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What Makes a Great Superhero?

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Cross-posted from http://reviewsunleashed.com/?p=445

A lot what makes for a great character holds true for making a great superhero. A great character isn’t necessarily a good guy character. Witness Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Syler on Heroes.

Human flaws and failings are part of what makes a character memorable and sympathetic. Villains can carry their failings to extremes, but heroes must draw a line for themselves even if it means a constant internal battle.

The Incredible Hulk is tortured with concern over the damage he may do unknowingly. Angel (again from Buffy the Vampire Slayer – that Joss Whedon can sure write ‘em) is tortured with guilt for his past and the threat of reverting to his evil alter ego.

A superhero doesn’t have to be tortured to be great, but Batman is a more sympathetic character for his tragic past. Superman is sympathetic as an orphan stranded alone on an alien planet. Spiderman is admirable for taking responsibility after his uncle’s death and giving up the girl he loves in order to protect her.

It’s their essential humanity, their failings and vulnerabilities and the courage to pursue their missions in the face of these that make a superhero great. If Iron Man were actually a robot, with no emotions, no ego, no concern for those he helped, helping people only because programmed to do so, he would not be a superhero at all. He’d be equipment, like the helicopter lifting in an air rescue team.

Superheroes have made a choice in the face of their flaws and vulnerabilities to use their powers to help those in need. A great superhero is one with memorable character as well as with great powers, one who continues to make the tough choices even when the best choice is not at all clear.

And where would the great superheroes be without their love interests? Superman had Lois Lane (and Lana Lang and other LLs), Spiderman had Mary-Jane Watson (and Gwen Stacy). Wonder Woman had Captain Steve Trevor.

Batman seemed to do okay with dating around, but it raised questions about his relationship with the boy wonder – and left him vulnerable in the face of such foes as Catwoman and Poison Ivy.

There have been superheroes without a significant love interest, but for those who have such a relationship, it adds considerable interest to the story lines. Not just when the special person is endangered, but for the added dimension it reveals to the Hero’s character. Even heroes can quake in the face of love, feel torn between conflicting priorities, struggle to find a balance between work and family life. Heroes who are more human by virtue of their love lives are also more heroic for rising to meet the challenges involved.

In my novel, Wonder Guy, Greg Roberts, an ordinary, if nerdish guy, is granted super powers by his fairy godmother, for the explicit purpose of impressing Gloria, the girl next door. He would never ordinarily have set out to become an actual hero, but once granted special powers, he feels responsible for using them to do some real good for people in need. In playing the hero, he becomes the hero.

My Team Guardian novellas (Sweet Mercy and Safe Haven (Shining Hope in the works)) each involve people whose ordinary lives have been changed forever after a Probability Bomb leaves them endowed with special powers. The good guys band together to police the rogues among them, and in the course of saving the world from the rogue Talents, find romance and meaning in unexpected ways.

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