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Superheroes are characters of great physical or superhuman power dedicated to protecting the general public and ridding the world of the criminal element.
Some characters need not have actual superhuman powers to be deemed superheroes, although sometimes terms such as costumed crimefighters are used to refer to those without such powers who have many other common traits of superheroes.
- Extraordinary powers and abilities, relevant skills, and/or advanced equipment. Although superhero powers vary widely, superhuman strength, the ability to fly, enhanced senses, and the projection of energy bolts are all common. Some superheroes, such as Batman and the Question possess no superhuman powers but have mastered skills such as martial arts and forensic sciences. Others have special weapons or technology, such as Iron Man's powered armor suits and Green Lantern’s power ring. Many characters supplement their natural powers with a special weapon or device (e.g., Wonder Woman's lasso, Captain America's shield, Spider-Man's webbing, Wolverine's adamantium, Daredevil's club, Thor's hammer, Gambit's staff, etc.)
- A strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one’s own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward. Such a code often includes a refusal or strong reluctance to kill or wield weapons.
- A motivation, such as a sense of responsibility (e.g. Spider-Man), a formal calling (e.g., Wonder Woman), a personal vendetta against criminals (e.g. Batman), or a strong belief in justice and humanitarian service (e.g. Superman).
- A secret identity that protects the superhero’s friends and family from becoming targets of his or her enemies (exceptions such as the Fantastic Four notwithstanding), although many superheroes have a confidant (usually a friend or relative who has been sworn to secrecy). Most superheroes use a descriptive or metaphoric code name for their public deeds.
- A distinctive costume, often used to conceal the secret identity (see Common costume features).
- An underlying motif or theme that affects the hero's name, costume, personal effects, and other aspects of his or her character (e.g., Batman resembles a large bat, calls his specialized automobile, which also looks bat-like, the "Batmobile" and uses several devices given a "bat" prefix).
- A supporting cast of recurring characters, including the hero's friends, co-workers and/or love interests, who may or may not know of the superhero's secret identity. Often the hero's personal relationships are complicated by this dual life, a common theme in Spider-Man and Batman stories in particular.
- A number of enemies that he/she fights repeatedly, including an archenemy who is more troubling than the others. Often a nemesis is a superhero's doppelganger or foil (e.g., Sabretooth embraces his savage instincts while Wolverine tries to control his).
- Independent wealth (e.g., Batman or the X-Men's benefactor Professor X) or an occupation that allows for minimal supervision (e.g., Superman's civilian job as a reporter).
- A headquarters or base of operations, usually kept hidden from the general public (e.g., Superman's Fortress of Solitude, Batman's Batcave).
- An "origin story" that explains the circumstances by which the character acquired his or her abilities as well as his or her motivation for becoming a superhero. Many origin stories involve tragic elements and/or freak accidents that result in the development of the hero's abilities.
Many superheroes work independently. However, there are also many superhero teams. Some, such as the Fantastic Four and X-Men, have common origins and usually operate as a group. Others, such as DC Comics’s Justice League and Marvel’s Avengers, are "all-star" groups consisting of heroes with separate origins who also operate individually. The shared setting or "universes" of Marvel, DC and other publishers also allow for regular superhero team-ups.
Some superheroes, especially those introduced in the 1940s, work with a young sidekick (e.g., Batman and Robin, Captain America and Bucky). This has become less common since more sophisticated writing and older audiences have made such obvious child endangerment seem implausible and lessened the need for characters who specifically appeal to child readers. Sidekicks are seen as a separate classification of superheroes.
Superheroes most often appear in comic books, and superhero stories are the dominant form of American comic books, to the point that the terms "superhero" and "comic book character" have been used synonymously in North America. With the rise in relative popularity of non-superhero comics, as well as the popularity of Japanese comics (manga), this trend is slowly declining Template:Fact. Superheroes have also been featured in radio serials, prose novels, TV series, movies, and other media. Most of the superheroes who appear in other media are adapted from comics, but there are exceptions.
Marvel Characters, Inc. and DC Comics share ownership of the United States trademark for the phrases "Super Hero" and "Super Heroes" and these two companies own a majority of the world’s most famous and influential superheroes. Of the "Significant Seven" chosen by The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (1989), Marvel owns Spider-Man and Captain America and DC owns Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Although, like many non-Marvel characters popular during the 1940s, the latter two were acquired by DC from defunct publishers.Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (Taylor Publishing: Dallas, Texas, 1989), pp. 178-181, reprinted at website Religious Affiliation of Comics Book Characters: "The Significant Seven: History's Most Influential Super-heroes" However, there have been significant heroes owned by others, especially since the 1990s when Image Comics and other companies that allowed creators to maintain trademark and editorial control over their characters developed.
Although superhero fiction is considered a form of fantasy/adventure, it crosses into many genres. Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Punisher), others horror fiction (Spawn, Spectre) and others more standard science fiction (Green Lantern, X-Men). Many of the earliest superheroes, such as The Sandman and The Clock, were rooted in the pulp fiction of their predecessors.
Within their own fictional universes, public perception of superheroes varies greatly. Some, like Superman and the Fantastic Four, are adored and seen as important civic leaders. Others, like Batman and Spider-Man, meet with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and the characters of Watchmen, defend a populace that misunderstands and despises them.
Common costume features
A superhero's costume helps make him or her recognizable to the general public. Costumes are often colorful to enhance the character's visual appeal and frequently incorporate the superhero's name and theme. For example, Daredevil (Marvel Comics) resembles a red devil, Captain America's costume echoes the American flag, Batman resembles a large bat, and Spider-Man's costume features a web pattern. The convention of superheroes wearing masks and skintight unitards originated with Lee Falk's comic strip crimefighter The Phantom. Several superheroes such as the Phantom, Superman, Batman and Robin wear breeches over this unitard. This is often satirized as the idea that superheroes wear their underpants on the outside.
Many features of superhero costumes recur frequently, including the following:
- Superheroes who maintain a secret identity often wear a mask, ranging from the domino masks of Green Lantern and Ms. Marvel to the full-face masks of Spider-Man and Black Panther. Most common are masks covering the upper face, leaving the mouth and jaw exposed. This allows for both a believable disguise and recognizable facial expressions. A notable exception is Clark Kent, who wears nothing on his face while fighting crime as Superman, but uses large glasses in his civilian life.
- A symbol, such as a stylized letter or visual icon, usually on the chest. Examples include the uppercase "S" of Superman, the bat emblem of Batman, and the spider emblem of Spider-Man. Often, they also wear a common symbol referring to their group or league, such as the "4" on the Fantastic Four's suits, or the "X" on the X-Men's costumes.
- Form-fitting clothing, often referred to as tights or Spandex, although the exact material is usually unidentified. Such material displays a character’s athletic build and heroic sex appeal and allows a simple design for illustrators to reproduce.
- While a vast majority of superheroes do not wear capes, the garment is still closely associated with them, likely due to the fact that two of the most widely-recognized, Batman and Superman, wear capes. In fact, police officers in Batman’s home of Gotham City have used the word "cape" as a shorthand for all superheroes and costumed crimefighters. Other shorthands for superheroes are used in the computer game City of Heroes, when a player's hero fights with some of the game's supervillain groups such as the Hellions, Skulls, and Clockwork, the villains will often say, "The capes are trying to stop us," "I smell spandex" (referring to the spandex costumes some heroes wear), or "Attack the mask" (an allusion to the masks used by some superheroes). The comic book series Watchmen and the animated movie The Incredibles humorously commented on the potentially-lethal impracticality of capes. In Marvel Comics the term "cape-killer" has been used to describe anti-superhuman conventional forces.
- While most superhero costumes merely hide the hero’s identity and present a recognizable image, parts of some costumes have functional uses. Batman's utility belt and Spawn’s "necroplasmic armor" have both been of great assistance to the heroes. Iron Man's armor, in particular, protects him and provides technological advantages.
- When thematically appropriate, some superheroes dress like people from various professions or subcultures. Zatanna, who possesses wizard-like powers, dresses like a magician, and Ghost Rider, who rides a superpowered motorcycle, dresses in the leather garb of a biker.
- Several heroes of the 1990s, including Cable and many Image Comics characters, rejected the traditional superhero outfit for costumes that appeared more practical and militaristic. Shoulder pads, kevlar-like vests, metal-plated armor, knee and elbow pads, heavy-duty belts, and ammunition pouches were common features. Other characters, such as The Punisher or The Question, opt for a "civilian" costume (mostly a trench coat).
Many superheroes (and supervillains) have headquarters or a base of operations. These locations are often equipped with state-of-the-art, highly-advanced or alien technologies, and they are usually disguised and/or in secret locations to as to avoid being detected by enemies, or by the general public. Some bases, such as the Baxter Building, are known of by the public (even though their precise location may remain secret). Many heroes and villains who do not have a permanent headquarters are said to have a mobile base of operations.
To the heroes and villains who have a secret base, the base can serve a variety of functions.
- a safehouse, where the heroes can conceal themselves from their enemies.
- a laboratory, for experiments and scientific study.
- a research library, covering a variety of topics from science, to history, to criminal profiling.
- an armory, for weapons design, construction and storage.
- a garage/hangar/dock.
- a communications center.
- a weapons platform, for defense of the facility (these are more common to supervillains).
- a trophy room, where mementos of significant battles are displayed.
- a common area, for social activity (typically for larger teams, such as the Justice League or the Avengers).