14 Motives for Becoming a Superhero
Why do they choose to do it in the first place? Why do they keep at it, week after week and year after year? (Always bearing in mind that some would-be heroes don't keep at it -- they die, or retire to get married, or lose their powers, or just fade away into comic book limbo for some reason without any clear follow-up being provided to the readers for the next several years!)
I'm not just talking about why our beloved superheroes often pull on masks and invent new names for themselves. The desire to have a "secret identity" and thus maintain some sort of "private life" is understandable, but I see the problem of choosing whether to have one as a secondary decision. The primary decision is whether to jump into the superhero lifestyle in the first place! If you decide you aren't going to do that, then the problems associated with a "secret identity" (or the lack of one) will remain purely academic points, right?
I asked myself those questions, and I pondered many superhero origin stories, and I came up with the following list of basic Motives. Of course, some superheroes change a great deal as the years roll past (and as one writer replaces another and imposes his own tastes upon the hapless hero he's writing about), so that a hero's Motive today may not be the Motive he had when he started. And -- human beings (and sentients of other species) being the complicated creatures that they are -- sometimes there may be several motives all tangled up inside a hero's head, whether or not he is consciously aware of each and every one!
14 Motives for Becoming a Superhero
01. Seeking Revenge/Justice
02. Family Tradition
07. Patriotic Duty
08. Action Junkie
10. One Mission
11. The Power Goes With the Job
13. Public Service
14. Phony Heroism
01. Seeking Revenge/Justice
"It's payback time, you scum! Your kind has caused me a great deal of grief, over the years!"
"Actually, buster, it doesn't matter whether I personally am angry at you; it just matters that you be stopped and pay society's penalties for your offenses against civilized law and order!"
I combined those two concepts into one tangled Motive because it can be very hard to judge where one ends and the other begins in the mind of a hero who's clearly motivated by memories of personal tragedy and a desire to prevent such things from happening again.
Example: Batman has often been presented as a classic case of one or the other of those variations. Some writers have stated or hinted that Bruce Wayne was so scarred by the utterly unfair deaths of his parents that he grew up to be profoundly dedicated to the abstract concept of Justice; doing all he can to not let other civilians get butchered as his parents were, and if some fool actually does commit murder in Gotham and thinks he can get away with it, Batman is bound and determined to track the offender down and teach him that he can't!
On the other hand! Some writers have stated or hinted that Bruce Wayne, even after all these years since the original trauma, constantly seeks Revenge on the killer of his parents, and every time he finds a "reasonable excuse" to beat up another violent criminal he's basically treating the guy as a convenient proxy for Joe Chill. From that perspective, the fact that catching these guys logically prevents the violent crimes they otherwise would have committed in the near future -- and the fact that the criminal justice system will "punish" them for whatever crimes they had previously committed against society before Batman got his hands on them -- are only "fortunate fringe benefits" and not serious motivating factors! The significant point is that he does what he does because, so many years after he was orphaned, he is still seeking to satisfy a traumatized little boy's endless craving for Revenge. Everything else is just window dressing!
(And, of course, other writers have toyed with other rationales for what "normally" goes on inside Batman's head as he continues his one-man crusade against violent crime in Gotham City!)
02. Family Tradition
"Daddy was a superhero and I intend to continue the tradition! That's all that needs to be said!"
In real life, there are people who sign up with the local police force, or the army, or the navy, or some other police or military organization, because that's what Dad did . .. and quite possibly his father before him, and his father before him! By the time the kid is a legal adult and old enough to enlist, he's been indoctrinated to the point where it would feel very peculiar to him if he didn't try to follow in Dad's footsteps! Sometimes it works that way with superheroes as well.
In the 1980s, Roy Thomas's "Infinity Inc." included several young characters who were basically just following in the footsteps of a parent or other influential role model. Using "GA" as an abbreviation for Golden Age:
Huntress was the GA Batman's daughter, Power Girl was the GA Superman's much younger cousin, the new Hourman was the GA Hourman's son, Fury was the GA Wonder Woman's daughter, Silver Scarab was the GA Hawkman's and GA Hawkgirl's son, Jade and Obsidian were the GA Green Lantern's long-lost twin children whom he'd never realized he had, Atom Smasher was the GA Atom's godson . . . you get the idea. (Some of those family trees were soon torn to shreds by the retcons that followed Crisis on Infinite Earths, of course, although recently Infinite Crisis retconned the retcon of Power Girl's origins and put her right back where she was in the late 70s and early 80s!)
"I've got special abilities and I aim to use them to make money! But to show what a great guy I am, I'll let honest citizens bid for my services instead of just using my strength to rob armored cars!"
Various super-powered individuals have worked as bounty hunters, private investigators, bodyguards, etc., charging the customers whatever they think their unusual powers and abilities are worth on the open market. Luke Cage and Danny Rand used to be the Heroes for Hire. Back in the early 1990s, Amanda Waller's Suicide Squad shifted from being an official (but secretive) federal program to a group of freelance troubleshooters-for-hire, as I recall. On a similar note, and more recently, Kurt Busiek offered us the Power Company. I'm not saying that all of the characters involved in those various enterprises were only interested in making money, but I am pointing out that the chance to cash in on their unusual abilities was definitely a motivating factor in their decisions to keep wearing the costumes and risking their necks fighting supervillains and other riffraff!
"I made a very bad mistake. Maybe I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt or killed -- but it happened anyway, and I could've prevented it if I'd been wiser. All I can do now is make sure I don't 'look the other way' again when there's nasty stuff going on!"
I mentioned Greed just above. When Peter Parker first created a costume and started calling himself Spider-Man, that was his motive -- but I didn't list him as an example of the Greed Motive for Becoming a Superhero, because he wasn't calling himself a superhero in the early days! He just wanted to make it big in the entertainment industry and take home lots of loot from the ticket sales!
The 2002 movie did a good job in showing why he shifted his emphasis from "How can I make money with my powers?" to "How can I use my powers responsibly to stop bad guys?" The movie actually gave him a somewhat better excuse for letting a robber get past him than Stan Lee had originally provided, but the results were just as tragic: the robber later killed Uncle Ben, and when Peter got a good look at the killer's face the realization of his own share of the guilt (because he'd chosen to let an obvious "menace to society" run loose) was devastating. Hence his mantra "with great power comes great responsibility" and his determination to not commit that particular sin of omission again.
(Incidentally: if you can find a copy at a reasonable price, I highly recommend "What if? #17" (first series), which explored in a logical and entertaining way the question of what would have happened if young Peter had nabbed that runaway crook on impulse when he had the chance; just because it suddenly looked like a good way to get some extra publicity
as a "hero" and thereby advance his fledgling career in Show Biz! On the upside, his Uncle Ben would have stayed alive and well. On the downside, without the Atonement Motive to change his attitude when he was still reveling in the unusual feeling of power and popularity, Peter would have moved out to Hollywood to become a vain, self-indulgent movie star who was prepared to intimidate or viciously smear anyone (such as J. Jonah Jameson) who dared to loudly criticize him!Although he eventually learned some hard lessons, later on . . .)
"Let's face facts: The bad guys are going to hunt me down anyway. I might as well train and equip myself to be ready for trouble, and then take the initiative and choose my own battlefields!"
Sometimes a potential hero discovers to his horror that he suddenly has a bullseye painted on his chest through no fault of his own, and Nasty Powerful People are going to be hunting him from now on! Even if he never heard of them before! Even if he'd be perfectly happy to just live and let live!
I think this was basically the original Motive for Buffy the Vampire Slayer in her vampire-slaying activities in the movie and the early episodes of the TV show, although I'm not a huge expert on her continuity. She had inherited the mantle of a Slayer without ever wanting or expecting it -- and so the vampires weren't just going to leave her alone, were they? Not even if she had taken out an ad in the paper offering to ignore them if they would politely stay a few miles away from Buffy and her loved ones?
As another example of finding yourself wearing a bullseye: Some of the mutant heroes of the Marvel Universe have probably ended up in Professor Xavier's training programs in part because of their well-justified fears that sooner or later someone is going to try to enslave or kill them just because they are mutants, so they figure they'd better link together in teams and learn how to use their powers in combat as effectively as possible before it's too late!
"I wear this costume to Make a Statement and Promote an Important Agenda. That just happens to involve beating up the occasional malefactor as I go along!"
This was supposed to be a big piece of the "Wonder Woman" mission statement when Diana of Themyscira became the Amazon's ambassador to "Man's World." She was supposed to be promoting the virtues of tolerant and peaceful co-existence . . . while using her powers in slugfest after slugfest along the way.
07. Patriotic Duty
"My country needs me. If it were up to me, I might prefer a different lifestyle, but duty comes first."
Some superhumans have been "drafted" into the service of their homelands and operate as the equivalent of soldiers, cops, or secret agents on a government payroll. You don't get rich that way if you're honest, but you do get to tell yourself that you're a true patriot. I believe that at least some of the old Soviet Super-Soldiers (including Ursa Major, Darkstar, and Vanguard) were identified as mutants at tender ages and then were trained long and hard in a government-funded program to prepare them to use their special gifts in the service of the Soviet Union as a career. (Eventually the three I mentioned became rather disillusioned and struck out on their own. Of course, given how long it's been since there even was a Soviet Union in the real world, the details may have been retconned by now.)
Other heroes have spent lengthy periods of time working for their own governments in a superheroic capacity, voluntarily, because they believed they were needed and not because they'd been conscripted into service. (Steve Rogers as Captain America springs to mind, although there have certainly been times when his professional relationship with the U.S. government was tenuous or even nonexistent.)
08. Action Junkie
"I need the flow of adrenaline to make me feel alive! Why, I haven't faced a mortal threat in at least 24 hours! I'm dying of boredom here!"
Some people want lots of action; life-and-death excitement; the feeling of adrenaline pumping through their veins; the chance to test themselves and see if they're really as incredibly tough and resourceful and quick on the draw and so forth as they love to think they are! I've read that in the real world many such people end up in military commando units (such as the U.S. Navy SEALs, the British Special Air Service, or whatever commando programs exist in a particular country).
There are various superheroes who -- at least sometimes, depending upon who's writing them and what sort of mood he's in -- give the impression that they became superheroes largely because it was a way to see lots of action in a "socially acceptable" fashion without being carted off to jail for "antisocial" violence on a regular basis. In his early days, Wolverine showed serious signs of fitting into this category, what with his hair-trigger temper and all. As the years went by, we were shown other sides of his personality more often, however.
"The System is completely corrupt. I've got to rebel against it, or else I couldn't live with myself! Maybe I'd better wear a mask?"
The costumed hero finds himself rebelling against The Powers That Be in his native culture. He often wears a mask in order to reduce the chance that tomorrow morning the secret police will kick down his door and shoot him through the head and dump the body in a ditch. His fans may view him as a superhero. This is obviously a very different situation from that of the "typical" superhero who just fights obvious lawbreakers, one at a time, and then trustingly hands them over to the local cops so that the official criminal justice system can take it from there.
Zorro was rebelling against the worst excesses of corrupt officials in old California. "V for Vendetta" featured another "freedom fighter" who felt he had to wear a mask and a distinctive outfit in his struggle against the fascist rulers of an alternate timeline's Britain. (They were basically Nazis -- the only noteworthy difference was that they spoke with British accents instead of German ones.)
10. One Mission
"What? You think I plan on making this a part of my permanent lifestyle? Endless slugfests just for fun? Ha! I'm wearing this costume and engaging in these hijinks just long enough to accomplish one strategic objective that really matters to me. Then I may very well quit! Who needs this kind of grief all the time?"
Sometimes the "costumed hero" is only wearing the costume as a means to an end; after achieving one carefully stated strategic objective, he intends to quit and go back to having a regular life. At least, if you take his statements at face value as he starts his costumed career. Tom Tresser, DC's first "Nemesis" character, originally was out to bring down the organized crime syndicate (called the Council) that had killed his brother Craig. I don't think he ever said anything (in his stories in the early 1980s) about planning to sticking with the "master-of-disguise" crimefighting schtick indefinitely!
11. The Power Goes With the Job
"You mean if I sign on the dotted line and pull on that spiffy costume, I get godlike power? Why would I need any more time to think it over? Can you lend me a pen?"
Some heroes only have their "powers" as long as they remain on "active duty." If they don't join, they never get the power. If they choose to quit, they lose the power. There could be various reasons for this -- such as the "powers" are magically granted to a certain "champion" and can be magically removed again, or the "powers" are actually functions of exotic technnology issued to faithful members of a powerful organization. The sort of technology that the typical citizen can't buy for his own personal use at the local Wal-Mart. An obvious example is the Green Lantern Corps: as a general rule, a former Green Lantern without his power ring is just another ordinary guy.
I am not saying that everyone who ever signed up with the Green Lantern Corps made that choice just because he had been "seduced" by the potential thrill of having a power ring at his disposal. But it would be a bit of a stretch to claim that the chance to use all that power was never a motivating factor! And, of course, after a GL had gotten used to having that ring, he might be increasingly reluctant to think of "retiring" from the Corps and trying to live all the time as an ordinary person instead of a miracle worker!
"The money doesn't matter -- but I want the respect, the applause, the name recognition, so that I'll know I really amounted to something!!"
Kurt Busiek, in the six-issue story arc collected in TPB as "Astro City: Confession," did an excellent job of showing the development of Brian Kinney, the boy who was the narrator of the entire story. Brian made no bones about having this Motive as he arrived in Astro City and tried to get started in the superhero game. Eventually a spooky character called the Confessor, who loosely resembled the "Batman" archetype, took the kid under his wing and made him "Altar Boy" and gave him intensive training in various fields that a would-be superhero needed to master. (Particularly if he had no powers to give him an extra edge, and Brian didn't.)
Brian didn't seem terribly interested in making lots of money, but he did want the rest of the world to think very highly of him. Which, of course, would require that the rest of the world notice his existence first, so that people could then form opinions about him -- likelier to happen if he wore a flashy costume, say. Although he didn't put it in exactly these words when we first met him, his general philosophy of life appeared to be: "If lots of people think you're a success, you're a success. If not, you're a failure. And I refuse to be a failure!"
I'm not trying to insult Brian's "good character." I'm not saying he didn't care about "saving civilian lives" along the way. He wasn't a cold-blooded sociopath who thought everything had to be all about him; he was just an unhappy and confused youngster who was trying to find his way in the world (after his dad died) and was powerfully motivated by dreams of Glory. By the end of the arc, he had "matured" quite a bit. (And I don't just mean because he was four years older in the final panels!)
13. Public Service
"I have the power to help other people in unique ways. How could I look myself in the mirror if I didn't even try to make a difference when emergencies arise?"
In John Byrne's "Man of Steel" miniseries from twenty years ago, when he was laying the foundations of the Post-Crisis Reboot of Superman continuity, that was essentially the Motive he put in Clark Kent's mouth (and it's a good one!). Although as it turned out, Clark graduated high school and then spent the next seven years or so helping people "behind the scenes" with his super-speed, super-strength, etc., without immediately thinking he needed a fancy costume and alias as part of any "superhero" identity. Eventually, however, he decided that was the right way to go.
This basic Motive was also a big factor for May "Mayday" Parker, daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, in her early days of trying to be Spider-Girl in her first series. She expressed it in the following dialogue. This is my "transcript" of the first page of "Spider-Girl #5" -- written by Tom DeFalco, of course.
Splash page. (Meaning the full page is one big picture.) Foreground: An angry Peter Parker has grabbed the Spider-Girl costume and is stuffing it into a box. His wife is standing just behind him on the right, and in the background on the left, May is standing near the doorway with her arms folded, looking unhappy.
CAPTION: Your name is May "Mayday" Parker and you used to believe you could share anything with your parents. Poof! There goes another fine myth!
PETER: I don't care if you are a teenager, your mother and I aren't going to just sit back and allow you to put your life at risk! You're through being SPIDER-GIRL!
MAY: B-but, Daddy, how could I ever live with myself -- if someone is hurt because I failed to act?
PETER: That's not your problem! You're only a child, and this world doesn't need another costumed hero!
("That's not your problem." Gee, wasn't that essentially what Peter said to himself, at about the same age, way back in "Amazing Fantasy #15," and then that blithe assumption came back to haunt him? Doesn't he remember that anymore? Ah, well, in the Spider-Girl continuity of MC2 he eventually saw reason and quit being so hypocritical about it!)
14. Phony Heroics
"People tolerate a lot if they think you're a superhero. So I'll make noises like a superhero, for as long as it helps me get closer to my real goal!"
This is the person who doesn't really want to be a superhero at all. But posing as one for a long time -- I don't just mean for the next five minutes -- may suit his secret agenda!
Deadshot started out that way. Rich young Floyd Lawton used his incredible aim to make all sorts of "trick shots" and capture criminals in the streets of Gotham without actually shooting their bodies full of holes. He appeared to be giving Batman a run for his money in the local superhero sweepstakes. But then it turned out that he wasn't so much "fighting crime" as "eliminating the competition!" So that he could build up his own criminal empire to fill the power vacuum he created by catching so many other professional crooks! Batman finally caught on and grabbed him, all within the span of a single story in the Golden Age.
Terra I (Tara Markov) in the title "The New Teen Titans" in the early 1980s was another Phony Hero who was planned as such from Day One by Wolfman and Perez (instead of being retconned into a traitor later on, as happened to Max Lord recently), although her fellow Titans only caught on at the very end of her career, in "The Judas Contract," after she'd already been a regular feature in their title for over a year!
On the other hand, a Phony Hero doesn't have to stay Phony forever. In the first "Thunderbolts" series from Marvel, the group started out as a collection of old supervillains with new paint jobs who were, one and all, Phony Heroes. But then the idea of "making it real" gradually grew on some of them as they got a taste of what it was like to be seen as New York City's hard-working heroic successors to the mysteriously absent Avengers.
As always: When I type something this ambitious, I take it for granted it isn't perfect. If you see any obvious flaws in what I typed, and/or if you can think of other Motives for Becoming a Superhero that I completely failed to mention, please say so!