The Definition of a Superhero (Pt. 1)

A few weeks ago, my dad and I had the opportunity to speak to a group of high school students at the University of Washington’s Law Academy. We were asked to speak about civic engagement at the high school level and answer the questions: Why not you? Why not now?

This became an interesting exercise in superhero analysis. I needed to make a case for the existence of real-life superheroes, and I needed to be convincing -  I was, after all, speaking to an auditorium full of future law students.

So, like any good comic book sidekick, I returned to my origin story - to the essay that started it all. (It turns out 17-year-old-me knew a thing or two about superheroes.) After some reflection, here’s what I determined:

Superheroes are not defined by their superpowers, as superpowers come in all shapes, sizes, and volts. Storm’s control over weather is not the same as Wolverine’s claws, or the Hulk’s super strength, speed, and, well, greenness. Yes, these are all “super-abilities”, but superpowers can also come in the more everyday variety: Iron Man’s big brain and self-invented armor or Batman’s intellect, technology, and martial arts skills.

If superheroes are not the sum of their superpowers, then what defines a superhero? A superhero is defined by what they do, and what they do can be distilled down to three core pillars:

* They right what’s wrong.
* They help others first.
* They protect the vulnerable.

Now, like any good law student, let’s use a case study to test these three pillars of superheroism: Superman.

* From General Zod to the KKK, Superman is always righting wrongs committed by super-villains.
* Superman sacrifices his life on the farm with his family - and being with the love of his life, Lois Lane - to go save the world.
* A super-being from Planet Krypton, Superman protects humanity when threatened by super-villains.

At this point in the presentation, the high school students in the audience were convinced that, using this definition, superheroes are real. Lots of people throughout history have fulfilled the three pillars of superheroism. But one question remained: Can anyone be a superhero?

Now that’s an interesting question.

To be continued…

Paige Edmiston