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Mavademics: What’s a Supervillain? (and a hero for that matter)

So I’ve been doing dissertation research (because apparently that’s just the rest of my life) and I’m currently reading all the way through a book that I’d only read sections of before. Peter Coogan‘s Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with in writing my dissertation was the exact definition of a superhero. I’m not alone here. This comes up in a bunch of academic texts. There’s a base inclination to just sort of say “I know it when I see it” the same way we do with art. But even with art that’s subjective. And in superheroes, it FEELS, like it should be more objective, but I’m not sure it is. Some of them are really obvious. No one doubts that Superman is a superhero. So are Spider-man, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America and Luke Cage. Other’s are less obvious and come under dispute among fans. Is the Punisher a superhero? He’s certainly the star of a comic books, but he breaks a lot of the conventions of… superherodom. He doesn’t have powers (but neither does Batman) he kills his opponents (but so do a lot of characters, especially in the modern movie age). But in a lot of ways he just doesn’t feel like a superhero… except for all the times he does.

And then what do we do with even more edge cases. The farther we get from comic books, the more it sort of feels like superheroness is questionable. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a superhero? Is Luke Skywalker? Indiana Jones? John Cena? And yes, I’m serious on that last one.

Anyway, Coogan makes an interesting argument that superheroes are specific to the superhero genre. They work within (and define) its generic conventions. According to Coogan, the superhero genre is defined by having a Mission, Identity and Powers (MPI) as his core building blocks (39). That’s not to say that all superheroes have all three or that characters that aren’t superheroes can’t have all three. It’s just that that is the beginning of the core archetype that we compare a character to decide if s/he is a superhero or not. The characters have a specific mission to improve the social good (for instance truth, justice, whatever), they have an identities that are emblematic of their status as a hero and they have abilities beyond the normal scale of other characters in their world that make them exceptional. In Coogan’s reckoning then, Buffy for instance is NOT a superhero, because her identity as Buffy Summers is irrelevant to the concept of what she does in a different way that say Luke Cage (who still only has one real identity) is identifiable with his status as a hero. Batman, while lacking super powers, per se, manages to still have “powers” in the narrative sense beyond what Commissioner Gordon for instance has.

So the claim here, of which I am not sure I totally agree, but I certainly don’t entire disagree, is that superheroes only exist inside of superhero genre stories (this is not to say that a story can’t be multi-genre. They often are… Captain America: The Winter Soldier is both a superhero movie and a spy movie. But it is to say that Kingsman: The Secret Service is a spy movie but NOT a superhero movie and that Eggsy Unwin is not a superhero.

And of course this is all debatable… Another book that I absolutely love, Superman on the Couch by Danny Fingeroth basically devotes a whole chapter to “why Buffy is a Superhero.”

Anyway, Coogan makes another interesting claim that really has me thinking right now:

“But it is important to note that supervillains precede the creation of the superhero genre and in fact oppose superheroes, super heroes, and ordinary authorities; consequently, generic distinction does not play a role in defining the supervillain because the supervillain trope belongs to many genres, certainly those of the adventure meta-genre including the Western, spy/secret agent, superhero, war, science fiction, as well as many varieties of the detective genre.” (77)

In other words, Coogan argues that the supervillain does NOT require the superhero genre. Supervillains exist outside of the conventions. They are the powerful evil antagonist that is fought regardless of whether the heroic protagonist possesses superpowers or not. And this makes sense. He has a point. While supervillains often oppose superheroes, I think we tend to think of them more as just powerful adversaries, rather than as necessarily specific sets of traits that need to be built into the archetype. The Ghostbusters are certainly NOT superheroes in any reckoning… or at least I wouldn’t think so. But Zuul really does seem like a supervillain. And again, in Kingsman, Valentine certainly seems like a supervillain. So do a lot of Indiana Jones characters… So does Darth Vader… So does the current president of the United States.

So that’s what I’m sort of thinking about right now. And because I like having other people help shape my ideas, I’m want to know what other people think. What makes a character into a superhero? What makes a character a supervillain? What makes something a superhero story? Can superheroes and supervillains exist outside of that genre or does their presence specifically set that as the genre (or vice versa). Can superheroes and villains exist without each other? And do you agree or disagree with any of the random examples I gave here (or have other interesting ones that complicate or clarify the questions I’m working through)?


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