What makes a hero?

Redefining superheroes and how to tell their stories

Alyssa Yang

Since their introduction via comic books in the 1930s, superhero characters and storylines have become one of America’s most popular forms of entertainment. Over time, their popularity has shifted to film and television to remain at the forefront of mainstream media, due to what comic writer Jed MacKay refers to as superhero stories’ “power fantasy” — the escapism which appeals to audiences en masse.

“Oftentimes we feel helpless about the things that happen, be it the simple day-to-day dramas like someone cutting you off in traffic or the [more drastic] things that happen in the world,” MacKay, who is the author of Marvel’s latest serialization of the “Moon Knight” comics, said. “In the superhero world, eventually, things are gonna get fixed. That’s what draws people into it. It’s this overblown drama and excitement where things are brighter than bright, more colorful than colorful, and there’s a certain amount of hope [that the real world] could actually [reflect superhero media].”

That moralizing effect was precisely what audiences needed during the Great Depression. Nearly a century later, it still hasn’t lost its appeal, which junior Rishi Manoj attributes to superheroes becoming manifestations of ideal members of society. However, Manoj has also begun looking for more nuance in how superheroes are portrayed.

[Conventional hero characters are] good role models and examples for people. I just find it more interesting to see someone who has some flaws and isn’t 100% good.”

— Junior Rishi Manoj

“Because [conventional superhero characters] have so much good in them and represent the best of people, they lack the other side of not so good characteristics,” Manoj said. “They’re good role models and examples for people. I just find it more interesting to see someone who has some flaws and isn’t 100% good.”

To Manoj, the promotion of conventional heroes ignores people’s natural complexities and complexities, potentially harming people’s perceptions of themselves and those around them. Instead, antiheroes — heroes with complicated motivations and who lack conventional heroic traits — serve as better role models because they provide a standard of heroism that is far more attainable.

MacKay agrees that heroes with flaws seem more realistic, noting that even characters like Moon Knight, who is mentally ill and carries a reputation of brutality, feel closer to audiences than their morally upright counterparts.

“As real people, we’re stuck between Moon Knight and Captain America, but ultimately, it’s sometimes easier to relate to the guy who’s feeling bummed out, because that’s who we are as human beings,” MacKay said. “It seems like the number one thing people reply to a Moon Knight post on Twitter with is, ‘He’s just like me FR.’ I [hope not]. I understand it’s a bit of a meme, but yikes.”

Moon Knight’s history in Marvel comics is layered with fear and violence. Prior to MacKay’s comics, Moon Knight had even been outright depicted as an antagonist in Jason Aaron’s “Avengers,” which MacKay sees as one of the key reasons writing Moon Knight is such an incredible opportunity. In superhero worlds, just as the highs are high, the lows are also very low. For MacKay, a character who everyone else views as “Jason Voorhees … Michael Myers … this guy in a white cape who cuts people’s faces off,” is not only melodramatic and fun to depict, but also incredibly thought-provoking.

“To work with a book where [Moon Knight’s] stated goal is to be better than he was … has been really fertile ground for drama and for interpersonal interactions,” MacKay said. “All he has is a hammer, and every problem looks like someone else’s skull. He would love to be the guy who can solve problems without beating the hell out of people. Unfortunately, beating the hell out of people is just the fastest way to get things done. It’s also something he’s very good at. It’s very tough to do something in a way that you’re not good at. So he’s always trying to negotiate that desire to be better with not just [his] history [of violence], but an extensive expertise in doing things the wrong way.”

Junior Vedavi Kavoori sees Moon Knight’s ambiguous nature as precisely what makes him such a good antihero. Kavoori has not read Moon Knight’s comics, but after watching the TV show she was left with a strong impression of the character.

That’s the interesting part about Moon Knight, that the only reason you see him as a hero is because you’re following [the story] from his point of view.”

— Junior Vedavi Kavoori

“If [Moon Knight’s] story was told in another perspective, he’d obviously be the villain,” Kavoori said. “That’s the interesting part about Moon Knight, that the only reason you see him as a hero is because you’re following [the story] from his point of view, which is what I like about him. He’s different.”

Kavoori has been invested in superhero media since she was very young. To her, its appeal lies in the escape from reality it provides through its action and fantasy aspects. While her definition of a superhero is someone “willing to save others and put others’ needs first before they save themselves,” she doesn’t think antiheroes under the same category.

“I feel like antiheroes represent more of what a normal human would do because superheroes are obviously meant to be selfless … but while antiheroes are doing the right thing, sometimes they do it in a conventionally wrong way,” Kavoori said. “I think [the definition of a hero] is changing. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s changing.”

Like any other form of media, superheroes change with the times and with their audience. Public interest declined following the initial boom in the 1930s-50s, and in order to keep their readers, comic book publishers turned to complex characters with more dramatic potential. Beginning in the 1970s, comic books became more political, and antiheroes’ popularity skyrocketed, particularly with the introduction or revival of characters such as the Punisher, Wolverine, Ghost Rider and Daredevil.

“We see people be good and stay good for so long, and then on the other side, it’s also partially because people just want to see someone a bit more realistic, or a bit more flawed, rather than just super good with no flaws at all,” Manoj said. “So it’s [people’s] desire to see that, as well as a kind of boredom with the old formula [for superhero stories].”

While MacKay acknowledges that superhero narratives have become much more complex since the 50s and 60s, he sees the subsequent development of their subject matter as more of a pendulum, swinging back and forth on how much of society’s issues are included. New generations of content creators in the 70s began to draw more attention to social issues such as racism, drug use and the roots of crime as opposed to its effects.

MacKay recalls being in elementary school in the 90s and receiving a free Spider-Man comic telling kids to stay away from drugs. In his teenage years, he often saw comics centered around “edgy antihero characters” that contained “staggering amounts of violence” with no real impact on how their subject matter affected their characters. Modern takes on the antihero archetype, including Moon Knight, have been more tasteful in MacKay’s eyes.

Part of that change stems from the Comics Code Authority, which was established in 1954 as a way for the comics industry to self-regulate its content which most publishers followed until the early 2000s and dictated that, among other things, crimes should never be portrayed with sympathy for the criminal; government officials and other respected institutions should never be presented in a way that disrespected them or undermined their authority; good always needed to triumph over evil, and so on. According to MacKay, superhero characters’ complexity hasn’t changed for decades — people’s ability to tell their stories has.

“The stuff [has] always [been] there — it just depends on how well it’s handled,” MacKay said. “You have to do it with a certain awareness of not going too far. If not, it almost becomes a parody of itself.”