2

In a lot of superhero stories, characters that usually have killer-based gimmicks, the assassin/hitmen or serial killer type of characters, are often portrayed as not having superpowers.

The majority of characters with killer-based gimmicks in Batman are usually normal humans with no powers, even though the character Batman is no stranger to dealing with metahuman villains.

This is common in a lot of superhero stories, but these characters are still portrayed as being a huge threat to the hero. It doesn't matter if the hero is super or not, it's almost like these killer-based gimmick characters are too cool to have superpowers in the first place. To be honest, this sounds very funny. Can it be true, though?

In my world, I give killer-based gimmick characters superpowers, but not too powerful. For example, I didn't give the assassin the ability to burn down the whole planet. I didn't give the serial killer the ability to be omnipresent.

I would give these types of characters low-tier powers. For example, a hitman type of character might have a never miss a target ability. A serial killer type of character could have tracking abilities. Just low-tier powers that would still make them close or relatable to their normal counterparts. Technically a super-soldier ability could still fit this standard too.

So in conclusion, does the law of cool make it cool for killer-based gimmick characters to not have any superpowers, because their normal skills are too cool?

3
  • 2
    "a hitman type of character might have a never missed a targeted spot ability" - Deadshot, one of Batman's villains, basically has this exact ability.
    – F1Krazy
    May 28, 2022 at 19:17
  • Depends on a franchise, I would say. In some (like X-Men), every notable character has a special power. In others, superpowers are doled out sparingly, and if character can effectively play the role without special powers, there is no need for those powers.
    – Alexander
    May 31, 2022 at 17:44
  • @F1Krazy but AFAIK it's a natural skill and not a superpower per se
    – Josh Part
    Jun 3, 2022 at 19:57

3 Answers 3

3

I actually think people are less impressive if they have superpowers. James Bond always has some might-as-well-be-magic super tech with him, that gets him out of a hopeless spot. But I think Jason Statham characters are more impressive. No super powers, just extraordinary skill and intelligence.

I was a fan of Superman when I was a kid, but eventually, Meh. I could be brave, too, if I was bullet proof, knife proof, with super strength. Is that really being brave at all? It's more just altruism; which is great. But the vulnerable cop that braves bullets to save a child, THAT is brave.

Sherlock Holmes in "Elementary" is braver than Superman; Sherlock can be hurt, crippled, or killed, yet faces down stone cold killers with regularity.

IMO Characters with superpowers still need severe weaknesses that can be exploited or they just get boring. Villains are indeed cooler without them; more impressive without them. The notion that they are just that smart, that expert, that infallible in their strategy, and are still physically vulnerable, makes them all the more impressive.

That these un-enhanced humans can evade (or entrap) even the superheroes with superpowers makes the villains larger than life. The evil Davids beating the good Goliath with nothing but a sling and a rock.

Personally, I'd rather see 007 succeed without Q or his gadgets, against the evil villains with all their gadgets. I'd rather see a David vs Goliath story, than a David+Magic vs Goliath story.

12
  • +1 on the the premise on "overcoming physical challenges is more impressive without superpowers" (though I'm fighting back the urge to argue the point on Superman "not being brave" xD). Supers with few moral scruples and fewer weaknesses are difficult to make interesting, because where is the conflict? These types of characters already tend to have little emotional attachment to others and are cynical enough that they aren't going to face meaningful moral dilemmas or care what society makes of them. Add threat of physical harm no longer being an issue and what's left?
    – user29717
    Jun 2, 2022 at 11:09
  • @DoctorPenguin Superman is not "brave" if he doesn't risk injury or death by wading into a hail of bullets. I am not brave if I wade into a hail of marshmallows or thrown peas. Superman has normal altruistic emotions and uses his superpowers in the service of others because he feels a normal urge to prevent death, injury or grief to others. But that doesn't make him brave. Most people would do the same if they were invulnerable. Bravery is risking serious loss in order to do the right thing. In later stories, Superman does that, but not in his day-to-day apprehension of violent criminals.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 2, 2022 at 15:01
  • But this relies on the premise that the only form of bravery that exists in storytelling is one where we risk physical harm to ourselves. Maybe you believe this to be true, I don't. IMO bravery can involve risk to our social standing and financial, emotional or mental well-being (for just a few examples). I found a friend with a severe stutter brave when he performed standup comedy to a room full of people, and my sister brave when she decided to quit her stable job to start her own business she was passionate about. Neither of these occasions had them at any direct risk of physical harm.
    – user29717
    Jun 2, 2022 at 16:09
  • @DoctorPenguin Those are valid; physical harm is not the only method to bravery, but Superman is STILL not brave to stop a bank robbery. What exactly is he risking when he does that? If anything, isn't he risking his social standing if he doesn't stop the bank robbery? Wouldn't the brave thing to do be NOT stopping it? Your friend with a stutter risked ridicule. Your sister risked financial calamity. One is only brave if they are risking some sort of harm to themselves, social, financial, health, physical harm, and so on. Superman doesn't risk anything if he isn't up against a super villain.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 2, 2022 at 19:03
  • 1
    I'd rather see a David vs Goliath story, than a David+Magic vs Goliath story but David had God on his side, which pretty much could be considered the biggest superpower of all
    – Josh Part
    Jun 3, 2022 at 20:01
1

I can see this as "if the character has a skill" is that skill a that one can train or is it something that is a superpower... but it's so niche of a power, the power may or may not be a power at all.

The idea that comes to mind is Daredevil Villain Bullseye, who's gimick is that he "never misses" when he throws something (anything) at a target. If he wants you dead, anything that can be held by him is a deadly weapon... and if you survive without the hero deflecting the projectile, it's because he let you. In the comics and other stories, it waffles as to whether this is a super power or he is just skilled or studies his craft really well. His most famous heroic foil is similar. Daredevil's power is he is blind but his other senses allow him to "see" better than individuals with sight. But that doesn't explain everything he does because a lot of his fancy visual gimmicks are developed from years of training. The superpower is more to allow his alter ego to have an extra layer of protection. Anyone who suspects a blind lawyer to be a superhero that has super-senses and reflexes is going to immediately laugh it off and look for someone else as a likely candidate.

Going back to Bullseye, whether his abilities are superpowers or just good training, there are stories where he is given precise special instructions to keep him from becoming a threat to guards when he is in prison (among other things, he's given a liquid diet to prevent him from having any solid food to toss at guards as well as stool softeners... to prevent him from... um... giving the guards any kind of crap.). Whether or not he's got actual powers... he's treated like he does because the point of the character is powers or skill don't matter... he's a serious threat.

1

I think it's 50% follow the leader, 50% genre conventions.

It's 50% follow the leader because most of the hitmen or assassin-type characters come from the more "down to Earth" series like Batman, Daredevil, Luke Cage, The Punisher, and the like. I.e., Electra started out as an assassin in a Daredevil series, and the Punisher was introduced as a gun-for-hire trying to kill Spider-Man. For these series that are trying to be more "grounded", using hitmen, assassins, and serial killers is a way to introduce action and excitement without going over-the-top with it, since hitmen, assassins, and serial killers are all things that exist in real life. Because superhero comics tend to recycle themselves a lot, it leads to a lot of repeated and pastiched ideas.

Another factor is that it depends on the types of villains the heroes face. DC isn't known for its good villains except for its cosmic ones (Darkseid, the Sinestro Corps), and its Batman villains (who, because it's Batman, mostly don't have powers except for Clayface and Killer Croc). So there isn't a lot of room for superpowered individuals with human motivations. Flash is an interesting exception because most of the rogues besides Zoom and Gorilla Grod are technically in Central City's version of the mafia, and hence are technically hitmen.

In Marvel, most of the big-name Marvel heroes (Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man) are globetrotters and hence aren't likely to face street-level threats like assassins or hitmen. The threats they face usually have broader reach and power. Many of the street level heroes like Daredevil or Luke Cage tend to have very subtle powers, so their villains tend to be subtle to compensate. The one exception to this is Spider-Man, and in fact a lot of Spidey villains tend to have over the top powers and be hitmen, assassins, etc. Rhino is usually depicted as a mob hitman, Scorpion was an assassin and acts as a hitman from time to time, there were the Enforcers, Kraven the Hunter could be considered an assassin, etc. And you want serial killer with superpowers? Carnage.

The other 50% is 25% pragmatism and 25% in-universe logic. Mostly for two reasons...

In-Universe Logic: If you were a flying brick type like Superman, for what reason would you want to be an assassin or a hitman? You have tons of power and can basically do whatever you want. It's probably for this reason that even when super-powered hitmen and assassins do show up in fiction, they often have their own goals and do assassin/hitmen jobs just to pay the bills.

Story Pragmatism: A superpowered assassin/hitman/serial killer would be boring to read. Like, imagine if Superman decided to become an assassin instead of a superhero. Someone could kill anyone on the planet they wanted, provided they pay Superman enough money to do so. That could be an interesting story, but it's so overpowered and overblown it bends the rest of the setting around it.

Or, alternatively, imagine if a flying brick like Superman was a serial killer. Like, not a warlord like General Zod, but an actual serial killer. That would be a complete nightmare, because there would be next to no way to stop him. So there's very little tension in the story because it's not a game of cat-and-mouse between the heroes and villain, it's a game of nuclear-warhead-and-mouse. And, of course, if the heroes did find a way to stop him there's no way they'd let a serial killer flying brick live, and even the most kill-averse heroes would have a hard time justifying keeping him alive. People's desire to not kill someone in conflict is directly proportionate to how easily you can reason with the enemy. So there's no chance of him coming back for more adventures because they're going to be more thorough in killing him than Dracula.

Invincible actually kind of shows the problems with this when Battle Beast is hired to show up for what amounts to a milk run early in the series. Battle Beast, for those who don't know, is the equivalent of Thanos deciding to take time out of his busy day to do thugwork for the Kingpin or some other street-level crimelord. The local Superman equivalent even says "screw this, I'm out" and doesn't show up despite being in the area. The result is a complete one-sided slaughter that only results in the heroes living because Battle Beast got bored and left.

There's also Empowered's Willy Pete, who is...very NSFW but basically what happens when you combine a serial sexual offender with the Human Torch. I don't recommend looking it up if you're disturbed by that kind of thing.

Like, there are stories that can be told with this, and it makes sense people with high-level powers would hire themselves out or be serial killers, but it needs to be handled carefully or else it overpowers the story.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.