With the flood of vampire movies & TV shows featuring people with superpowers who don’t really act like superheroes, and TV/movies featuring vampires who act like extremely angsty super-anti-heroes, one is made to wonder if they’re all sub-genres within the superhero genre.
After they appeared in books, comic books, and radio; the first superhero serials and movies began a trend in filmmaking that would later become the Superhero Genre. Although Superman is generally thought to have been the first superhero, the later inclusion of Batman, Green Arrow, and the Punisher opened up the definition of superhero beyond someone with innate supernatural abilities who fights crime. If you want to get technical about it, many people insist upon referring to superheroes without biologically controlled abilities as “costumed crime-fighters” or some other silly term, but that distinction is becoming increasingly passé.
So, how does one define a superhero? So far, I can find at least five characteristics:
• They have special powers/abilities, either through science fiction happenstance (lab assistant spills chemicals on himself and gains ability to walk through walls), through evolution/mutation (case and point, the X-Men), through fancy equipment (rich guy builds himself a go-go-gadget car/body/set of weapons), or through a combination of talent, ability, and courage (somebody impossibly good with a shootin’ iron, whip, or just Kung Fu, takes to the streets to defend the defenseless).
• They fight crime / save kittens from trees (both figuratively and, sometimes, literally).
• They have a secret identity (or at least a secret past life very much unlike their superhero life).
• They have a secret hideout/lair.
• They have super villains of approximately equal, if not slightly greater, capabilities to fight – aka supervillains.
However, the looseness of this definition – and just about any definition available – leaves it open to a slew of characters not usually thought of as superheroes. For example, what about Zorro or Robin Hood? Zorro had unusual ability with sword and whip, he fought crime, he had a secret identity, he had a secret hideout, and he fought powerful villains. But is he a superhero? If Batman is, so is Zorro. What about Robin Hood? He didn’t have a secret identity, but the rest fits. Also, the Green Arrow was very obviously a modernized take on the Robin hood character.
Finally, what about all those shows about people with snappy powers who just kind of try to act like everyday schlubs and (slowly) have greatness thrust upon them (e.g. Kyle XY, the characters in Heroes, The Secret World of Alex Mack, Chuck – actually, he did become a super-spy pretty quickly)? There, we get into a big gray area. Kyle XY had super powers and he did do some kitten-saving like things, but he didn’t really go out and fight crime. Alex Mack also had super powers, but she hardly ever used them for anything hero-ish. Neither of these characters strike me as being superheroes, but I could easily argue the opposite opinion if I wanted to. The characters in Heroes, for the 2 1/2 seasons I watched, were the most disappointing. The only characters with the distinct aura of superhero-ness about them in the beginning were Hiro & Ando, Peter, and maybe Noah. By the end of the second season, they all had the anti-hero stink on them – especially Hiro, *spoiler alert* after he betrayed his historical idol and turned him into a supervillain. Chuck probably comes the closest. He has a super power (instant ability/memory recall), fights international crime, has a secret identity (Carmichael vs. Bartowski), has a secret hideout (the “Castle“), fights high-tech supervillains, and he now has a sidekick (his best friend, Morgan). It seems risky to classify Chuck as a superhero, however, because that gets a little to close to regular spy story territory (e.g. James Bond). Nonetheless, he does fit the bill in a strange sort of way.
What about all the vampire heroes/anti-heroes? While we’re at it, what about Buffy the vampire slayer? One of the reasons for the great appeal of vampire shows/movies may be their similarities to traditional superhero stories. For vampires, you’ve got Nick Knight (from Forever Knight), Angel, and probably a dozen others at this point. They fight crime, except every once in a while when their vampire-ness makes them kill lots of innocent people; their identities as vampires are often kept secret, at first anyway; they fight supervillains. Do they have secret hideouts? If they stuck to the legend of having to sleep in the original coffins/dirt in which they were buried, they would. But this does not appear to be the case. And, once again, that whole angsty anti-hero thing gets in the way. I guess I would call them a sub-genre: super anti-heroes. As for Buffy, she’s definitely a superhero. She didn’t really have a secret hideout in the movie version, but in the TV version she had several: school library, magic shop, her house. And she had at least two or three side-kicks at any given time. She had “teen angst” in the movie and she got pretty nuts in the later seasons of the show, but she still fits all the definitions of a superhero – as odd as that is.
To most, the definition of a superhero will always be a crime fighter in spandex tights who first appears in a comic book/strip. However, the classification of a character as a superhero is basically in continuous transition. Who knows what will be considered a superhero in the future.