Considering the Requirements of a Superhero Story

I wish I could say that I’m completely over the “Man of Steel” thing, but it looks like I won’t be for a long while yet. Yesterday, I ended up talking to my sister for HOURS about how much the movie disappoints me. I didn’t bring up how painful its success is, because I didn’t quite know how to say it without feeling like a complete ass. People enjoyed it. I really shouldn’t begrudge the fact that they did. But part of me feels like the folks who made this movie, the moviegoers who enjoyed it, missed the point.

The point being that Superman is about putting your faith in hope, and that he NEEDS a narrative that will make us believe that he could and has done that. I stand by my conviction that the film did nothing to evoke this.

Hope
Maybe it’s always about hope. (Photo credit: bitzcelt)

This might be a problem of super storycraft

This low-grade ire, which has been bothering me for weeks (stoked occasionally by my father, who likes sharing all the “Man of Steel” reviews he can get his hands on), brings to mind the question of what makes a superhero story work. This is, admittedly, slightly connected to a blog post and discussion I ran into, which asked the question of what makes Superman essentially Superman given his many different incarnations over the years since his inception and also (through the comments) posed the question of what makes the superhero a superhero.

Much thanks to Jonathan and Carljoe for that exchange. I’d also like to say that I am not stalking you guys. Nope. Totally not.

*cough* Back to what I was saying.

Without a doubt, the superhero story partly draws from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth – as many good heroic stories do. But that’s only half the battle. The other half is putting the “super” in the heroism, at which point things get a little bit murky. Why? It’s because it’s been given so many different approaches over the many decades that superheroes have existed. So much so that I’ll probably find it difficult to create a truly consolidated concept of it.

Oh, sure. There are similar elements. Someone is born with or gets superpowers – either through fate or the development of a skill. Eventually, they use it to help other people. They save us and we end up wanting to BE them. They represent the very best versions of ourselves; gods that aren’t gods, humans that are more than human.  These are narratives we love to love.

But we’ve told these stories so many times and from varying angles: following someone who is super but human, or human but super etc. It’s easy to see how they’re heroic, but it’s hard to pinpoint what it is that makes them SUPERheroic in the narrative.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe it’s not exactly the narrative, but the elements USED in the narrative?

Maybe I should try writing a superhero story instead?

Perhaps this is something that I’ll only really understand by actually DOING. I mean, here I am criticizing how other people are writing certain superhero stories wrong without actually writing one myself. At least, not seriously.

That’s why I’m thinking of digging up an old superhero concept I came up with several years ago. I made it up for a not-quite-roleplay roleplaying activity that my friends and I wanted to try on our Livejournal community (now defunct). Of course, the original idea was that we’ll be playing/writing from the point of view of NORMAL people who happened to be associated with superheroes; but eventually, we started putting more and more writing time into the supers we created for the purpose of interacting with our “ordinary” characters.

My hero was called Lady Liberty (yeah, I know a Lady Liberty already exists in comics; but it just seems right), and she’s not what she seems to be. “She” is actually a “he”, and his reasons for crossdressing whenever he engages in superheroics are more complicated than you think.

Of course, if I try to write this, I’ll probably have to ask all the other people involved if I can borrow their characters because a huge chunk of Lady Liberty’s character arc depends on the existence of THEIR characters. And that would be complicated, considering I’ve lost touch with some of them. Also, I’m not sure if I have the chops to write this epic on my own, and I’m not sure if this is a good idea at all. Maybe I should ask my sister to help? After all, most of the coolest bits that happened in that RP happened because of HER ideas.

I don’t know if I should pursue this. But it’s likely that I’ll have a better understanding of what one requires out of a superhero story if I try to be more hands-on with it.

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2 thoughts on “Considering the Requirements of a Superhero Story

    1. io9 provides, sort of. I’ve found a couple of pieces there that might help me frame the question better. 😀

      In one, they get a quote from Morrison asking if superhero stories could even BE considered an independent genre: http://io9.com/5166889/are-superhero-stories-even-a-genre

      In another, they list 10 genres that have been fully integrated into superhero narratives: http://io9.com/10-genres-that-superheroes-have-swallowed-up-511461075

      I am, of course, sharing them here because other people who haven’t read these might find them worth reading. 🙂

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