Superheroes have been all the rage in recent years, probably because the two biggest names in comics (Marvel and DC) are duking it out on the big screens.
If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ve probably spotted a few recurring elements in the movies, series, and comic books that are constantly being released.
Some of these tropes can be tiring to see over and over again, especially when they’re not executed well. But when writers put a fresh spin on them, these tropes combine the things you love most about the genre with exciting new twists.
Common Superhero Tropes
Superheroes have long been part of popular culture. Currently, there are thousands of superhero stories being told. Marvel and DC alone have at least 7,000 and 10,000 in-universe characters, respectively. And that doesn’t include one-off and ancillary characters.
With so many stories, it’s understandable that some of them borrow effective elements from one another.
Below are some of the most common superhero tropes you can read and watch in comics and on the big screens.
1. Tragic Backstories
Bruce Wayne became Batman because his parents were killed by a thug. Peter Parker’s career as Spiderman was solidified by Uncle Ben’s death. James “Logan” Howlett turned into Wolverine when he was subjected to experimentation. There are thousands of these tragic backstories in superhero fiction.
While they offer a good way to quickly heighten the drama, sometimes the repetitiveness comes off as a cheap method to create sadness. Because when everyone has a sad backstory, then no one has a sad backstory. It’s simply a backstory—an often a duplicated one at that.
Don’t get me wrong. Superhumans motivated by negative emotions are some of the most compelling characters, whether they’re heroes or villains. But when their origin stories are all tragic, they begin to lose their appeal.
2. Collateral Damage
When beings with godlike superpowers fight, you can expect a certain level of destruction to happen around them. The superhero genre delivers that really well. Damage to property and loss of life can approach catastrophic levels.
What’s challenging to accept is how the stories deal with the consequences. Miraculously, there’s minimal loss of life, and it looks like everyone has insurance on their properties. People seem to just go on with life.
It’s why I consider the Incredibles to be one of the best superhero movies out there. There’s a sense of rationality to how superheroes affect normal people’s lives. The supers get sanctioned for their activities and are eventually outlawed because they inflict more damage than they prevent.
To be fair, there are significant stories that subvert this trope, with one of the better examples being the Sokovia Accords in the MCU, a set of legal documents designed to regulate the activities of superhumans.
A close comic book counterpart is the Keene Act in Watchmen, which prohibits non-government affiliated superhero actions.
3. Filthy Rich Supes
There are a lot of superheroes and supervillains who are filthy rich for various reasons, but most are the CEOs of large companies.
The Green Arrow is secretly the playboy owner of Queen Industries. Zorro is the sole heir of the richest landowner in California. And Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis, is the power-mad CEO of LexCorp.
While it justifies the mountains of cash that some superhumans spend on fueling their exploits, it makes you wonder how sustainable it is.
It’s not exactly the most economically sound thing to do, is it? With so many expensive knick-knacks being destroyed from every battle, it looks like supes are spending more than they’re earning.
Crimefighting teams would often have at least one rich superhero to explain where they all got their cool equipment. For example, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Tony Stark’s the major source of funding for the Avengers.
4. Superhero Landing
Deadpool’s right on this one. Whenever a superhero lands on any surface, it’s like they’re compelled to always land in the same pose—on one knee, with one fist on the ground and the other splayed backward (or at least a very similar pose).
While the superhero landing is a cool visual element, it’s much too repetitive. I can understand that superhero fiction works with its own internal logic, but it’s hard to believe that almost every superhuman strikes the same pose after falling from great heights.
5. Dead… Until They’re Not
Possibly the most frustrating thing about reading comic books is the frequent use of retroactive continuity (when a previously established narrative is changed), particularly when it comes to death.
Picture this: after a battle where all sides go all out, someone dies (often by sacrificing themselves). Their friends, families, and close acquaintances conduct a moving farewell ceremony. They all process the loss however they can.
But their dead friend isn’t actually dead. Maybe they were rescued at the last moment or captured by the other side. Perhaps they were blown to atoms but reformed themselves through sheer will. Who knows?
I do like the idea of reading or watching more about my favorite characters but when they’re miraculously revived, it feels like their sacrifices aren’t honored well in the story. And when they don’t die just for the sake of milking the story, it removes the concept of consequences in the narrative.
In The Death of Superman, both Superman and Doomsday drop dead after a brutal slugfest, but it turns out that living under the sun for so many years has given Superman an extreme healing factor. Instead of dying, he was only put under a deep coma that resembled death.
6. The Evil Twin
Not a twin in its literal sense, but a character who is so similar to the hero—only, they’re evil. They have the same superpowers and/or origins and dress almost identically.
Probably one of the cheekiest examples of this trope is the Reverse-Flash, an archnemesis of the Flash. They’re both speedsters, and have the same color motif, only reversed. Here’s how they look:
Other examples are Iron Man and the Iron Monger, Green Lantern and Sinestro, and AntMan and the Yellowjacket.
Two superhumans with similar skills/powers can get tiring really quickly because there’s no variety to their fights. After a while, they sort of blend into one another.
Hero and villain characters who are largely different from each other make for a more dynamic story. It’s why Batman and the Joker are two of the best hero-villain duos in superhero fiction.
7. Clueless Close Ones
In superhero fiction, there’s always that one friend or family member who knows the hero’s secret identity. Then there are the ones who don’t.
Superheroes are busy people because they juggle two lives that often clash. They arrive late on jobs and miss appointments, or they regularly get injured in fights.
It’s a bit hard to believe that family and friends don’t notice the odd behaviors of a character as they try to keep their vigilante activities secret.
Pushed to the extreme, this trope can make other characters look dumb. They never question a character’s (often ridiculous) excuses, don’t notice their odd comings and goings, and never find anything odd about them. It’s as if they can’t put two and two together.
Take Louis Lane as an example. Despite being a tenacious investigative reporter, it takes her a long, long time to discover her coworker’s identity as Superman.
A good example of subverting this trope happens in the first Iron Man movie. At the end of the movie, he publicly confirms that he is the titular superhero. The next movies then focus on the effects of his public admission.
8. Villain’s Motivations
One of the most common motivations for a supervillain is to rule or destroy the world, and they’ll do almost anything to succeed.
It’s an ambitious goal, and one that’s truly in line with what a supervillain would want. What makes it problematic is that sometimes there’s no specific reason why they’d want to do it. It seems like they’re only operating on a “bigger is better” mentality.
Things quickly fall apart when these objectives aren’t supported by sufficient, personal reasons as to why that’s their aim. It feels like it’s their goal only because it’s possibly the evilest goal there is.
It would be nice to see supervillains with smaller-scale ambitions. Writers can pack in more details to enrich the story without losing them in the sheer size of the scheme.
Making Superhero Stories Super Again
Superhero fiction is a wonderful genre to escape into when you’re feeling the stress of the world, but these stories often fall into repetitive patterns that make people think, “been there, done that.”
While tropes aren’t bad on their own, they can make stories a bit too familiar. When readers can anticipate what happens next, the narrative loses its tension and entertainment value.
For example, If you know that a superhero will live after a brutal fight, then the importance of the moment is lost. Their sacrifice is diminished by the lack of consequence.
That’s why it’s refreshing to see creatives who take these tired tropes and make them fresh again. A simple twist can surprise readers and viewers by going against their expectations, which makes them pay close attention to the story again.
Writers can also deconstruct the tropes altogether and turn them into something new. Instead of creating a superhero from tragedy, why not give them a different kind of origin?
Give them a loving family that actively supports them in their adventures. It would be interesting to see how their family dynamic is either disrupted or strengthened by such a situation.
What superhero trope do you love or hate? Share it in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
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- 14 of the Most Popular Romance Tropes with Examples
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!