Why Aren’t More Superheroes Protagonists?

Superheroes, typically, are not protagonists.  By protagonist I mean the character who, over the course of the narrative, changes. The character journey, character arc, all that good stuff (For a useful primer on heroes, main characters and protagonists, check out this article by the awesome John August).

In most movies, it’s easy to pick out the protagonist.  Conventional screenwritng dictates that there HAS to be one, and there’s usually a big ol’ lantern illuminating how they’ve changed.  Page 15: Han Solo is a reluctant, money-driven mercenary.  Page 110: Han shows up even though he already got paid.  Lantern.

But superhero comics don’t have that.  The origin story often starts out with a character arc, but the rest of the series just rides that wave.  Peter Parker is irresponsible and doesn’t stop that robber, Uncle Ben dies — now he’s a good guy.  So yes, Amazing Fantasy #15 does have a character arc, and Peter Parker is certainly the protagonist.  For the subsequent 50 years, Peter Parker’s protagonism is in question

But is it a problem?  I’ll go with my typical answer: yes and no.  No, not every comic needs to have a character arc.  It’s unnatural rules like that which have sapped the creativity of screenwriters.

On the flipside, the advice has root in reality.  People like growth.  It’s satisfying on a human level.  When all the smoke has cleared, growth is what all human beings can relate to. The recent success of independent comics, dating back to early Vertigo, is fueled by the growth seen in these characters.  Same goes for most of the “best” superhero runs.

So why don’t more superhero comics have character arcs?  Part of the constraint is the medium.  When you have a series that runs for 200 or more issues, it’s hard to keep developing a character without going in circles.  I think this explains the success of a lot of modern reboots: when Amazing Spider-Man had stopped developing as a character, Ultimate Spider-Man was growing and changing.  Audiences reacted.

So what’s the solution?  Creators need to rise to the occasion.  Audiences will respond. Yes, it’s easier to craft a character arc in a 90 minute movie than in a 600 issue comic, but there are 3 proven ways that episodic media uses character arcs:

The TV Method – Incremental, small changes: this is what we see in most episodic TV shows.  From the begining to the end of each story the character changes.  In sitcoms, these changes are often so minor that they have no impact on the next episode.  Modern Family is a great example.  In dramas, these changes can build on each other, gradually altering the character over time.  See: Breaking Bad.

Extended Arcs – If the TV method is a quickie, then this guy is the 12-hour Tantric affair. The character changes slowly, incrementally, over a long run. When executed properly, it’s awesome and moving, watching a gradual shift in the character.  Too often, these attempts end up stalling in the middle to tread water, or go on beyond the end of the arc without steam.  Most of the catalogue of Vertigo successfully demonstrates these arcs.

Supporting Characters – Just because it’s a superhero comic doesn’t mean the hero needs to be the protagonist.  Frank Miller’s Daredevil is a great example of this – Elektra, Foggy, the Kingpin and Bullseye all have their own character arcs – in addition to a gradual change to Daredevil himself.  No surprise it’s considered one of the best superhero runs of all time.

With all the reboot fever going on right now, I’m hoping to see more writers using the opportunity to write genuine, growing characters.  But two of the best superhero books on the stands right now, Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery and Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics, are showing that it doesn’t take a reboot to write great character arcs.  Both turn the focus on the former supporting cast as they grow and come into their own, and both comics are hundreds of issues into their run.  Writers like this are showing what’s possible, and audiences are responding.  It’s time for other creators to take note, and for audiences to expect the best.

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6 thoughts on “Why Aren’t More Superheroes Protagonists?

  1. Definition #1 in the OED of a protagonist: “The chief character in a dramatic work. Hence, in extended use: the leading character, or one of the main characters, in any narrative work, as a poem, novel, film, etc.”. There’s nothing there about changing. So, like, I get what your saying, but you should probably use the word “protagonist” correctly. Plenty of superheroes are protagonists.

  2. I’m aware now, from a number of responders, that changing is not part of the dictionary definition of protagonist – but I still stand by my use of the word. When discussing fiction critically, it helps to have terms that are more descriptive, so I took the definition that was used in my dramatic writing courses and the John August article linked above. It’s certainly a lot shorter than repeating “the character who changes” over and over.

  3. Read the article…

    not sure I buy the premise (superheroes aren’t protagonists??? A protagonist is a main character. Yeah I know, it’s “the one who changes” — but is Beowulf not a protagonist or were protagonists just not invented yet? Honestly, can this blogger tell me with a straight face that Sherlock Holmes is NOT the protagonist of Sherlock Holmes???? Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Ishmael from Moby Dick, Zorro/Don Diego, Atticus Finch, Scout Finch, Captain Kirk in every episode of Star Trek…)

    I feel a rant coming on.

    I like a character arc as much as ANYONE… he mentions Han Solo and it’s a great example.

    How does Kunta Kinte change in ROOTS? His LIFE changes, he struggles, and his perspective is altered – so I guess that’s an “arc”, but — no, not really. Not in the conventional “character arc” sense of any screenwriting guru.

    How does Alvy Singer change in Annie Hall? He doesn’t. He accepts that he needs relationships because he needs the eggs etc, accepts Annie as his friend. Is that a CHANGE? It isn’t. It’s a change in the arrangement of his life, but in him, in himself.

    How does Marty McFly change or arc? I think he GROWS, becomes a man, but does he change? I don’t think so. His parents change (because of his actions).

    What the blogger’s going on about is — exactly as I said in Captain America — commercial comics suck donkey balls. (no offense to donkeys)

    They’re not ALLOWED to change, so the issues just recycle the same drivel over and over and over. Except now they kill off the character every decade or so to “liven it up”.

    What the blogger is complaining about is the management style of commercial big-business comics. The publishers stymie growth and change in the characters. Duh. That’s half of why I refuse to read comics.

    I’m only half-reacting to the article… half-reacting to the Hollywood definition of “protagonist”.

    My favorite fictional books are The Fountainhead, Fifth Business, A Prayer For Owen Meany, Roots, and Moonraker. NO PROTAGONIST IN THESE BOOKS CHANGES.

    I’m wrestling to figure something out here in my head. Cool discussion you’ve started here btw.

    How does Bruce Wayne change in The Dark Knight? He doesn’t. He experiences great tragedy (loss of loved one) and great torment (his Equal in Mettle and Determination decides to fuck with him), he accepts a blame he doesn’t own (Harvey’s crimes), but none of that is “change”. His LIFE changes (he has nemesis and his Girlfriend dies), but HE never changes. He was ALWAYS willing to shoulder ANY burden for the city he’s committed to.

    How does Kal-El change in Superman? He does — in standing up to Jor-El’s prime directive. Is that “CHANGE”? I don’t buy, suddenly, that it is. That’s “growing up”. Okay, growing up is “change”, but — it’s hardly Bush proclaiming, “WHoops, opening a 2nd war front on tax cuts while mired in the 1st was a financial error – I’m raising taxes and re-focusing our goals in these battles”. That’s CHANGE. Ebenezer Scrooge CHANGES, most protagonists do not.

    Change is Darth Vader tossing the Emperor over the railing. Total paradigm change.

    Most “character arc” is not “change”, it’s “evolution” and often just a slight one.

    Partly it’s semantics… “change” vs “natural growth”. Luke using the Force in lieu of guidance system, Kal-El telling Jor-El to take a hike, Peter Parker realizing that with power comes responsibility… are these CHANGES? I don’t think so. They’re natural growth. You experience the world and you change. Indy wants MORE THAN ANYTHING to know knowledge. He accepts ultimately that maybe some knowledge is too much.

    Captain America “changes” when he realizes “whoops I’m not a real soldier”. But to be honest, I never believed that he got into that dog-and-pony show in the first place. The guy who throws himself on a grenade – a GRENADE – buys a Senator’s story that this is the most important battlefield of all? He would never do that.
    (Tho obviously it works for the story)

    Romeo — doesn’t change. He’s an over-impassioned guy who follows his heart to the poison.
    Hamlet — does he CHANGE??? He becomes an adult with a different VIEW, but is that a change?
    Lear — he realizes and understands too late… is that change? I debate whether it is.
    Othello — change? I don’t see it.
    MacBeth — I don’t see it.
    Prospero — I don’t see it.

  4. Oops
    It’s a change in the arrangement of his life, but in him, in himself.

    Should be “but *NOT* in him, in himself

    If I sound troll-ish or bitter, I’m not

    This post has been helpful and I’m glad for that. I’m finding my thoughts resisting the idea of a guru’s need for “change” and replacing it with “growth”.

    Luke GROWS. Darth Vader (ultimately) CHANGES. Few protagonists CHANGE, they GROW.

    I’m on my own tangent and don’t mean to critique the author as much as I’m experiencing a brainwave of insight into my own approach. Many thanks to the author (Matt) for a valuable discussion that’s opening some doors in my head. Peace out

  5. Greetings Matt:

    You claimed that Superheroes aren’t protagonists in a typical sense & you made a few examples as to why not. After reading your article, I failed to see why you considered Superheroes as the exception only because I’ve felt it contradicts the protagonist’s source of the text. In other words, I think it’s interesting that you’ve brought it out here, but l’m having a hard time swallowing your analysis.

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