When Superheroes Deconstruct

By JCM Berne

September 24, 2022

The Boys, Watchmen, Umbrella Academy . . . what do they have in common? Lots of things, but among them is that all three are considered to be a deconstruction of the superhero genre. What does that even mean?

First, let’s look at what the Superhero genre IS – let’s go in there and define it. Then let’s look at deconstruction (I promise not to get too far into the philosophical weeds on this). Then we’ll see what this is all about.

What IS the Superhero Genre?

As always, when I define a term, I’m trying to get the clearest description of how that term is actually used by people. And as always, I’ll start with the most typical examples of the word (things people would mostly describe as superhero stories), try out some definitions, and see if they meet the edge cases.

First, superhero stories almost always have characters with extraordinary powers. ‘Super’ is literally part of ‘superhero.’ I don’t think we want to say those powers have to be literally superhuman. Batman has no superpowers, but Batman is clearly a superhero comic. But those abilities DO have to be unusual or extraordinary. If Batman were only as tough as, for example, me, then his comic wouldn’t do very well.

A secondary characteristic of superhero stories is that they feature costumed vigilantes. Not every superhero story includes spandex costumes (though a lot of them do). Valiant comics had a whole lineup of stories that avoided costumes, for example, so costumes aren’t necessary. But costumes do push a story into the superhero category, which explains Batman. If neither Batman nor his villains wore campy costumes then Batman stories would really be considered crime stories or action thrillers but not superhero stories (think about something like Fast & Furious or almost any martial arts movie ever made).

If you have both extraordinary powers AND costumes, you have a superhero story. I can’t think of any exceptions.

If you have ONLY extraordinary powers, things get murky. If we say that all of those are superhero stories, that would pull in pretty much every urban fantasy (wizards, werewolves, vampires, what-have-you) into the superhero genre, and that’s not how the terms are used. Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim stories has a MC with superpowers, guys running around with advanced tech, and so on, but it’s not superhero (it IS very good; read it).

I can’t figure out a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes a story-with-superpowers into a superhero-story.

I DO think it has a lot to do with fulfilling a set of secondary tropes or themes. None of these themes are necessary, but if a story has enough of them, it’s a superhero story.

Like what, you ask?

  1. Lots of powered individuals feel compelled to do good – fight crime, solve world problems. They buy into the Stan Lee idea of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Those heroes hold themselves to a high moral standard – they avoid killing (not always entirely, but usually); they don’t (or rarely) interfere in politics and government, and so on.
  2. The body count is low (at least with named characters). Neither heroes nor villains die easily, if ever. This was obviously a commercial decision (if you create a cool villain, keeping them alive allows you to re-use them over and over and sell more comics) but it’s become part of the genre.
  3. Powered characters have codenames and secret identities.
  4. Powered characters work independently. They’re not police officers or members of the military (or if they are, in their secret identities, their costumed alter egos do not work within those structures).
  5. Powers originate in a variety of ways. It’s not JUST magic, or JUST genetic mutation, or JUST advanced technology. Characters in the setting have powers based on a variety of mechanisms.

Urban fantasy is NOT superhero because, despite having superpowered characters, the other tropes aren’t followed (at least not many of them). [Note: this is in no way a criticism of urban fantasy; I’m not saying it’s bad or inferior, just that it’s different.]

SUMMARY: ANY story with superpowers and costumed vigilantism is a superhero story. Any story with just one of those two traits MIGHT be a superhero story if it satisfies enough of the secondary tropes listed above.

The most iconic superhero stories meet the full definition and ALL of the tropes. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, all of the Avengers, the X-Men, etc. You can test my hypothesis: grab any random person, ask them for examples of a superhero story, and see if they meet the definitions and tropes (let me know if you find counterexamples!).

What is deconstruction, then?

A deconstruction is a story (or an essay about stories) that breaks down or takes apart or analyzes the elements of a genre (for example, the definition and tropes I listed above) into separate pieces.

A deconstruction of war movies might be set in a war, but have the soldiers on our side presented as monstrous, or present the war itself as immoral. In other words, tell a story that is unavoidably a war story but remove the pieces that historically have gone along with war stories. A deconstruction of romance stories might have many elements of a romance but avoid the happy ending. Deconstructions make points about the genre by keeping some elements, but not others, and mixing them in interesting ways.

Examples of each, Joe?

Which means there are two distinct ways that properties can skirt the edges of superherodom:

A deconstruction of the superhero genre, then, is something that takes these elements apart – instead of keeping them all, it very carefully picks and chooses pieces of what makes a superhero story to make some kind of point or argument (it might be ‘doing’ other things as well, like telling a great story, but part of the theme is picking apart what makes superhero stories what they are).

Stories that take apart this definition and skirt around it, while remaining superhero stories, are going to deviate in one of two ways: Either meet just half the basic definition while meeting most of the tropes, OR meeting the full basic definition while meeting few or none of the tropes.

(Power OR Costumes) + All the Hero Tropes

One type of ‘deconstruction’ of the superhero genre is to meet only half the basic definition but still hit all, or most, of the superhero tropes. You could have heroes without powers, yet still fight crime and refrain from killing. If Batman were set in his own universe it would fit this definition. Something like Kick-Ass does this as well.

Why choose this type of story?

Well, why have heroes without powers, or heroes without costumes? Part of the reason has to be an argument by the author that heroes don’t REQUIRE powers (or they don’t require costumes). You tell a Batman story to say that any regular, psychologically tormented genius billionaire could fight crime, even without super alien powers or a magic green ring.

There’s nothing wrong with this message, obviously. You can also have a property like The Authority or Planetary that keeps a shaky relationship with standard superhero costumes but otherwise more or less sticks to the other tropes. That’s a title showing that the costume doesn’t make the hero. It’s a perfectly valid argument, and both those titles are high on my list of all-time favorites.

What’s the other kind of deconstruction?

(Power AND Costumes) – Heroism

The really interesting and strange type of deconstruction is stories that make sure you know they’re superhero stories – because they undoubtedly and unabashedly stick to the definition (costumes AND powers) while breaking all or most of the tropes.

Popular examples of this are Watchmen, The Boys, and Umbrella Academy. Superpowers and costumes don’t add up to do-gooders who won’t kill in these stories, and that is very much part of the point. These stories are making a different argument – that power doesn’t make someone a hero, and that, in fact, great power might be even more likely to make people kind of jerks.

And that’s the tension these stories generate. They’re taking apart the notion of ‘superhero’ – primarily a costumed person with powers – and taking out the things we associate with that core concept, the moral codes and behavior patterns. That’s the deconstruction.

Is Deconstruction Bad?

That’s not what I’m saying!

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to point out that great power does not usually make people morally better. I’m certainly not arguing that The Boys is more or less realistic than, say, The Avengers (frankly, I don’t care). I’m a big fan of The Boys! I liked Watchmen just fine!

The reason I don’t write these types of stories is that I’m not interested in talking about people who AREN’T heroes. I don’t want to tell a story about Homelander. I want to tell you a story about someone like Homelander who is really, genuinely trying to make the world a better place.

I don’t think there’s anything WRONG with stories about heroes. If the heroes are TOO powerful, or flawless in other ways, that can make the story less compelling. If we want to appeal to grownups, we need flawed heroes, we need dramatic tension. I get that. But I still prefer a story about a decent person trying to do good over a person people think is a hero who is fundamentally bad.

Why is Deconstruction Associated with Stories for Adults?

Now we get to the slightly tricky part.

To be honest, a lot of the superhero tropes feel a bit childish. Refusing to kill? Selfless heroism? Altrusim?

Modern capitalist societies associate these sort of heroic traits with children. We call people who believe in them Boy Scouts, after an organization of children. We act as if selflessness is something kids are taught to be, which they must grow out of to become normal adults. And running around in a spandex outfit and cape does seem, well , a bit silly.

None of which means superhero stories HAVE to be deconstructions to be aimed at adults. Plenty of properties avoid this.

Invincible (both comic and cartoon) tells mature stories, with grownup relationships, about an iconically superheroic superhero. And plenty of modern comic books are clearly written for grownups. I don’t read as many comics as I used to, but the X-Men stories of the past few years are definitely NOT written to appeal primarily to 10 year old kids. The stories are complex, with morally gray characters and mature sexual situations.

Is there a point, Joe?

Sort of.

Classic superhero stories are about superpowered, costume wearing heroes. Modern deconstructions take away the powers (or costumes) or take away the heroic aspects – the ‘heroes’ are awful people, or kill casually.

What I’m writing (which is not to say that I’m doing it well, but what I’m trying to write) are superhero stories that are FOR adults in the sense that the characters are a bit complex, the plotlines nuanced, and the morality occasionally gray, while adhering strictly to the full set of superhero definitions and tropes.

I have powered individuals in fancy costumes who try not to kill, fight for what’s right, and are separate from the government. And I’m not writing for a child’s sensibilities.

Does that mean this story is for you? I have no idea. These are stories I very much wanted to write and the type of story I’d love to read. They’re not terribly common, especially not in novels.

Just to be clear, I’m not claiming to be doing something groundbreaking or incredibly original. Other properties have done this before me, and for a long time. I think I do it well, of course, but to determine that you’d have to read the books for yourself.

I am claiming to be doing something that is at least unusual in literature. Few novels (that I’ve found) are telling superhero stories for grownups without deconstructing them in one of the ways described.

If you find counterexamples, feel free to let me know!


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