I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Flawed is interesting; perfect is boring—that’s the general rule when it comes to the most beloved superheroes. Some heroes have substance abuse issues. Some have suffered from child abuse, rape, seen their families killed, dealt with racism, homophobia, you name it. Superheroes are a diverse bunch in that they can have demons and still be admired by their fans. Comic book, TV, and film writers make sure to work in these humanizing themes to create a well-rounded and relatable character.
But what about the heroes whose only flaw is their lack of flaws? Why are they so much harder to root for? The ease of their powers and how they settle into them while maintaining a strong moral center can come across as smug, one-dimensional, and old-fashioned. Below I explore these characters and why they have to work so hard to be relatable in worlds resembling modern mythologies.
The Argument Against "Good Guy" Heroes
If comic books and superhero movies are meant to be escapism, why do we want heroes who share our problems? It can make us feel powerful if we see others like us achieving great things. It’s more interesting to see a character struggle with their own personal issues before they succeed in these seemingly impossible situations. They become our inspiration and make us feel capable of doing great things with the right tools and mindset.
The world has changed too. Many argue that a “super” man can’t work in a post-9/11 society (as if that was the first era of evil to occur within the superhero’s lifespan). The media no longer hides behind cookie-cutter good guys. Characters are now shown warts and all, creating a more realistic fantasy rather than a black and white one intent on clearly separating the good guys from the villains. Instead, storytellers throw in complex ideologies, crises of faith, and other intricate character and plot developments in order to create interesting stories, and it works. They draw from real-life events in order to show how a superhero would function in these world milestones that we have learned about and lived through, setting up the same moral and physical barriers that we endure as we live through them in real life. It works better with a humanly flawed hero than a self-righteous, morally unbreakable one.
A character with a strong moral compass can also be limiting story-wise. There’s always the occasional good-guy-turns-evil storyline, but they always revert back to their wholesome selves. You can calculate their every move before they make it, and you start to wonder why their villains have such a hard time taking them out. There are many rules that they just won’t break.
Smugness is another huge issue with these characters. They tend to be white men with old-fashioned morals. They’re great, and they know it. Audiences today don’t like this. They can be uptight and boring. They feign humility while sticking their chin in the air, and patting themselves on the back for a job well done. All of these points are valid, but I think there’s more to these “good guy” heroes than we give them credit for.
The Argument for Their Greatness
When you have a team full of damaged goods, who leads? You’re going to want the one whose emotions do not get the better of them. These heroes are mentally strong, as well as physically. They can be devastated when they fail, and they have their slip-ups, but they don’t dwell on them. They are the base of their supporting cast, and that responsibility keeps them going in the worst circumstances. What is more inspiring than that?
There is an inspiring scene in the graphic novel, Batman: Hush when Batman uses Lois Lane as bait in order to break Superman out of an evil possession. The point Batman makes is that Superman is fueled by his righteousness, and it makes him powerful in ways that Batman can never be. Being good gives you the upper hand, especially in stories where the good guy always comes out on top.
They may be less relatable, but these good guy superheroes are meant to be more aspirational. Kids throw on a Superman cape or Captain America shield to create a better version of themselves than what they are. These heroes have immense power that they don’t exploit. They are the butt of many jokes without becoming a joke. Who couldn’t learn to be a better person from some of these heroes? You may not be able to obtain their superhuman level of morality, but you continue to strive to be better by watching them in their unwavering standards.
The best speeches come from these characters. These are the third act monologues that gather the troops or pump themselves up for the big battle ahead. They are able to lead with words over actions and keep focus on doing the right thing within the confines of the good side of the coin. You can tell that they mean it when they say what they believe, bringing clarity to their goals and missions and reminding their fans of what these stories are about.
Despite their reputations, good guy heroes do make their own rules. Some kill their enemies on a regular basis. All of them practice some form of vigilantism. We are safe knowing that they will do what is in the best interest of those they are trying to save, but we have to trust that their morality is strong enough to keep up that promise. They are like decorated soldiers who sometimes make tough choices for the greater good.
Female heroes have the advantage of being able to be interesting yet caring. Wonder Woman is a very popular character and known for her fierce yet maternal ways. She kills her enemies and is as lethal as Superman, but it is her strong moral center that is her greatest asset. Why is she admired when Superman tends to be boring? Her femininity gives her the advantage of being good without being smug and dull.
When done right, a superhero can be a do-gooder and an interesting and inspiring being. It takes all kinds to save the world, including the ones who sometimes have to take a little jeering from their less-than-perfect peers and unrelenting abuse from their greatest foes. They may be ultra super-powered, but they can be trusted not to exploit that, and that makes their stories worth telling so that we can be more like them. We may all have our demons, handicaps, and setbacks, but if we work around them, we can strive for extra-super superhero status.