What is the Superhero Paradox?

Goku from Dragonball

I’ve actually thought of this issue a lot since my teenage years, but I never knew there was a term for it until now.  It may be nuanced, but the gist is:

Superhero Paradox–  Superheroes try to make the world a better place, but the seem to make the world more dangerous.

Pretty sure everyone is thinking of Batman, but I’m going with Goku.  Why?  First, the quote can be connected to this in terms of a villain getting stronger in order to defeat a hero.  Actually, War of Nytefall: Savagery revolves around this concept.  The second reason I went with Goku is I remember him leaving Earth because he felt his high level of power was attracting the villains.  He went away to prevent his friends, family, and world from getting leveled every time someone shows up to challenge him.  This is a big part of the paradox.

How does this happen?  Let’s look at the steps:

  1. Hero debuts and beats weakest enemies.
  2. Rises in strength to face stronger opponents.
  3. Defeats first the big villains.
  4. New villain arrives either to fill void or challenge.
  5. Hero gets strong enough to defeat them.
  6. New villain arrives specifically to take out hero.
  7. Hero gets even stronger to win.
  8. New villain arrives . . . You get the point.

It isn’t always so formulaic, but it revolves around the concept of heroes creating at least a few of their strongest villains.  This happens a lot in comics with a hero making a mistake that forges a villain.  Spider-Man returning with the alien suit that becomes Venom is one such example.  He wanted to make the world a better place, thought the new suit would help, and inevitably unleashed a long line of alien symbiotes on the planet.  Not very heroic if you think about it.

Another aspect of the Superhero Paradox is the damage that they cause such as in the namesake genre.  Cities can be leveled and lives can by lost, which is partially caused by heroes getting into public battles.  The destruction is rather inevitable considering the powers and weapons being used when violence erupts.  Villains don’t care if they do this and heroes can’t always knock a target high into the air instead of through a building.  We like to think they can, but that takes a lot of careful thinking and superheroes rarely find themselves in battle situations where they can take a breath.  This results in them being nearly as much of a danger as their enemy.  Sure, their presence reduces that damage and loss of life, but it doesn’t typically go down to zero.

The collateral damage can result in more villains popping up too.  Now, you have the hero’s presence and actions making the world more dangerous again.  Makes you wonder how people in comic book worlds manage to get up the morning.  Why go into work when you have a 75% chance of getting killed in a superhuman battle?  At least Dragonball typically keeps its fights in the wilderness or tournaments.

There are ways to counter act this issue.  Have there be consequences for the damage or the hero puts a lot of effort into avoiding violence in cities.  This way, they don’t make the world more dangerous by drawing innocent bystanders into the battle.  Villains will still attack cities, but heroes can try to move them away or contain them to a very small region.  There can be an initial focus on rescue and evacuation too.

Another way to handle the paradox is to give villains reasons to act that don’t relate to the hero.  They can also have powers that will always challenge the hero, who doesn’t actually become stronger.  If a hero has to win by wits instead of leveling up then they are less likely to attract bigger powerhouses who can cause more damage.  The world will again be safer because the hero’s strength is fairly low key.  This can still create a minor paradox because reputations grow with victories and there will inevitablly be someone who wants to challenge the hero.  Bane went after Batman, Kraven went after Spider-Man, and several baddies went after James Bond because their legends grew big.  It really paints a target on them.

So, what do you think of the Superhero Paradox?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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31 Responses to What is the Superhero Paradox?

  1. I think it’s a slippery slope. The writer creates a system where he/she has to one-up what came before. I prefer to keep heroes in the shadows if I plan to use them again.

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  2. The paradox makes a lot of sense. Of course, what’s to stop powerful villains from having their way with the world regardless of the presence of a superhero? (I know it wouldn’t make much of a story.)

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  3. ospreyshire says:

    Very interesting post. I thought about the whole collateral damage thing for years and I believe there was a comic series involving people who clean up after big superhero fights. Villains should certainly be legitimate threats to the heroes, so I hear you right there. Of course, DBZ and multiple other shonen anime/manga have that aspect of the heroes always needing to be stronger almost to the point of cliche or self-parody. You did bring up a point with most DBZ fight taking place away from cities most of the time which I didn’t think about compared to Western superhero stories. It does make sense that there’s a target painted on a hero especially after beating or killing villains much like a fighter winning a championship (MMA, boxing, wrestling [regular or professional]) is instantly hunted down by whoever tries to be the number one contender to their title. However, the stakes are much higher and it makes one wonder if the heroes have a negative impact even when they save others.

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    • Yeah. I think Marvel had that comic, but I forgot the name. Want to say DC had some explanations for how things were repaired too. The funny thing with the shonen stuff is that the heroes always seem to start weaker and then become stronger, which is why the next story arc introduces a more powerful villain. This is what causes a lot of the paradox since the story can only continue if a greater threat emerges. This is where the negative impact of a hero comes into play, but it’s hard to figure out how to reverse it. If the hero isn’t there then the same villain would run amok, but would that villain even exist without the powerful hero?

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      • ospreyshire says:

        It’s called Damage Control. Don’t feel bad. I had to look it up. That’s true about a lot of shonen stuff, but there are times where they have villains that are way too strong or even villain Gary Stus (Aizen from Bleach is a BIG one). I have certainly noticed a formula by having stronger villains each and every time. You do pose an interesting question there. Makes you wonder if the hero is the cause of the villain coming in to wreak havoc albeit indirectly, but at the same time, the hero can’t just go away.

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      • I actually don’t mind villains being able to do everything as long as they have some weaknesses. I didn’t really mind Aizen since he had some flaws. He was beaten after all. Though, this is in comparison to Ichigo the Reaper/Quincy/Hollow/Bount thing. He was ridiculous since he stole everyone’s identity. I’d have to say the question Gary Stu villain is Naraku from Inuyasha. They would build up ‘the greatest move’ through a story arc. It wouldn’t work because he became too powerful off-screen. Nobody can top the bullshittery of that in my mind.

        I think villain origin is the biggest factor. Take DBZ. Vegeta, Raditz, and Napa were starters, which you always need. Frieza was the big bad on another planet, so he’s fine. The androids and Cell were rather Goku and Z-Fighter focused with their origins. Buu was just summoned to destroy things. I think these actually work to help the in-world paradox since only one cake about specifically because of the heroes. Maybe Batman is a good example of it being a problem considering how many of his villains hold grudges. Spidey might be worse.

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      • ospreyshire says:

        As long as they’re beatable in a believable way in the context of the story, I’m fine with that. While the revelation of Aizen being a villain was a huge surprise, it did bug me with his bankai having one of the cheapest powers I’ve ever seen. When you have a Gary Stu Villain, it forces the hero to achieve Gary Stu/Mary Sue status just so they can be a legitimate threat. This goes to your point of the whole identity hodgepodge with the Ichigo character with him getting all the identities and powers. Oddly enough, I haven’t seen that much of Inuyasha (I know, shocker. Right?), but I wasn’t a fan of Naraku. That sounds right even though I didn’t get all that far in the series.

        No disagreements there with those three as starter villains even with Vegeta’s eventual face turn. There was a certain level with those big bads. I heard Super gets crazier with the multiverse stuff going on. You certainly see Batman and Spider-man’s rogues gallery with grudges.

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      • Had to look up Aizen’s bankai power. Not sure how I feel about it because I do see weak points. It’s eyesight dependent and force of will/power can break it once the person realizes they’ve been hypnotized. That’s a tough power to critique since it’s mental instead of physical. Ichigo started gaining his Swiss Army powers after Aizen too, right? So he went Mary Sue long after Gary was defeated, which was an odd choice. Probably another reason why I have no interest in reading the series again.

        Going to be a long time before I make it to Super. My son and I are still in Dragonball with the Red Ribbon Army. I wish DBZ Kai (streamlined version of Z) was streaming somewhere.

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      • ospreyshire says:

        Yeah, the hypnosis aspect was way OP. It probably makes sense why he had Tosen with him. I didn’t watch or read all of Bleach because it was getting insane. Even the rescuing of Rukia took too long.

        I haven’t seen Super or a lot of recent anime. Last anime thing I saw was the Ni no Kuni movie even though I’ve reviewed other things on my film/doc/anime review blog.

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      • I always wondered if the whole thing was supposed to stop after Rukia was rescued. Everything after that felt like stretched and flimsy.

        I keep meaning to watch this combat anime called Ragnarok. Might start this weekend.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        That makes me wonder about what the story would be like in that way especially with the filler.

        Ragnarok? I forget, but was that the one based on the RPG game or something else?

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      • Sorry. Meant ‘Record of Ragnarok’. Forgot about the other one, which I heard wasn’t very good.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Gotcha. I did hear about there being a different series having the name “Ragnarok” in the title.

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      • It’s interesting. A bizarre mix of mythology, history, and WWE wrestling. Only 2 episodes in and I can’t decide if I like it or not.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        That sounds like an odd combination of elements. Last time I saw anything wrestling related in anime was Ultimate Muscle when I was younger. Not sure how I feel about that kind of fusion as someone who’s more into indie BritWres than WWE (I know, it’s weird given how I typically like more serious or artsy things especially with experimental films), but it could work if the story is enjoyable. Then again, I’m not always into super serious or highbrow things. Haha!

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      • The anime . . . Well . . . I’ve heard the manga is better. This is hard to get through.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Gotcha. Thanks for the heads up about the anime and manga. Then again, usually the manga is better more often the not.

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      • I’ve found a few where they aren’t that far apart. This one seems to be a total hatchet job according to fans.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Good point. Hatchet job? Oh, wow…

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      • Yeah. To be fair, I was about to watch another show based on pre-existing material and thought to check out viewer reviews first. Some looked suspicious, so I read episode breakdowns. I will not go anywhere near this show and it was one I wanted to share with my son. The source material holds a special place in my heart and seeing it treated this way really hurts.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        Understandable. Sorry to hear the anime version doesn’t hold up to the source material.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Interesting article on Charles’ blog – be sure to read the comments as well 👍

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  5. Some of my fan fiction was about a woman with x-ray vision and a few other things. It was complicated, but basically she could make people faint. She refused to fight, and instead went around searching battlefields for unexploded mines. She also did search and rescue, where she could tell if anyone was still alive under a pile of rubble.

    Sometimes a super battle would break out, and she would read out the combatants for endangering the public. If they stopped, she made them help her search the rubble. If they wouldn’t stop, she made them faint.

    All storytelling is wish fulfillment, right?

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