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Writing

Plot Elements and Examples of Superhero Fiction

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Superhuman strength, invisibility, flight, the ability to shoot webs—these are just a few of the fantastical elements common in superhero fiction, a subgenre of speculative fiction containing strong elements of fantasy and science fiction.

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What Is Superhero Fiction?

Superhero fiction is a style of fiction that focuses on protagonists with superhuman capabilities. Typically the superhero main character exists in a version of our present day world, only with carefully chosen fantastical alterations. This produces a natural overlap with the genre known as urban fantasy, which combines fantastic worldbuilding with grounded gritty elements of today’s world.

A superhero story can take on many forms, including superhero novels, superhero movies, and the hallmark of the superhero genre, the comic book. Many literary historians consider the Great Depression and World War II era to be the golden age of superhero comics. Audiences enjoyed their escapist plots, their strong moral ethos, and the books’ affordable cost. The comic book boom continued into the Cold War era, which also spawned comic books’ close cousins, graphic novels. Superhero filmmaking is now enjoying its own golden age, as the first two decades of the twenty-first century have been dominated by Hollywood blockbusters adapted from classic twentieth century comic books.

6 Common Plot Elements of Superhero Fiction

No two pieces of superhero fiction are quite the same, but many common elements connect the touchstones of the genre. Here are a few iconic superhero tropes:

  1. An urban metropolis setting based on New York City. New York was America’s capital of culture and media during the Great Depression and World War II, just as comic books were surging to life. As such, many superhero comics were set in New York or in very close approximations such as Gotham City.
  2. A superpower, often enabled by a specialized item. Superheroes can do things that ordinary humans cannot. Often these superpowers are made possible by fantastical items, such as Superman’s cape or Iron Man’s mechanized suit of armor. Not all superpowered items are clothing-related, but capes are a common element of superhero fiction.
  3. A dramatic origin story. Writers of superhero fiction take pains to explain how their protagonists attained their powers and why they’ve chosen their path in life. Some superhero origin stories are tragic, like that of Bruce Wayne losing his parents before becoming Batman. Others are more circumstantial, like the story of Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and becoming Spider-Man.
  4. A secret identity. Many superheroes lead dual lives in the everyday world, surrounded by people who never suspect their vigilante alter ego. Whether it’s Superman moonlighting as newspaper reporter Clark Kent, or Batman hiding behind the character of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a superhero’s “normal” persona includes a carefully concocted mix of similarities and differences from their heroic alter ego.
  5. A supervillain adversary. Superheroes have fantastical powers. So do their adversaries, who commonly categorized as supervillains. In some cases, supervillains are just as famous as the superheroes they fight. The Joker, Loki, and Magneto serve as examples. Some of the best superhero books feature adversaries that are in fact anti-heroes—misfits with a renegade ethos like Catwoman who thrive on misanthropic behavior. Just like the heroes, most of these bad guys also employ a secret identity. For instance, most of the time, Spider-Man’s nemesis the Green Goblin is industrialist Norman Osborn.
  6. An iconic sidekick. A hero can rarely save humanity without some help. That’s why Batman has Robin and Captain America has Bucky Barnes.
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The History of Superhero Fiction

The most famous superhero fiction primarily originates from two rival comic book publishers: Marvel Comics and DC Comics. DC Comics, the older of the two, was founded in 1934 and took its initials from the popular Detective Comics series. Marvel Comics was founded in 1939 under the name Timely Publications. That same year it released its first superhero book, titled Marvel Comics #1.

Known for its association with writers like Alan Moore and Bob Kane, DC Comics has produced numerous iconic villains and superhero franchises, including:

  • Superman
  • Man of Steel
  • Batman
  • Wonder Woman
  • Green Lantern
  • Suicide Squad
  • Aquaman
  • The Flash
  • Watchmen
  • Lex Luthor
  • The Joker
  • The Penguin
  • Brainiac
  • Sinestro

Much like DC, Marvel has created a staggering number of superhero and supervillain icons:

  • Spider-Man
  • Iron Man
  • Thor
  • Captain America
  • Captain Marvel
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Wolverine
  • Deadpool
  • Dr. Strange
  • Daredevil
  • Blade
  • Punisher
  • Fantastic Four
  • Avengers
  • X-Men
  • Guardians of the Galaxy

In its original incarnation, superhero fiction was targeted at young adult audiences, especially those in high school. Those audiences remain engaged in the genre, but today’s superhero fiction is just as frequently consumed by adults.

Today Marvel Comics is a subsidiary of Walt Disney and DC Comics is part of WarnerMedia. Thanks to these conglomerates’ massive filmmaking resources, nearly every prominent DC and Marvel comic has been made into a superhero film at least once, if not many times. A great number of these films have gone on to become record-shattering blockbusters. Superhero franchises have also spawned video games, action figures, posters, and clothing lines.

Marvel and DC do not hold a monopoly on superhero fiction. Other notable works in the genre include Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, The Incredible Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, the Cosmere universe of Brandon Sanderson, and The Reckoners, also by Sanderson.

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