There’s a lot of talk about who superheroes are for. People upset with the direction supposed superhero stories have taken, focusing more on personal drama and social propaganda than superheroics to the point that it might as well not be a superhero story, while on the other side you have people who actually like that for both good and bad reasons, have debated the issue on social media, in blogs, and in videos. Superheroes are part of the fantastic, and some would rather have the fantastic for reasons other than heroes versus villains. The argument goes…
- Superheroes were made for men
- No, superheroes are for everybody.
- Everything about a proper superhero story plays to what guys like.
- Yeah, well women like it too.
Okay, both of you shut up! You’re both right and you’re both wrong. Once again we’re using statistics wrong and forgetting a whole group that the superhero creators of today have all but forgotten, and that’s only by a small number. I’d say “let’s end this once and for all” but considering the internet will go to global thermonuclear war over pizza toppings we know that’s not happening. Still, I’m going to try to add some common sense to this discussion. Who are superheroes for? Let’s break it down before I have a breakdown.
There a bunch of factors as to what makes up an actual superhero story versus a story where people have superpowers. Matilda is not a superhero movie even though she uses telekinetic powers to beat up bad adults (as opposed to horror movies where kids use powers to torture decent or just jerk adults before moving on to the innocent they turn into playthings). Pippi Longstocking is not a superhero unless you want to take a looooooooooot of liberties with what and who qualifies as a superhero. Giving someone superpowers does not a superhero movie make.
Superheroes fight supervillains. End of story. Throw in costumes, secret identities (though Marvel is tossing those out), and rescue stories and you have the iconography of the genre but in the end it’s superhero versus supervillain, male, female, or otherwise.
The key element here is “fight”. Superhero stories are a battle between good and evil. The hero struggles, overcomes, and either becomes a better person or just saves the day having found a new way to use their powers or winning over those he or she have sworn to protect. Yes, it’s true that this requires action and traditionally action stories are more interesting to men than women, but some women do enjoy a good action story. So when you take that out for romance, teen drama, girl power messaging, or other forms of virtue signaling that make you afraid to make the hero struggle because they’re a particular skin color or body type or gender or various other orientations you are not telling a proper action story. You have made something else, which is fine provided you didn’t take character from an action story and put them in your teen romance coming of age story. You can have a hero that comes of age, but it still has to be a superhero story first.
The women who like superhero stories enjoy action stories for whatever reason they have. Perhaps it’s the subplot of the girl tagging along becoming the hero’s girlfriend, or seeing the rippling muscles toss dudes around, or to see women kicking butt while remaining feminine. (Yes, some women see femininity as a good thing.) So by changing the superheroine’s journey (who does not represent “all women” because “all women” do not have the same opinions on things any more than any other grouping–I refer you back to the great pizza topping war) from an action heroine to a romantic comedy you’ve missed the point of why those women like superhero stories. Quirky high school show where people have superpowers aren’t interesting when the superpowers are ultimately meaningless outside of the occasional thematic connection, if that. You might as well go the Famous Jett Jackson route and have your character playing a hero and getting something out of that script that resonates with what he or his friends are going to. I wish I had discovered that show sooner and really want to see the whole thing.
Statistics are a funny thing. The “boys” and “girls” section is more traditional than actual. While Hollywood has forgotten that tomboys exist to inflate the ranks of butch lesbians, transgender, and non-binary people (apparently there aren’t enough) there are women who like the traditional action superhero story the way it is. Nobody reconditioned My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic when it was learned college aged guys were also enjoying it, nor should they have. They kept doing what they were doing for the target audience, young girls, because the formula was working. Had they altered it they may have lost all their audience while chasing a new group who wouldn’t be as into it, at all or anymore, because they didn’t understand the secret of their own success. In the same vein taking superheroes from their traditional audience in favor of a new group fails to understand that new group, in this paragraph’s case women, like the stories the way they are or aren’t into the genre in the first place. You can make a superhero story that is more female-centric and that will come with some changes; I could and have listed examples before. (I just realize I used Web Woman twice. Oops.) Remember WHY women like superheroes instead of turning it into something more stereotypically girly. Women like football, too. You don’t see that being changed for women. They can see the tight ends (read that as you will) just fine the way the game is played now.
Instead, realize that by targeting men….you’re still doing it wrong! Here’s the reality check that Comicsgate and “SJW” Anti-Comicsgate alike have forgotten.
Superheroes became successful because KIDS like them and you have taken that away!
That’s not to say that superheroes are only for kids or even only for boys. You can have adult-targeted superheroes. I’m not complaining that there are superhero stories, even ones from the comics, with a TV-MA or R rating. How many seven year olds are going to be interested in a scarred and insane hitman? What I’m saying is that kids, and statistically but not exclusively boys, used to be not necessarily the target audience but were at least considered when writing a superhero comic story and the target for superhero cartoons. Something changed in the 1990s as comics and superheroes slowly but surely grew darker, more violent, less colorful, and as we hit the 2000s less heroic even before Dan DiDio creates his Darker DC and Marvel was turning into a “lifestyle brand” instead of an action superhero comic series for all-ages that made them the Big Two.
Again, and I’m sure longtime Spotlight readers are sick of hearing me reference this, my first Batman comic involved someone murdering homeless people. It didn’t need to be graphic. They just died from the poison without blood coming out the everywhere like you’d see today. Characters like Professor Pyg and the child-killing version of Toyman wouldn’t have flown in the Bronze Age but they’re perfect examples of why the modern period is called the Dark Age, and not just that we ran out of Olympic medals to name the ages after. There are so few superhero comics I would willingly give to a kid the same age as when I discovered superheroes and that makes me sad.
If Tumblr was easier to search through I’d find that story of a little boy with a walker who went to hug a guy in a Superman costume he saw at the store. Window washers at hospitals will sometimes dress up as superheroes to surprise kids and actors will put on their superhero costume to visit those same hospitalized kids. A boy being beaten by his grandparents only found joy in his Superman costume to the point that a statue was made of him wearing it for his grave. Look at the whole Bat-Kid event where everyone in the area came out to give a sick child the Batman adventure of his dreams. Kids love superheroes and the best superhero stories make you feel like a kid again, or at least my favorites do! Why give someone fantastic powers if you don’t want that sense of awe and wonder. That’s why the cynical “realism” doesn’t work in a story where people in tights fly around punching each other.
So how many superhero productions right now are made with kids in mind? I’m not talking low-budget comedies like the Nick and Disney sitcoms or that show by the Phineas & Ferb creators, or stuff that pretends to be for kids like Teen Titans Go! where fighting crime isn’t even an afterthought. I’m talking good old action superhero stories? Well, there’s Power Rangers, and…Power Rangers…wait, animation. There are two Disney Junior shows with superheroes, an upcoming show about Batman’s vehicles coming to life to fight crime somehow, and…I shouldn’t be struggling for this.
PBS has a show about elementary school kids learning to be superheroes but the few episodes I’ve seen have no supervillains, and streaming sites carry Cartoon Channel’s Superhero Kindergarten, a Stan Lee creation with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a superhero who accidentally spilled his powers to a bunch of babies and how has to train them. I dropped out (no pun intended) after the kid who flies by farting showed up. And the Lauren Faust version of DC Superhero Girls which just looks to me like a retread of MLP when the original by Shea Fontana was much better, even with the multiversal continuity errors, still had battles with supervillains while also exploring school life with this kind of cast. How do you make Supergirl your Rainbow Dash instead of your Fluttershy and Batgirl your Pinkie Pie? Faust should have at least used her old Super Best Friends Forever shorts as her template…right, going off-topic. Anyway, the original was for girls but still have them fighting bad guys because those are what girls who are into superhero stories want to see.
Now look at what adults have: The Arrowverse, adultified Harley Quinn stories, direct-to-video movies for adult viewers, Batman prequels without Batman, Batman pounding dudes into a fine paste, Superman in might-as-well-be-black, horror movies, the ever-darkening MCU, the born dark DCEU–I mean I have my issues with Shazam! because it’s based on the Geoff Johns destruction of Billy Batson but at least it seems to be more kid-friendly, and League Of Super-Pets is the only for kids superhero movie in theaters despite its own numerous adaptation errors. Everything else is made for adults. The majority should be superhero shows and movies for kids and adult superhero works the minority, but instead the reverse is happening and kids are being denied superheroes.
Nobody is standing up for kids in this debate. When someone asked Eric July if his Isom comic was accessible to kids, not even targeted to kids but something the questioner as a parent could comfortably let his son read, July actually wasn’t sure. He said that the comic wasn’t that graphic (didn’t mention the language) but if memory serves he was rather surprised by the question. I give Comicsgate credit for trying to make superhero stories about superheroes instead of social propaganda but none of them think of kids while their opposition only thinks about them when they can use them to preach their message. “Think of the children” is often used by those who really aren’t, like Fredric Wertham and other elitists.) That’s what I love about the Bronze Age comics. They had things for both adult and kids to enjoy, but a bunch of “mature” fans and creators were getting mad that they were accused of reading a “kids medium” thanks to the destruction caused by Wertham and his ilk to ruin comics by declaring it “for kids” to push their elitist media snobbery on storytelling. Sadly their response wasn’t to say “comics are for any age group and that’s what the @#$# ALL-AGES means!” but to make their comics as kid unfriendly as they could, taking more from underground and subversive comics to prove how “mature” they are. Instead they should have pointed to what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics were actually like (let the kids have the Archie version loosely based on the cartoon) or any of the other mature comics out there that you didn’t see on stands thanks to the Comics Code but have a place in comic stores and bookstores, and let the kid-friendly stuff be kid-friendly.
Then show those snobs how sophisticated the stories or themes actually were. I learned “invulnerable” from superhero comics. Subplots used to involve the hero’s love life but they didn’t replace or overshadow the superhero action. They would touch on current events and make you think rather than being preachy and arrogant (at least the good ones did). Heroes and their supporting cast struggled with normal stuff as well as the superhero stuff and one would impact the other, but the hero stuff came first. For the kids you had the action, for the adults you had the drama, and even some crosspollination betwixt the two because they mixed so well in telling the story. Kids do learn from those stories not out of intention but because that’s how life works. We learn everyday something we didn’t before or something gives us pause to think. That’s life.
I grew up in the Golden Age Of Superheroes. There were superhero stories for kids, especially before the parent groups destroyed Saturday morning entertainment, superhero stories for adults, and superhero stories for both age groups. Not anymore. You’re lucky to find any show that kids and adults can enjoy together, or enjoyed as a kid one way and enjoyed again coming back as an adult. The shows I grew up with from reruns of the 1960s to the pre-extreme obsessed portion of the 1990s had something for everyone. Now in 2022 not as much. I enjoy kids shows, but that speaks more to my mindset of “a good story is where you find it”. The good kids shows aren’t out to please the adults but to tell a good cohesive story through the lens of kid logic, maybe educate them, but still have fun. It’s getting harder to find those but there are still some animation studios who hire good writers who know kids entertainment entertains kids first and how to do so because they respect their audience. There are adult shows who don’t respect their audience or the source material.
So who are superheroes for? Primarily it’s boys who enjoy and most need the superhero mythos, then girls, then adult men and women. Each gets their own without stealing from the other and ruining the source material. When there is no source material you can get away with more, but kids need more superhero stories. They appreciate them more. They love them more. They learn more from them, respect them more, and are actually inspired by them to be better people regardless of race or gender. They are who superheroes are for.