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I Am Number Four and Other Non-Superhero Super Heroes

Written by David Molofsky
He Looks Like Us
He Acts Like Us
But He’s NOT Like Us
– Copy for I Am Number Four Trailer

So, for a variety of reasons, today’s post is not going to be your regularly scheduled programming. I haven’t been feeling great this week and between work and leaving the country in less than a month, it hasn’t been easy to find the time to write. Fortunately, what I have for you today is a post that has been brewing for nearly three months now, and after seeing  I Am Number Four last night, it just had to come out.

     Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been having trouble finding a definition of “superhero” that couldn’t also be used to define any given “hero”. These two words are not synonymous and perhaps I should have made that clearer sooner. When I use words like “hero” and “heroic”, I am referring to the qualities that all heroic characters share, of which superheroes are one of many smaller subgroups. I attempted to find a definition in The Hero and Identity Issues essays, where I made having a secret identity and choosing to be a superhero part of the requirements, but that misses one of the most important factors.

As I was watching I Am Number Four, I was thinking about the framework I had outlined last week for the Superhero Movie plot and was attempting to prove that even thought I Am Number Four fits that framework quite nicely, it is still not a superhero movie. And then it dawned on me, like the bright lights shining out of Number Four’s hands: Four only has one enemy, or, as my friend Y. later corrected me, one nemesis. Number Four’s fight is only against the evil aliens who are trying to invade earth. But, if he were a superhero, he would be fighting everyone who tried to hurt anyone. And that right there is the difference between a superhero and a hero: a hero fights one battle, a superhero fights many.

     Let me throw in a few more examples. Early on, I had planned to compare superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman to heroes with special abilities, like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, James Bond, and John McClane. Each of these four heroes have special abilities and star in movies that more of less follow the outline I put in place last week. I picked these four because they are the perfect archetypes for each of their genres: Harry is a Fantasy Hero, Luke and Number Four are Sci-Fi Heroes, James Bond is a Spy Hero, and John McClane is an Action Hero. These are all champions that people look up to, ideals to aspire to.

However, each of these heroes has only one (1) enemy. Harry Potter has Voldemort and the dark wizards. Luke has Vader, the Emperor, and the Empire. James Bond and John McClane have terrorists. None of them have the time to stop a mugging on the street or worry about something that, at the end of the day, would only really effect one tiny city on one tiny planet. No, these guys fight BIG WARS, not small battles. Could you imagine James Bond fighting the Joker? Luke Skywalker vs. the Green Goblin? Harry Potter going up against Lex Luthor? John McClane taking out Red Mist? It’s kind of ridiculous, right? Why would these guys fight such (comparatively) small time crooks when they have HUGE GLOBAL PROBLEMS on their hands?

     Far be it from me to deny that these guys are heroes, because we all know they are. And no one would deny that they do indeed possess powers and abilities that one could define as “super.” But that isn’t enough to make them superheroes. Superheroes need to be selflessly fighting every fight they can find, and tracking down those they can’t, not fighting a war that has nothing to do with the little guy on the street. If our definition of “superhero” was that broad, we would have to include everyone from Marty McFly to Frodo on our list and we all know neither of those dudes are superheroes.

As another of my friends, W., pointed out earlier this week, the last stage in the Hero’s Journey is that he gets to return to the small village from whence he came as the Triumphant Hero, the war over and won. A superhero’s job is never over. There is no “winning” for a superhero, there is only surviving long enough to fight once more. And it is that quality that makes them so special. It’s that they have all these powers and they are literally using them in the least selfish way possible. A hero can become a hero simply by rising to the challenge of a dangerous situation, and sometimes that’s how a superhero’s journey can begin as well. The difference is that the superhero never comes to the end of that journey. Superheroes are champions like their multi-genre counterparts, but when the battle is over, a hero gets to go home because he is a part of the world he defends. A superhero gets to patch up his wounds, catch a quick nap, and stitch up his costume just in time to head back out for another night of rescuing the people who never have to ask for his help. Because that is his choice, his destiny, and he will never, ever stop.
How do you think this idea works for non-superhero super heroes in TV shows, such as Chuck, Christopher Chance, the Leverage Team, or even Jack Bauer?

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Owner & Editor-in-Chief of AP2HYC.