What Makes A Superhero Story?

Spike Lee was a guest on The Nightly Show the other day and one of the things they discussed briefly was people of color as superheroes. Lee offered up Bruce Lee as an example of an Asian superhero. Which raises an interesting question, what exactly is it that makes a superhero narrative?

Could be the narrative type. The typical superhero plot follows an outsider/everyman (so, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, Clark Kent) who has some special abilities (spider-stuff, money and brains, Krpton-ness) that is called on to use these abilities to do some heroing (save New York, save New York, save New York Metropolis). That narrative works well when you apply it to your typical Kung Fu movie. Jackie Chan’s Keung in Rumble In The Bronx is an outsider/everyman (dude from Hong Kong in New York for his uncle’s wedding) who has some special ability (Kung Fu) which he uses to do some heroing (save a small part of New York). So, sure, Kung Fu movies play into this superhero narrative.

But then, so does, say, Die Hard. It’s about an outsider/everyman (a New York cop in Los Angeles) who has some special abilities (not-giving-up and super-cop skills) and is called on to do some heroing (defeat Hans Gruber).  And Hot Rod in which an outsider/everyman (Rod Kimble, stuntman)  who has some special abilities (again, stuntman) is called on to do some heroing (do a stunt to save his step-father so he can beat him). It’s in Star Wars, it’s in Chuck. It’s, in some ways, the Hero’s Journey distilled. The obvious issue here is that it’s too broad a definition. Let’s try again.

Maybe the hero can’t do any vague heroing, but has to save the world. Superman saves Metropolis, but he also stops Lex or Zod from going on to rule more. But then, Spider-Man doesn’t protect much more than New York (if that) and Daredevil’s range of protection is a single neighborhood in Manhattan. But no one would argue that those aren’t superhero movies.

Does it have to be a villain, then? Most superhero movies have a villain who’s a dark mirror of the hero: Zod is evil Superman, Ivan Vanko is evil Tony Stark, Joker is evil/crazy Batman, Red Skull is racist/facist/Nazi Captain America. This framework rules out movies like Hot Rod (no evil stuntman) and Die Hard (no evil super-cop) and, conveniently, brings the Kung-Fu flick back in. What’s a good martial arts film without an evil martial artist for the hero to fight? But we also lose out on any Superman movies with Lex Luthor or Guardians of the Galaxy, where that foil isn’t quite at play. Many of the X-Men movies are also very much without the evil inverse of the hero beyond the Magneto/Professor X dynamic.

Maybe Spike Lee was referring to Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, where he played the hero’s sidekick, Kato. That lets us define the superhero movie as one about people who wear masks (or disguises) to fight crime. Even though in the Marvel movies, Iron Man and Captain America aren’t secret identities, they do still wear outfits to save the world. But it breaks down with Guardians or Thor where there isn’t too much in the way of special outfits, least not more than Aragorn and Han Solo have special outfits.

If we are willing to throw Kung Fu films out the window, because at this point the interest is to just find an encompassing description of just superhero films rather than one that overlaps the two neatly, we can use the trusted it’s-based-on-a-comic thing. That gives us all of the DC and Marvel movies — good, but then we have to include Kingsman and 300 while throwing out The Incredibles. We can’t say superpowers, because then if Bruce Wayne gets to be a superhero, doesn’t Gorden Gekko get to too? Y’know, I’m almost beginning to think that the term ‘superhero story’ really doesn’t work all that well as a means for describing a movie.

Doesn’t mean don’t need an Asian superhero though (c’mon Marvel, make Iron Fist Asian!).

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