“You know, you have some pretty amazing friends, Clark Kent”
“Yeah, I do.”
-Chloe Sullivan, Clark Kent
Much like the Western and the Film Noir, the Superhero Genre is built on a specific set of characters. These characters are the most important aspect of a Superhero Film, with the plot coming in at a close second. The protagonist of a Superhero film is always the Hero, a person who develops extraordinary abilities and then uses those abilities to defend the public. The other major characters of the Superhero film are the Damsel, the Villain, the Confidante, the Mentor, and the Secondary Hero. Every Superhero Film must have a Hero and at least two or more of the other characters. In addition, it is not uncommon for a single character to fulfill two separate roles (for instance, sometimes the Damsel also acts as the Confidante or the Mentor can become the Villain). Over the next few weeks, I will be discussing each of these different characters and what makes them essential to the Superhero Film.
“Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to lead an ordinary life is no longer an option.”
– Peter Parker, Spider-Man (2002)
The most important figure in a superhero film is the superhero himself (or herself). There are several traits that every superhero must have that make them a superhero. The first two requirements are that the Hero must have some kind of special ability that no one else has and that the Hero must use that ability to protect the public.
Every superhero has an ability that makes them super. This ability can be a superpower, like super-strength, flight, or shooting lasers from their eyes. On the other hand, the ability could be something else, as long as it makes the Hero superior in some way. Batman’s abilities lay in his various skills in fighting, deduction, and discipline. Iron Man’s ability is his genius-level intelligence, which allows him to create his special armor. These are not superpowers, but they still serve the same purpose of making the Hero super.
Whatever a Hero’s ability is, it must be something that is unique to them. If everyone has the same powers or abilities as the Hero, then the Hero is no longer special and would have no reason to be a superhero. This is the converse to Spider-Man’s immortal motto “With great power comes great responsibility”, “With no power comes no responsibility”. It is because they are unique that the Heroes become heroes in the first place.
Once they become super, the Heroes need to become heroic. They need to accept the responsibility that comes with their power and use their powers for the greater good. They must protect the public from the evils that they would not be able to face on their own. Again, it is always only the one-of-a-kind Hero who can save the day precisely because he is not like everyone else.
While this might seem like enough to define a superhero (he must be both super and a hero) neither of these traits is unique for the superhero. Many characters of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films have extraordinary abilities, and many of those same characters are heroic. So what sets superheroes apart from these other characters? The answer is three-fold. First, the Hero must accept the responsibility of his powers. While at first this is less of a choice for the Hero and more an aspect of their naturally heroic personality, it becomes a choice that the Hero must face everyday and one that he can never go back on. This leads to the second part of the answer, which is that the Hero must actively choose to give up his normal life in favor of his heroic life. This choice, and the tension it creates, is always at the center of a Superhero Film. Finally, the Hero must work anonymously and maintain a secret identity. This shows that the Hero is not a superhero for any kind of material rewards. Keeping a civilian identity keeps the Hero connected to society and the people he is ultimately trying to protect.
Each of the five other main characters in a Superhero Film plays an equally important role in defining these characteristics of the Hero:
The Damsel represents the Hero’s desire to be normal and is a physical embodiment of the things he has forsaken in order to become a superhero. The Damsel also helps to ground the Hero, reminding him of his true identity and giving him something to fight for.
The Villain is the dark mirror of the Hero, representing what would happen if he had chosen to use his powers selfishly instead of selflessly.
The Mentor teaches the Hero how to reach his full potential and shows the Hero the value of his heroic choice. The Mentor also helps the Hero realize that being a superhero is more important than anything else in his life.
The Confidante reinforces what the Hero learned from the Mentor and helps him make those teachings his own. The Confidante also acts as the levelheaded foil to the passionate Hero and is usually the only person who sees the Hero’s true identity.
The Secondary Hero looks up to the Hero for guidance. The Hero reinforces his own values by passing them on to the Secondary Hero.
These characters help the Hero on his journey and make sure that he becomes a true superhero.