What Makes a Superhero a Superhero?

My dad recently tried to convince me that Luke Skywalker is a superhero. Both my mom and I vehemently denied it.

He’s a hero.

He’s a protagonist.

But he’s not a superhero.

Why, though? What makes the notion of Luke Skywalker being a superhero seem so absurd?

Could it be the fact that he doesn’t have some kind of superpower? Well, technically, he does have a type of superpower. His sensitivity to the Force provides him with a great deal of supernatural abilities. By a definition of superheroes that requires superpowers, Luke Skywalker would be a superhero, and someone like Batman or Black Widow would not; even though stories about the latter two are generally categorized under the “superhero” genre.

Is it because he’s not originally a comic book character? That sort of definition would exclude characters such as The Incredibles, or Terry McGinnis’ Batman from Batman Beyond, as they originated in other mediums. It could also classify other characters, such as Archie and Tintin, as superheroes solely because of the medium in which they originated. It is important to distinguish between the medium of comics, and the genre of superheroes. While superheroes have been a mainstay of comics for decades, there are many comics of different genres, and many superheroes in different mediums.

What makes a character a superhero, then? Why does it seem right to say that Wonder Woman is a superhero, but not as correct to say that The Doctor from Doctor Who is a superhero? Aside from the capes and cowls, and primary motivations of justice, revenge, and compassion, I think that superheroes need to have some aspect of duality to their character.

Superman is also ordinary reporter Clark Kent some of the time. Batman–while not necessarily ordinary–has a life outside of his caped crime fighting. Spiderman is a high school student.

While we see a transformation in Luke Skywalker’s character, we don’t see him having a separate life outside of being a Rebel and a Jedi. The Doctor, although they have taken many different forms, is always The Doctor.

Of course, this is just one possible definition of superheroes. The genre is so broad and diverse that it is hard to narrow down to specific characteristics. However, I think this definition explains quite a bit about our fascination with superheroes.

One of the reasons we love superheroes so much is that they are like us, but they are also very different. Like gods of ancient mythology, they are characters with human characteristics, as well as superhuman abilities. We shape these emblems of power into our own image in order to say what we would do, should do, or should not do with the same type of power. I believe superheroes give us a feeling of rightness–of control over our surroundings–so we continue to turn to them for comfort.