A Practical Guide to being a Superhero

Originally published October 2005
in DVD Review magazine 

We love them, we want to be them- but actually living the life of a superhero isn’t as easy as it looks. There are world-conquering villains to defeat and grumpy landlords to avoid, but those wishing to begin a career as a costumed vigilante can relax- help is at hand. Since SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE in 1978, superhero films have provided a plethora of useful hints and tips, so any wannabes would do well to follow our guide to the Crime-Fighting lifestyle…

1: POWERS? OR POWERS-FREE?

It’s the starting point to your career, and there are important decisions to be made. Are you going to battle criminals with just your wits and a powerful right hook, or is it time to obtain a set of exciting superpowers? Getting your special abilities is a risky and unpredictable route, and while lucky heroes like Superman or the X-Men are born with their gifts, netting yourself the full “Flying/Super Speed/Invulnerability” combo is no simple task.

The most likely routes are hanging around toxic waste dumps, hoping the radiation either blinds you and enhances your other senses to superhuman levels (Daredevil), or turns you into an anger-activated green goliath with infinitely expandable purple pants (The Hulk). Your other main option is hanging out in expensive research labs waiting for a genetically enhanced animal to bite you (Spider-Man)- a choice that carries many potential dangers, from fleas and rabies to accidentally ending up with fantastic night-vision as the heroic “Bunny-Man”.

On the other hand, the powers-free route usually requires either years of weapons training, a convenient multi-billion dollar fortune or a serious anger management problem- but at least they’re predictable routes with a guaranteed end result. Even if you’re an utterly hopeless powers-free superhero such as the fork-wielding Blue Rajah (Mystery Men), your plucky persistence will mean you win through in the end; while the fact that expert vigilantes like Batman don’t have super-abilities to aid their crime crusades just makes the ladies love them even more.

2: THE TRAGIC PAST

All superheroes need motivation, and there’s no better reason for fighting evil than the Tragic Past. Thankfully, there’s a wide variety to choose from, although the most obvious is a death in the family- you don’t have to go as far as Peter Parker in Spider-Man and be directly responsible for the death, but, to be honest, it does help. Being extreme can also be a good thing- the brutal murder of Frank Castle’s entire family turns him into the glowering vigilante known as the Punisher, but having your entire home planet blown up in order to get that genuine Superman-style “Last Son of Krypton” feeling may be going too far.

For the morbidly inclined, there’s always the option of getting yourself killed and returning from the grave to wreak havoc. This can go one of two ways- you’ll either (a) return as a scarred vigilante in a big red cloak and be insulted by an obese satanic clown (Spawn), or (b) dress in funky clothes, paint your face like Marilyn Manson’s bass player and look like the sexiest undead goth on the planet (The Crow). The ultimate Tragic Past is, as in The Crow, avenging a murdered lover, which gives you complete licence to indulge in insane ultraviolence, but also means you can spend your downtime doomily hanging out in deserted buildings, quoting poetry, and playing endless free-form guitar solos. Or, you could take a leaf out of the amnesiac Wolverine’s book (X-Men), and have no idea what your tragic past actually is…

3: THE COSTUME

There are certain rules when choosing your costume. It should either be pitch black, or brightly coloured as possible; thin and flexible enough so that you can wear it under your clothes; cool enough to avoid unsightly sweat-patches, and with an eye-catching logo displayed prominently on the chest, allowing you to dramatically rip your shirt open in times of crisis.

However, there’s one big question: Do you say yes or no to Spandex? It’s the unofficial uniform for the superhero lifestyle, but the whole figure-hugging body stocking look can easily backfire. You might be able to carry it off as a brightly coloured crime fighter dispensing fast-witted quips, but if you’re aiming to be a dark, violent vigilante and avenge yourself on society, doing it in spandex is only going to make you look like a particularly menacing fitness instructor.

Even the smallest alterations to a costume can pitch it into daftness- you could have an imposingly sculpted suit of body armour, but add shiny nipples and a gigantic codpiece and you’ll have supervillains rolling in the aisles. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal taste and practicality, but female superheroes should beware: skimpy costumes aren’t always a good idea. It might sound alluring and empowering to expose as much skin and cleavage as possible, but chances are you’ll end up looking like an escapee from a Hen night that’s just ram-raided the local Anne Summers shop, and any hope of being taken seriously will fly out of the window.

4: COOL TRANSPORTATION

Getting yourself around town is your next priority- and the forward-thinking superhero will actually get himself a mode of transportation as part of his powers. Flight is the obvious choice, although not everyone can carry off wearing a cape without looking like an idiot, and teleportation is another great option- even if you can’t do it without leaving a trail of smoke and a loud “BAMMF!!” noise. Swinging from building to building via super-strong webs has its advantages, but emitting a sticky white substance from your wrists opens you up to some frankly rather crass puberty-related gags, and if you get too stressed with your dual life you’ll find your web abilities failing mid-air, and have the embarrassment of having to take the elevator.

In fact, it might be far less hassle to have a funkily designed super vehicle for getting around. Along with the costume, the superhero vehicle is a statement to the world that says “I’m here, I’m scary, and I like to fight evil!” While the X-Men’s turbo-powered X-Jet is an undoubtedly impressive piece of hardware, Batman is the model to aim for, as virtually every incarnation of the Batmobile has been effortlessly cool, and he’s even branched out into excitingly spiky Bat-boats and Bat-planes. Unfortunately, he always seems to forget the rather important detail of making them bullet-proof, with the result that one well-placed shot will blast them into pieces. Try to avoid this, as running costs are high enough on super-vehicles without having to build the whole thing again from scratch.

5: THE LOVE INTEREST

In the course of your career as a super powered crime-fighter, you’re going to need a devastatingly attractive love interest- someone who can be placed in certain-death situations and relied on to scream like mad when abducted by a gibbering supervillain. Women like Lois Lane, Vicki Vale and Mary Jane Watson will initially appear to be capable, strong-minded ladies, but they’re always atrocious in a fight and you’ll be able to fool them into thinking you’re someone else by simply putting on a pair of glasses. Thankfully, there are edgier, dangerous females like the Selina Kyle version of Catwoman (Batman Returns), or flirty knife-wielding killer babe Elektra Natchios (Daredevil)- but be careful. Women like Elektra can be so foxy and exciting that they’ll get a spin-off movie all of their own, and you’ll be left without a sequel to your name…

On the other hand, if you’re a female superhero like Patience Prince in Catwoman or Kara in Supergirl, then it’s vitally important that your male object of lust be as bland as possible. Ideally, he should be a police detective who looks like he moonlights as an underwear model, and spends his time romancing your meek everyday self while getting all hot-under-the-collar for your scantily-clad alter ego. As with his female equivalent, despite being a supposedly intelligent police officer, he’ll take a small eternity to work out that the two women he’s attracted to are the same person, despite having the same voice, the same height, the same build, and even the same coloured eyes as each other…

6: THE SECRET LAIR

Your next target is a secret lair- somewhere to store vehicles, build gadgets and sit moodily in the corner fuming about how nobody appreciates you. Size is everything here- the bigger the lair, the more impressed your love interest will be when you bring them around for a swift visit. One trip to Superman’s secret hideout in Superman II was enough to swing Lois Lane’s undying love- and it’s safe to say Peter Parker would have a much easier time of it if he had a spectacular, cavernous Spider-themed lair to woo the ladies with.

Not all of us, however, can get our lairs handed to us on a plate like that eternally lucky bastard Superman and his “Instant Fortress of Solitude” crystal (Superman: The Movie). If you live in a gigantic mansion, then it’s 99.99% likely there’ll be a conveniently huge cavern situated directly underneath you can convert with ease. Alternatively, you can always buy yourself a school and build lots of exciting Thunderbirds-style hatchways in the grounds (X-Men). While the X-Men’s gleaming techno-lair has certain attractions, you can’t go wrong with gothic grandeur. There should be shadows, plenty of computer screens flashing up symbols nobody understands, and lots of narrow walkways alongside gigantic chasms without the slightest hint of a safety rail. Above all, it should be both highly secret, and ridiculously easy to break into when the latest overacting supervillain or wannabe sidekick decides that he wants to discover your secret identity.

7: THE VILLAINS

While you may tackle the occasional petty crook, you’ll spend most of your crime fighting career battling nefarious supervillains and their plans to enslave/destroy/purchase the world. Nobody knows why there are so many lunatics out there ready to accidentally bond themselves to mechanical arms, throw themselves into pools of chemicals or put on truly appalling Goblin costumes, but they fall into three distinct categories:

(a): SUPER-BAD
These are the villains who know exactly how to do their job. Adversaries like Lex Luthor, Magneto and General Zod are cool, quiet and subtle, only throttling a subordinate when it’s absolutely necessary. They will try to kill you, but they’ll be terribly polite about it.

(b): MEDIUM-BAD
Flamboyant, scenery-chomping villains who like dressing up in bright colours and shouting at their henchmen. People like The Joker, Mr. Freeze and the Green Goblin sound like fun to be around- but they’ll hog all the public’s attention, and will always be spouting dreadful puns like “Ice to see you!”

(c): ZERO-BAD
The dregs of the barrel- villains so weak and bland, you wonder why they bothered turning up in the first place. They may be convinced they’re the top banana, but you’ll forget bad guys like Xander Drax (The Phantom), Max Schrek (Batman Returns) and Laurel Hedare (Catwoman) within moments.

Defeating these villains will often be rather difficult, and many of them will insist on coming back again and again- but if you’d rather this didn’t happen, simply drop them off the tallest building available, and we guarantee you won’t be seeing them again.

8: DEALING WITH THE PUBLIC

You’re out in the world, fighting for truth, justice and the Superhero way, but it’s time for you to meet your biggest challenge- the general public. Everyday men and women going about their business, they’re also a tremendous liability in a crisis, always taking a small eternity to realise they should be running in the opposite direction. You can also be guaranteed that if any heavy objects ever plummet towards the ground, there’ll be at least one member of the public unwittingly standing underneath it- usually a mother with a pram.

While practicing, it’s important to perfect your rescue strategy- do you go for strong and silent, or chanting snappy catchphrases? Either way, the rescuee will be so astonished by the experience they’ll forget to say thank you, but most other people will be delighted to stand around pointing, waving fists in the air and shouting “Yeah!! Alright!!” every single time you score a major victory, or rescue a kitten from a tree.

Despite this popularity, the Media will have you on their hate-list from day one. There’s something about a masked vigilante that brings out the “Terror Stalks Our City!!” headlines, and each paper will have a fast-talking 1940s-style editor who’ll adore putting the boot in at your lowest moment. However, being misunderstood by the media is the one true sign you’ve arrived- you now have full licence to stand dramatically on top of buildings and indulge in the Olympian level of angst that no self-respecting modern superhero should do without.

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2005

STYLE WARRIORS

There’s many different styles of superhero. Which one will you be?

THE WISE-CRACKER (The Mask)
You’re a fast-talking charmer with a wicked dress sense. You’ll get to kiss Cameron Diaz. Lucky you!

THE MEAN N’MOODY LONER (Wolverine)
You’re pure machismo, with a world of hurt hidden behind those magnificent sideburns. Work those pectorals!

THE SULTRY SIREN (Elektra)
You’re sensitive and lonely, but you’ve also got a thing for leather and playing with knives. Even blind men will fall for you!

THE ANGST MAN (Spider-man)
You’re very heroic- but nobody understands how difficult your life is. Now stop mooning over that girl, and go and get drunk!

FORGOTTEN HEROES

If you’re aiming to be remembered, it’s best not to follow these guys…

THE SHADOW
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” The answer is Alec Baldwin in a fedora and a giant false nose, but this legendary pistol-packing thirties vigilante made precious little impact.

SUPERGIRL
Kal-El’s cousin gets the shallow end of the superhero gene pool, kissing mirrors and posing as a schoolgirl before blandly taking on evil forces for control of an unconvincing glowing ball.

THE PHANTOM
He’s the latest in a line of jungle bound heroes. He’s the “Ghost that walks”. And yet, however heroic he is, Billy Zane still looks a complete idiot in that purple Spandex suit.

THE ROCKETEER
When wearing the funky art deco helmet and flying around with a rocket pack, he’s an instant smash. Sadly, the minute he takes the helmet off, he’s dull as dishwater. Put it back on, for heaven’s sake!!

RESCUE CHAMPIONS

It’s hero vs hero. And the Judge’s decision is final…

QUEENSBORO BRIDGE RESCUE (Spider-man)
The nefarious Green Goblin sets Spidey a challenge worthy of the Krypton Factor- choose between saving Mary Jane or a Cable Car full of cute children as they both plummet towards the river.
JUDGES DECISION: Spidey shows great panache with his webs, and completes both parts of this difficult challenge- but points are deducted for relying on friendly New Yorkers throwing heavy objects at his arch-nemesis…
FINAL SCORE: 8

THE STATUE OF LIBERTY (X-Men)
Not only do the X-Men have to rescue the teenager Rogue from on top of the Statue of Liberty, they’ve also got to stop a deadly machine that’s about to turn the inhabitants of New York into amorphous CGI blobs.
JUDGES DECISION: A good team effort, with each of the X-Men showing control of their powers- although deduct one point for leaving without attempting to pay for all that damage to Lady Liberty.
FINAL SCORE: 9

MUSEUM RESCUE (Batman)
With gadgets, body armour and a very fast car, Bruce Wayne must rescue squealing reporter Vicki Vale from the lecherous intentions and monumental overacting of the Joker.
JUDGES DECISION: Wayne shows good control of his gadgets, and deploys the Batmobile with style. However, that rubber costume slows him down, and he also comes within inches of being unmasked- hardly a professional way of going about things…
FINAL SCORE: 6

THE BURIED CAR (Superman: The Movie)
Lois Lane is trapped in a car that’s being sucked into the ground by an earthquake, while Superman is elsewhere stopping a nuclear missile. Will the Man of Steel be in time to rescue her?
JUDGES DECISION: First of all, Superman fails to complete the challenge in the allotted time. Then, behaving like an incredibly bad loser, he reverses the flow of time, and rearranges events so he can succeed! Cheating is still cheating, no matter how funky you look in your cape…
FINAL SCORE: Disqualified!!

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2005