She Has No Head! - Defining Superheroes

So, I have a column I’ve been working on -- off and on -- for a few months now, but I keep stumbling on the

parameters and I thought I could put it out to all of you, see if together we could come up with better parameters than I have been able to come up with myself.

For the purpose of the column in question - which is a column about superheroes on film – my major stumbling block seems to be between action hero and superhero – where does one draw the line?

I have had some wonderful help from whip smart CSBG commenter Dean Hacker (thanks Dean!) and without him I would not even be this far along. Right now my in-process definition looks a bit like this:

"Superhero is a fluid term. It does not HAVE to come with clear cut superpowers or even a costume, though it should be said that costumes come in many shapes and forms beyond the traditional (i.e. is Ripley’s flight suit a costume? If not, why not?). While a “superhero” does not HAVE to come with the aforementioned superpowers or costume, a superhero does have to come with actions that are “super” in what they attempt – scope, breadth, intensity, etc., and perhaps with a “magical” solution of sorts to solving the huge problem they face."

But in this age of incredible special effects…even “totally human” action stars, those that may not have begun as intended “superheroes” do things that are easily quantifiable as “super” and even “magical.”

So I say again where does one draw the line between simply action star and definably superhero? I would honestly love to hear your thoughts on this issue, and perhaps your thoughts and the ensuing discussion can help me suss out or definitively land on my own definitions on which to build this forthcoming column (and future columns).

In the interests of showing you where I’m coming from specifically, I’ll put forth some ladies (yes, this is a column about “women in comics and related things” so we’re going to be using women in film for our examples) that I’ve been considering as well as some of those firmly in the grey area…hopefully this will help drive the discussion in a productive way, but I’ll try to keep it brief so we can make this more about discussion than “essay.”

So let’s start with an easy one: Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (Iron Man 2, Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier), clearly, a superhero. Though she technically has no superpowers, she wears a costume, has technology that simulates superpowers, and not only actively fights the kind of villains only superheroes would fight, but also is on an actual literal team of superpowered individuals. Incredible gifts that feel magical (even if they are not technically superpowers) repeatedly allow Natasha to defeat her enemies.

Here are some other easy ones:

Zoe Saldana’s Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy): Costume? Check! Superpowers? Check! Fighting a massive evil? Check! On a super-team? Check! Performs epic/intense/magical feats? Check!

Emily Blunt’s Rita (Edge of Tomorrow): Costume? Check! Superpowers? Check! Fighting a massive evil? Check! On a super-team? Sorta, not always superpowered, but definitely a team. Performs epic/intense/magical feats? In the past, yes.

Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (The Dark Knight Rises): Costume? Check! Superpowers? Mmmm. Not technically. Extensive Basically Impossible Skills? Check! Fighting a massive evil? Check! On a super-team? No way. Actually a hero? Debatable, but firmly in the “anti-heroine” camp. Performs epic/intense/magical feats? Check!

Mila Jovavich’s Leelo (Fifth Element): Costume? Check! Superpowers? Check! Fighting a massive evil? Check! On a super-team? Eh, not super, but definitely on a team of sorts, bizarre as it is. Performs epic/intense/magical feats? Check!

Some might find Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay Part 1) to be grey area, but along with feeling decidedly important when you talk about female heroes in fiction, she does pretty well on the questionnaire. Costume? Check! Superpowers? Not really. Like Black Widow and Catwoman she doesn’t technically have superpowers but she does have an almost unbelievable skill set (a “the best she is as what she does” kind of thing). Fighting a massive evil? Check! On a super-team? Though decidedly a loner she does unwittingly end up on “teams” of a sort in every film. Performs epic/intense/magical feats? Hell, yes.

But what about some of those super confusing grey areas. Here are some ladies I am leaning heavily toward quantifying as superheroes, but I feel less sure about:

Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill Volume 1, Kill Bill Volume 2): Costume? Check! Superpowers? Not technically. Extensive basically impossible skills? Check! Fighting a massive evil? Mmmm. I don’t know how massive Bill is, but he’s certainly a dick. On a super-team? No way, loner revenge mission. Actually a hero? Debatable, she was a killer, and is now still a killer but with a noble goal and relatable purpose, so probably fits squarely in the anti-heroine category. Performs epic/ intense/ magical feats? Check. So that feels like a mixed bag to me. Because of her basically superhuman skill, even though it’s not technically supposed to be superpowers, what she does with them, the mission, and the outfit, I feel like she’s got enough to qualify her. Hell, she has not one but TWO code names. That's gotta qualify you for something!

What about one of the most important female heroes in fiction – Sigourney Weaver’s Lt. Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection)? Is she simply an action star or a superhero? She has a costume of sorts in the form of a flight suit and in the first two films this is a surprisingly similar/consistent look. She doesn’t technically have superpowers unless you consider her ability to survive against all odds (and while everyone else around her succumbs) to a “massive evil.” Ripley always ends up alone (part of her superpower?) but she always TRIES to be on a team. Does she perform epic/intense/magical feats? I feel like that’s a yes too – she certainly displays from the outset an almost magical gift for dealing with her nemesis. So all those answers tell me she should be on the list. But Ripley opens up other less traditional women to consider…

What about Michelle Yeoh’s secret agent Wai Lin (Tomorrow Never Dies)? Costume? I think I’ve got to say no. Superpowers? Technically no, but again she gets that “unbelievable inhuman skill set” that we’re seeing so often. I don’t know that she’d qualify as fighting a “massive evil” either. She’s sort of on a superhero team in the form of teaming up with Bond who has an “unbelievable inhuman skill set” of his own. Performs epic/intense/magical feats? I’d probably give this a yes. Looking at all of this I lean toward saying Wai Lin is NOT a superhero, but if you threw she and Bond in Batman and Catwoman costumes would we feel differently? They have all the fancy tech and the impossible “I’m still human but not really” skills. Does a costume really matter that much? Bond’s villains are often over the top and even cartoonish in similar ways to comic book villains…see…I’m talking myself into it!

But if Wai Lin is a superhero then aren’t pretty much all action stars like Angelina Jolie’s also secret agent Salt (Salt) and Geena Davis’s Charlie (The Long Kiss Goodnight)? What about Drew Barrymoore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz’s Dylan, Alex, and Natalie from Charlie’s Angels? What about Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor (Terminator, Terminator 2) or Angela Bassett’s Mace (Strange Days). How about Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and Charlize Theron’s Ravenna from Snow White & The Huntsman? Hell, what about Gina Carano’s Mallory from Haywire and Demi Moore’s Jordan from G.I. Jane?

What about a super unconventional heroine like Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Let’s do the math on Lisbeth. Costume? Hmmm. She definitely has a defined specific style, but the outfit definitely changes, I’ll say no. Superpowers? Again, the impossible skills we commonly see, but no technical superpowers (except being a badass. Is that a superpower?). Fighting a massive evil? Evil, definitely, but it’s not so world-in-peril-massive. On a super-team? No. Performs epic/intense/magical feats? I’d go with a yes here, she really is a total badass. She FEELS heroic. She FEELS epic. She FEELS magical, like she can do anything.

And maybe that’s the point I (we) should be focusing on more than all others? As Dean pointed out in our discussions, it’s the solution to the problem that’s the biggest determining factor. He cited Blake Snyder’s famous Save The Cat and said (I’m paraphrasing) that more than trying to define superhero, it’s better to define the genre and defining the genre to him (and Snyder) would be a “magical solution to a modern (post 1920’s) problem.”

So is that the best possible way to define these roles? The difference between action heroine and superheroine defined by action movie vs. superhero movie? Is it primarily a genre question? There would still be grey areas even if we can define it that way I’d think…or maybe I’m on a fool’s errand entirely and action movie and superhero movie have become so synonymous that it’s pointless to try to extricate one from the other? Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Action, frequently blending together into one muddled mess?

What do YOU think? Help me figure it out.

Kelly Thompson is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is the author of the superhero novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING recently optioned to become a film, and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. She is also writing the forthcoming JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS comic from IDW. You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter may be the easiest: @79semifinalist


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