A superhero is a type of stock character possessing "extraordinary or superhuman powers" and dedicated to protecting the public. Since the debut of the prototypical superhero Superman in 1938, stories of superheroes—ranging from brief episodic adventures to continuing years-long sagas—have dominated American comic books and crossed over into other media. The word itself dates to at least 1917. A female superhero is sometimes called a superheroine . "Super-heroes" is a trademark co-owned by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Superheroes are authentically US-American, spawning from The Great Depression era.
By most definitions, characters do not strictly require actual superhuman powers to be deemed superheroes, although terms such as costumed crime fighters are sometimes used to refer to those such as Batman and Green Arrow without such powers who share other common superhero traits. Such characters were generally referred to as "mystery men" in the late 1930s and 1940s period historians and fans call the Golden Age of Comic Books, to distinguish them from characters with super-powers.
Normally, superheroes use their powers to police day-to-day crime while also combating threats against humanity by supervillains, criminals of "unprecedented powers" in the same way as superheroes. One of these supervillains is often the superhero's archenemy, although sometimes the superhero has a rogues gallery of archenemies. Additionally, superheroes sometimes will combat such threats as aliens and supernatural or mythological entities.
- Extraordinary powers and abilities, relevant skills and/or advanced equipment. Superhero powers vary widely; superhuman strength, the ability to fly, enhanced senses, and the projection of energy bolts are all common. Others have special weapons or technology, such as Iron Man's powered armor suits and Green Lantern’s power ring. Many characters supplement their natural powers with a special weapon or device (e.g., Wonder Woman's lasso and bracelets, Spider-Man's webbing, Wolverine's adamantium claws, Daredevil's billy club, or Thor's hammer).
- A strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one's own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward. Such a code often includes a refusal or strong reluctance to kill or wield lethal weapons.
- A motivation, such as a sense of responsibility (e.g. Spider-Man), a formal calling (e.g., Wonder Woman), a personal vendetta against criminals (e.g. Batman), or a strong belief in justice and humanitarian service (e.g. Superman).
- A secret identity that protects the superhero's friends and family from becoming targets of his or her enemies, such as Clark Kent (Superman), although many superheroes have a confidant (usually a friend or relative who has been sworn to secrecy). As one scholarly work analyzed in 1972,
- A distinctive costume, often used to conceal the secret identity (see Common costume features).
- An underlying motif or theme that affects the hero's name, costume, personal effects, and other aspects of his or her character (e.g., Batman resembles a large bat, operates at night, calls his specialized automobile, which also appears bat-like, the "Batmobile" and uses several devices given a "bat" prefix, Spider-Man can shoot webs from his hands, has a spider web pattern on his costume, and other spider-like abilities).
- A supporting cast of recurring characters, including the hero's friends, co-workers and/or love interests, who may or may not know of the superhero's secret identity. Often the hero's personal relationships are complicated by this dual life, a common theme in Spider-Man and Batman stories in particular.
- A number of enemies that he/she fights repeatedly. In some cases superheroes begin by fighting run of the mill criminals before supervillains surface in their respective story lines. In many cases the hero is in part responsible for the appearance of these super villains (the Scorpion was created as the perfect enemy to defeat Spider-Man, and characters in Batman's comics often accuse him of creating the villains he fights). Often superheroes have an archenemy who is more troubling than the others. Often a nemesis is a superhero's doppelganger or foil (e.g., Sabretooth embraces his savage instincts while Wolverine tries to control his; Batman is dark, quiet, and grim, while the Joker is colorful, loquacious, and flamboyant).
- Independent wealth (e.g., Batman or the X-Men's benefactor Professor X) or an occupation that allows for minimal supervision (e.g., Superman's civilian job as a reporter).
- A headquarters or base of operations, usually kept hidden from the general public (e.g., Superman's Fortress of Solitude or Batman's Batcave).
- A backstory that explains the circumstances by which the character acquired his or her abilities as well as his or her motivation for becoming a superhero. Many origin stories involve tragic elements and/or freak accidents that result in the development of the hero's abilities.
- A weakness or Achilles' heel, concrete such as Kryptonite in the case of Superman or a personality issue, such as anger in the case of the The Incredible Hulk.
Many superheroes work independently. However, there are also many superhero teams. Some, such as the Fantastic Four and X-Men, have common origins and usually operate as a group. Others, such as DC Comics’s Justice League and Marvel’s Avengers, are "all-star" groups consisting of heroes with separate origins who also operate individually, yet will team up to confront larger threats. The shared setting or "universes" of Marvel, DC and other publishers also allow for regular superhero team-ups.
Some superheroes especially those introduced in the 1940s, work with a young sidekick (e.g., Batman and Robin, Captain America and Bucky). This became less common beginning in the 1960s and virtually disappeared as a convention afterward.
Superheroes most often originate in comic books, from where they have been adapted into radio serials, novels, TV series, movies, and other media.
Marvel Characters, Inc. and DC Comics share ownership of the United States trademark for the phrases "Super Hero" and "Super Heroes" and these two companies own the vast majority of the world’s most famous and influential superheroes. Of the "Significant Seven" chosen by The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (1989), Marvel owns Spider-Man and Captain America and DC owns Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Like many non-Marvel characters popular during the 1940s, the latter two were acquired by DC from defunct publishers. However, there have been significant heroes owned by others, especially since the 1990s when Image Comics and other companies that allowed creators to maintain trademark and editorial control over their characters developed. Hellboy and Spawn are some of the most successful creator-owned heroes.
Although superhero fiction is considered a form of fantasy/adventure, it crosses into many genres. Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Punisher), others horror fiction (Spawn, Spectre) and others more standard science fiction (Green Lantern, X-Men). Many of the earliest superheroes, such as The Sandman and The Clock, were rooted in the pulp fiction of their predecessors.
Within their own fictional universes, public perception of superheroes varies greatly. Some, like Superman and the Fantastic Four, are adored and seen as important civic leaders. Others, like Batman and Spider-Man, are met with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and the characters of Watchmen, defend a populace that almost unanimously misunderstands and despises them.
Common costume features
A superhero's costume helps make him or her recognizable to the general public. Costumes are often colorful to enhance the character's visual appeal and frequently incorporate the superhero's name and theme. For example, Daredevil resembles a red devil, Captain America's costume echoes the American flag, Batman resembles a large bat, and Spider-Man's costume features a spider web pattern. The convention of superheroes wearing masks (frequently without visible pupils) and skintight unitards originated with Lee Falk's comic strip hero The Phantom.
Many features of superhero costumes recur frequently, including the following:
- Superheroes who maintain a secret identity often wear a mask, ranging from the domino masks of Green Lantern and Ms. Marvel to the full-face masks of Spider-Man and Black Panther. Most common are masks covering the upper face, leaving the mouth and jaw exposed. This allows for both a believable disguise and recognizable facial expressions. A notable exception is Superman, who wears nothing on his face while fighting crime, but uses large glasses in his civilian life as Clark Kent. As well, because Superman possesses super speed, he is able to move his face back and forth quickly enough when he is Superman to blur any distinguishable features. Some characters wear helmets, such as Doctor Fate or Magneto.
- A symbol, such as a stylized letter or visual icon, usually on the chest. Examples include the uppercase "S" of Superman, the bat emblem of Batman, and the spider emblem of Spider-Man. Often, they also wear a common symbol referring to their group or league, such as the "4" on the Fantastic Four's suits, or the "X" on the X-Men's costumes.
- Form-fitting clothing, often referred to as tights or Spandex, although the exact material is usually unidentified. Such material displays a character’s athletic build and heroic sex appeal and allows a simple design for illustrators to reproduce.
- While a vast majority of superheroes do not wear capes, the garment is still closely associated with them, likely because two of the most widely recognized superheroes, Batman and Superman, wear capes. In fact, police officers in Batman’s home of Gotham City have used the word "cape" as a shorthand for all superheroes and costumed crimefighters. The comic-book miniseries Watchmen and the animated movie The Incredibles humorously commented on the potentially lethal impracticality of capes. In Marvel Comics, the term "cape-killer" has been used to describe Superhuman Restraint Unit, even though few notable Marvel heroes wear capes.
- While most superhero costumes merely hide the hero’s identity and present a recognizable image, parts of the costume (or the costume itself) have functional uses. Batman's utility belt and Spawn's "necroplasmic armor" have both been of great assistance to the heroes. Iron Man's armor, in particular, protects him and provides technological advantages.
- When thematically appropriate, some superheroes dress like people from various professions or subcultures. Zatanna, who possesses wizard-like powers, dresses as a stage magician, and Ghost Rider, who rides a superpowered motorcycle, dresses in the leather garb of a biker.
- Several heroes of the 1990s, including Cable and many Image Comics characters, rejected the traditional superhero outfit for costumes that appeared more practical and militaristic. Shoulder pads, kevlar-like vests, metal-plated armor, knee and elbow pads, heavy-duty belts, and ammunition pouches were common features. Other characters, such as The Punisher or The Question, opt for a "civilian" costume (mostly a trench coat). A few, such as the Runaways, do not wear any distinctive outfits at all.
Many superheroes (and supervillains) have headquarters or a base of operations. These locations are often equipped with state-of-the-art or even alien technologies, and may be disguised or in secret locations to avoid being detected by enemies or the general public. Some, such as the Baxter Building, are known of by the public (even though in some other cases the precise location may remain secret). Many heroes and villains who do not have a permanent headquarters are said to have a mobile base of operations.
To the heroes and villains who have a secret base, the base can serve a variety of functions.
- a safehouse, where the heroes can conceal themselves from their enemies.
- a laboratory, for experiments and scientific study.
- a research library, covering a variety of topics from science, to history, to criminal profiling.
- an armory, for weapons design, construction and storage.
- a garage/hangar/dock.
- a communications center.
- a weapons platform, for defense of the facility (these are more common to supervillains).
- a trophy room, where mementos of significant battles and adventures are displayed.
- a common area, for social activity (typically for larger teams, such as the Justice League or the Avengers).
- a medical center, where the heroes can treat their injuries