, helps people, sacrificed a lot.

He even has regular “supervillains”. Of course, if you want that for Spock, you have Khan and Harry Mudd to consider.

Is Doc Savage a superhero? If so, is Harry Bosch? What about Stephanie Plum?

Is a secret identity necessary?

If so, that lets out Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, who was part of the Justice League.

Does a superhero have to be human?

Clearly not…Superman isn’t.

Can a superhero be a machine, though? Is Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation a superhero? What about the Red Tornado? Brainiac 5 is a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes…and a machine (well, at least 95%…depends a bit on your choice of continuity, but clearly not human).

What about Krypto, the superdog?

No, this is a lot more complicated than I thought at first.

I’d list Tarzan, Batman, and Zorro as superheroes, even though they aren’t super…but I’m not sure why that doesn’t extend to the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Lone Ranger, or does it?

Maybe it’s that they have to be defined as superheroes by the works in which they appear? That doesn’t seem like a very scientific classification system: “It’s a superhero when we tell you it is.” ūüėČ

I don’t have an answer on this. If you’d like to share your opinion, feel free to comment on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them


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