Top 10 Superhero Clichés
VOICE OVER: Dan Paradis
Written by Garrett Alden
It's a bird… it's a plane… it's... something most superheroes have in common! Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we'll be counting down our picks for the top 10 superhero clichés.
For this list, we'll be looking at the tropes, clichés, and other recurring elements that make up superhero stories. These will apply to stories of every medium. A few entries might enter spoiler territory, so tread with caution.
It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s... something most superheroes have in common! Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 superhero clichés.
For this list, we’re looking at the tropes, clichés, and other recurring elements that make up superhero stories. These will apply to stories of every medium. And, because a few entries might enter spoiler territory, proceed with caution.
#10: From Selfish Individual to Selfless Hero
Many a hero-to-be has been a real jerk before donning the spandex or cape. When we first meet eventual heroes, they’re often characterized by their self-centered behavior, only developing into better people over the course of their journey to superheroism. One possible explanation for the trope’s popularity is the fact that depicting someone developing from being selfish to selfless is a simple but effective way to demonstrate a character’s personal growth - everyone likes a tale of redemption! It’s also a handy way of defining what makes a hero - first showing the character as obviously unheroic and then having them discover their own inner bravery and nobility.
#9: A Personal Connection to the Villain
Keep your friends close, and your villains closer. While by no means limited to superhero stories, this cliché does feature in them heavily. Having the villain be someone close to the hero allows the writers to inject some more drama into the story. There’s a sense of betrayal when the villain is finally revealed, as well as the tantalizing possibility that the foe will redeem themselves somehow. Plus, a villain with a personal connection to the hero offers greater stakes and more emotional investment from the hero, as well as the audience.
#8: Intelligence Is a Defining Characteristic
In general, superhero IQs tend to be on the high end of the scale. Capes often work as scientists, engineers, savvy businessmen or, you know, all-around problem-solving super geniuses. Then again, that makes sense as such minds are more likely to find themselves in situations that would result in a superhero origin - be it a science experiment gone awry, or access to next level tech. Even those without an explicitly brilliant mind are typically more clever than your average Joe or Jane. To be fair however, any heroes on the dumber side of things, who rely on guts alone, and who aren’t entirely invulnerable, probably don’t last long enough to become very popular.
#7: Exorbitant Wealth Facilitates Their Mission
There are plenty of superheroes that struggle to make ends meet, but let’s face it: being rich makes being a superhero so much simpler! It’s hard enough trying fight crime and foil your nemesis as is; it becomes a lot more draining when you have to worry about getting fired as a result of missing a shift to save the city. Plus, rich superheroes just have access to that many more resources - whether it’s loyal, skilled helpers, money for supplies and equipment, or a secret property they own that they can use as a headquarters. The 1% have a leg up in most things, and being a superhero is no exception.
#6: Police Resistance
Vigilantism in the real world is a complex issue with many factors and arguments to consider. In a universe where genuine superheroes exist though…you’d think the cops would be a little more welcoming. It’s a pretty common cliché for the police to be critical of superheroes - if not outright hostile to them. Sure, superheroes perform a similar function to the cops, but superheroes are almost always just as well, if not better equipped to deal with criminals, particularly if the criminals have superpowers of their own. No matter how well armed they are, we doubt many policemen are up for facing some of the threats dealt with by superheroes.
#5: A Younger Sidekick
Holy kid companions! Plenty of superheroes fight crime with the help of younger partners, whose competency can range from complementary and genuinely helpful, to an outright liability. The popularity of the kid sidekick in superhero stories is likely due to kids being the primary demographic for superhero comics... at least at one time. By including characters closer to their own age, comic creators hoped to give children someone more relatable than the superheroes themselves, who were good role models, but generally older than the target audience. Kid sidekicks sometimes go on to become superheroes in their own right, or else take up the mantle previously held by their elder partner.
#4: A Secret Identity to Protect
Creating another persona is ubiquitous among superheroes. The idea is to keep their identity a secret from their enemies, society, and, if need be, the police. Their selfish acts of heroism often come with reprisals, either against them, or worse, their loved ones - and so preserving their anonymity is paramount. A superhero name, a special costume, equipment, or a mask are all popular ways of maintaining a secret identity. This convention also helps create plenty of drama, particularly if the hero struggles to keep their activities hidden from their friends and loved ones. This is one cliché that’s here to stay, but there are still some superheroes that could stand to up their disguise game.
#3: Death & the Inevitable Resurrection
They all come back eventually. Superheroes just don’t stay dead. No matter how long ago or how ironclad the certainty of the death was, writers will find a way to bring the characters back - whether it’s explained by introducing another version of the character from a parallel universe, magic, or an elaborately faked death. Killing off a superhero is a good way to create drama, as well as illustrate the impact of the character’s loss on those around them. However, if the superhero remains dead, no more stories can be told about them, and to borrow a phrase from another genre: dead men tell no tales. So... the cycle continues.
#2: Dead Parent(s)
Finding a superhero with two parents is kind of like finding someone who doesn’t like chocolate: they’re out there, but they’re really hard to find. Having dead or absent parents is a pervasive trope among heroes of all kinds, but superheroes especially. Personal tragedy is a powerful way to inspire someone towards a life of heroism, and losing one’s parents is a very popular and direct method of illustrating that. Besides acting as a motivator, being an orphan is also narratively convenient, since parents would be much more likely to discourage dangerous super-heroics, at least in the case of younger heroes. Classic or overdone, orphaned heroes will probably remain the norm.
#1: Abilities via Freak Accident
As William Shakespeare once wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Superhero stories have explored all three, but the third is easily the most prevalent. The genre’s writers love to show what happens when ordinary people have their bodies altered to become extraordinary, and these sudden transformations are frequently the result of an accident, often of the scientific and/or radioactive varieties. Sometimes the villains will also receive powers, allowing the writers to show the contrast between hero and villain in terms of what they choose to do with those powers. Say it with us and Uncle Ben: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”