Backlash Toward Invulnerable Characters

Superman

Many people hate Superman because of his powers.  The one that gets a lot of attention is his invulnerability because it means he can never be hurt.  People roll their eyes when kryptonite appears and call it a strained plot device.  They argue that it shouldn’t be as common as it seems, which hurts the story even more.  You end up seeing arguments online about how Superman should be able to end a problem within seconds instead of the time period of movie.  It ends up being a feeling that he is overpowered and unrealistic . . . Which is entirely warranted.

The issue here is that an author may have an invulnerable character and not do anything to create tension.  This is weak writing, which turns this powerful being into a hindrance to the overall story.  If done enough, like with Superman, average readers might not pick up on any attempts to circumvent this power.  This is because you have to be cunning in creating weakness without eliminating the invulnerability.  Otherwise, there’s no point in having it in the first place.  So, what can be done?

Let’s use Superman as an example and point out a few things that people may miss:

  1. While he cannot be hurt by most attacks, he can still be held back by an enemy with equal strength.  You can hinder a person without hurting them.  If Superman can’t overpower his enemy and can’t be hurt, he is in a bad position.  That is because he is a protector/guardian type, which means he also holds himself back.  So, his invulnerability keeps him safe, but it doesn’t do the same to those around him.  Best example that people hate is when he killed General Zod, who was about to kill innocent bystanders.  Neither Kryptonian could be hurt and Superman couldn’t overpower his more experienced enemy, so he was forced to kill.
  2. Morality holds heroes back regardless of their powers, including invulnerability.  These are the good guys and typically don’t kill.  Yes, anti-heroes are an exception, but they rarely have Superman-level powers.  This is because many authors try to avoid the abuse of such power and instill a strict moral code.  This is why characters like Superman hold back and depend a lot on being shields.  Push an idea that they are aware that they cannot be hurt, but others can and you can have them be more cautious.  This makes them more human and prone to mistakes.  It’s always made clear that Superman holds back.
  3. Invulnerability has usually been physical like in the case of Superman.  Authors who want to create tension will attack the character on another level.  I don’t mean psychic attacks even though that is fair.  I’m talking about emotional damage.  People see characters like Superman as god-like because of their powers and it’s made worse when the heroes are stoic.  It makes sense for Dr. Manhattan in ‘The Watchmen’ since he lost his humanity, but that was a storyline.  For Superman and similar heroes, he needs that vulnerable heart to counter the backlash caused by having an invulnerable body.  It won’t matter if he can ignore bullets when he left a crying husk because he failed to protect a loved one.  Readers can relate with someone so powerful if they can be brought to tears or enraged by losses that an average person can suffer.  It makes them human in spite of their abilities.

I know I’ll have some arguments in the comments, but that’s what it is.  Superman is a controversial figure at times because of his powers.  Invulnerability is a key component of the criticism, which is why anyone who writes a similar character should consider his history.  There have been versions that made him too powerful and the story suffered immensely.  Others have made him so human that you can forget that he is one of the strongest figures in the DC universe.  So, there is plenty of examples you can find of what to do and what not to do.

Still, the main thing to consider is if you really need to have a hero with this much power, especially invulnerability.  If so then don’t use it so casually.  People will react to how you play it off and look for reasons to care.

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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15 Responses to Backlash Toward Invulnerable Characters

  1. L. Marie says:

    I find the objection to Superman’s invulnerability and the accusation of weak writing interesting since nowadays so many people demand that female heroines have extraordinary power without any training or cost or that regular female heroines have the ability to beat up a male twice her size with no explanation required. This is not to say that at times I haven’t been frustrated because of a lack of tension in regard to Superman’s invulnerability. But those instances are rare, because the writers (and I’m referring to those who wrote Justice League/Justice League Unlimited) knew how to build tension through the use of magic (he’s weak against it), emotion (as you mentioned), and other struggles Superman had. I feel the same way with Wonder Woman and her super strength. Sometimes, it’s relaxing to not feel tension, and to know that certain heroes are going to get the job done.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For me, Superman’s powers are balanced by morality. Sure, he COULD kill villains, but he respects the law and waits for its process. He COULD become a dictator. He chooses to be a reporter instead, because information is the greatest power of all.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great discussion Charles. I hope you have a super weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a good reason to think twice before creating such a character. We expect the hero to win, but also expect some risk, danger, and emotional growth. Even something like Achilles’ heel was one thing to worry about.

    Like

  5. Chel Owens says:

    Great points. I’ve been thinking of this overpowered-ness with the recent heroes, like Captain Marvel. There’s not much depth or struggle in the superpowered heroes.

    Like

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