An Observation on Superheroes

I thought I would close out my three post streak about superheroes with a simple observation I had recently. Superheroes, in comics as well as on the screen, aren’t usually protagonists by the standard definition.

We generally think of the protagonist, in structural terms, as the person who wants something in a story. The protagonist has a goal, and he/she will face obstacles and enemies who seek to prevent him/her from reaching it. But if you think about superheroes, they often don’t fit this model. Oh, to be sure, superheroes want things like any other character. Their wants just usually confine themselves to Stan Lee’s model in Spiderman: they want love, stability, the things that we all want. But these generally aren’t the goals that drive the plot. Spiderman is a high-school kid with all of a high-school kid’s desires, but those desires don’t drive the story forward. Instead, they simply help to flesh out his character as a relatable hero. What superheroes want, in a plot-significant sense, is generally no more than to stop the villain from achieving his aims.

Which leads us to something of a startling thought. Superheroes, by and large, are not protagonists. On the contrary, they are antagonists. Their role is not to achieve a goal of their own, but to serve as the obstacle that successfully diverts the goals of an evil or misguided protagonist (read, Super-villain).

There are exceptions to this rule. There are moments in the Iron Man films where Tony Stark genuinely wants something for his own sake, and both Guardians of the Galaxy films present entire teams of heroes who have real goals of their own in addition to wanting to stop their villains. In these cases the heroes’ plans and goals at least somewhat balance out the villains’, and we can certainly make a case for calling them true protagonists.

Whether or not you consider this structural quirk to be a problem with the superhero genre, it’s interesting to consider who these films are really about. And, in many cases, the obvious conclusion is that superhero films are not about superheroes at all. They are about super-villains.

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