Jan 05 2008

6 Common Problems with Superstrong Superheroes

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Beat’em-up superheroes like the Hulk and Superman often suffer from these six problems.

1) Winning a battle with raw strength is rarely interesting. When people rave about the Matrix fight scenes, they mention the insane acrobatics, not Neo’s ability to slam a crater into the ground. X-Men 2’s White House scene was far more gripping than anything the Hulk has ever done. It’s hard to surprise your readers with a character that’s just super-strong. It may help to give your character a minor power or two to help him mix it up.

2) It’s hard to write dramatic fights for superstrong, supertough characters. A fight can only be dramatic if the protagonist faces some plausible threat.  But if the hero can survive a bullet to the eye and is only vulnerable to an extremely rare mineral, then that means that only a supervillain can have an interesting fight with him.  In contrast, Batman and Spiderman can have interesting fights with bank robbers and other low-powered thugs.

3) Incredible feats of strength are usually cheesier than feats of agility. Readers can accept even the most ridiculous acrobatic stunts. For example, Live Free or Die Hard (which isn’t even a superhero movie) was believable even though its acrobatic stunts made Batman look clumsy.  In contrast, it was damn cheesy when the Hulk threw a tank and Superman pushed a planet out of its orbit.

4) It’s very hard to apply superstrength creatively. If a superhero can only solve problems with brute strength, it will get tedious very quickly.  It might help to give your superhero a minor power or two so that he can mix things up a bit.

5) Superstrength is generic. That’s both an asset and a liability.  Readers can understand generic powers more easily.  But you’ll have to work harder to distinguish a superstrong character from other superstrong characters because there are so many of them.

6) Superstrong characters are harder to relate to. Humans are vulnerable; Superman isn’t.

19 responses so far

19 Responses to “6 Common Problems with Superstrong Superheroes”

  1. illustaron 17 Apr 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Thank you for posting these. They’re definitely things I need to take into consideration as I write. I have a couple heroes with superstrength (one who’s just plain superstrong, and one who’s stronger-than-average but has other powers as well) – but hey! my heroes are based on Greek heroes, and strength was an important trait in Greek heroes. And while they’re superstrong, they are *not* invulnerable. Tougher than human, yes, but if my hero punches through a brick wall, he runs the risk of hurting his hand, as well.

  2. Chulanceon 09 May 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Hmm my heroes can punch through metal without any harm. I personally love super strong heroes. Strength can do multiple things sonic claps, throwing objects, using super strong finger nails as blades, punching a hole in a boat or ship to cause sinking or a plane, bending doors or hard metal into shield to reflect bullets, making gloves out of cars, wrapping arms around somone breaking their bones, leaping really high in the air, using a heavy metal pole to impale people or tossing people into things such as glass to finish them off. You can smash a van and surf on it ect/

    Spiderman and Batman are very powerful dude. Spiderman can lift 15 tons! He goes easy on normal humans to get pictures of himself and so he dosen’t hurt regular people. He can wipe out large groups easily and so can Batman.

  3. Chulanceon 09 May 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Also stomping your foot a few times to start an an earthquake Gohan from dragonball Z did that in the Great Saiyaman Saga did that to have an excuse to leave school.

  4. Blonde Emoon 15 Jan 2011 at 9:44 pm

    I concur strongly. Powers that give you an edge are infinitely more interesting than those that make you a god. Like Captain America, Daredevil, Batman, Green Arrow, etc.

  5. Sylaron 08 Jun 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Just out of curiosity: If relying just on superstrength is so boring, then how has the Hulk series lasted for as long as it has?

  6. B. Macon 08 Jun 2011 at 1:51 pm

    “How has the Hulk series lasted for as long as it has?” Short answer: I have no idea.

    Long answer: The Hulk’s series have lasted, but I don’t think he sells all that well as a solo superhero. For example, he placed #51 and #53 in the bestsellers chart for April 2011* and #46 and #50 in March 2011*. I think superstrength is less boring for a team superhero, because it’s easier to mix up the combat by switching to other characters. For example, the Thing is just one member of the Fantastic Four and Hulk is just one member of the Avengers. (The FF generally sell much better than the Hulk, particularly recently–they had the top-selling comic in March 2011 and hit #5 in April 2011).

    Granted, it’s possible that these two months are just an aberration, but that strikes me as somewhat unlikely. I randomly selected 15 months from the past 15 years and the highest he ranked was #24 in August 1997. (A caveat: I don’t think my random selections included the World War Hulk event, which almost assuredly spiked his sales).

    *The two most recent months for which statistics are available on Comichron.

  7. Metal Wabbiton 07 Oct 2011 at 4:09 pm

    I agree with these problems with a hero. I don’t know if anyone pointed it out yet though but a fight between a hero where the VILLAIN is super strong and the hero ISN’T would be pretty fun to write. Then you can have an exciting battle where the hero has to figure out how to defeat an unstoppable juggernaut….Like juggernaut from X-Men.

  8. zaczaneon 21 Jun 2012 at 8:24 pm

    first
    hulk has lasted as long as he has because he is very interesting because he is super strong along with all the problems and conflicts caused by his other side Bruce Banner
    second
    the reason people always talk about how acrobatics are cool is because writes have to put a lot of effort into making a look cool, unlike hulk and superman war it doesn’t need to have lots of work to be made cool
    third
    make a super villain with more powerful minions to make it more interesting
    forth
    just cause someone has super strength doesn’t mean they have to rely on it
    fifth
    if you think it is harder to write interesting things about heros who are super strong and tough then that means your not up to the challenge, at least not yet so get more practice by listening to B Mckenzie
    last off on a whole different topic
    the fantastic four are the crappiest bunch of super heroes ever, out of the entire bunch the human torch who is worth a damn

  9. B. Macon 21 Jun 2012 at 11:27 pm

    “The reason people always talk about how acrobatics are cool is because writers have to put a lot of effort into making it look cool, unlike Hulk and Superman war [?] it doesn’t need to have lots of work to be made cool.” I don’t know about this. If movies are any indication, I would say that more superhero blockbusters over the past ~15 years have been driven by the characters’ agility/technique than their raw strength. Cases in point: Nightcrawler’s White House scene, pretty much everything in The Matrix, most of the fight scenes in Captain America, most of the fight scenes in the Spider-Man series, probably the Batman series, etc. Granted, some of these characters do have noticeable strength (e.g. Neo slamming a crater into the ground), but that usually doesn’t lead to the most memorable scenes in the movie.

    If you’re dead-set on doing a character who is incredibly strong, I’d recommend giving him something as an alternative to just rushing at the enemy in every engagement because that will probably get tedious after 1-3 fights. For example, Iron Man does have some ability to fly right into the enemy a la Superman, but he has more ranged capabilities and more interesting mental abilities.

    “Make a super villain with more powerful minions to make it more interesting.” I am not sure how much this would help. I think the main issue with superstrong characters is that their fights tend to be generic and forgettable. I doubt that minions would add much in the way of style/pizzazz.

  10. Birdyon 01 Aug 2012 at 12:43 am

    I have a super-strong character, but she isn’t super-tough. Just tough enough to keep from hurting herself when she does use her strength. My villain has a personal history with her, so the villain would be able to psych her out and make her break focus. So, lots of potential, but has trouble following through.

    I’ve been looking at different fighting styles to find a good fit. Nothing she’d be a master in, just something to draw inspiration. Something that is relentless but would leave her open to counter attacks.

    Ideas?

  11. carloson 21 Feb 2013 at 4:30 am

    You are acting like your making a movie. This is a writing website, & it’s unlikely your comic hero will get a professional film done in the foorseeable future. I agree with making them realtable but you may want to revise the movie mentions.

  12. Dr. Vo Spaderon 21 Feb 2013 at 10:32 am

    *you’re

  13. carloson 12 Jul 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you doctor. But what I’m saying is in a comic, feats of strength are more believable. Read a superman or hulk comic and it’ll be equal to the movie scenes you mentioned that were “better and less cheesy” than superman and hulk’s movies.

  14. Engineer-In-Trainingon 31 Dec 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I believe one reason the Hulk comics, and films, are popular is not because he is super strong, but because he struggles to control it. While Hulk may think nothing of leveling a few city blocks to take out the Abomination, Dr. Banner seems to abhor the devastation left by his alter ego, especially the threat to other people’s lives. While it’s considered a bad idea to bring a knife to a gun fight, you shouldn’t bring a nuke either. Unfortunately, that’s what the Hulk brings every time, so the trick is using his strength wisely and carefully.
    I really like situations where the protagonist has to learn to use super strength and screws it up. If you want a film reference, I loved the scene in the Amazing Spiderman where Peter Parker attempts to brush his teeth the morning after he got his new powers. If you want a literary reference, read Children of Dune and look for the part where Leto has to learn how to walk after gaining super strength. I always wondered how Clark learned to give his earth-mom a hug without breaking her spine when he was a kid.

  15. Rebeccaon 25 Jan 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I don’t know. I think superstrength can be made interesting if there are some type of consequences to it that the hero has to sidestep around in order for it to be effective. What if a super has strength, but he can’t even hug his mother or wife until he learns how not to crush them in the process? Imagine going months without giving your spouse a kiss on the cheek until you master muscle control because you might bruise her in the process. Or maybe he can throw a car a great distance, but he has really bad aim and ends up hitting something else and endangers lives in the process. Or his skin isn’t unbreakable, so during a fight he gets cut, and his extra strong heart is pumping extra strongly, and he is in danger of bleeding to death.

    Mr. Incredible’s only power is superstrength, but he isn’t a boring super, and he uses his strength in interesting ways, e.g. stopping to help the lady with the cat and using the same tree to stop the bad guy, stopping a suicide by jumping, barely outswimming a bomb (but still not escaping the force of the blast), the way the family fights together on the island before getting captured (“I love you”). Mr. Incredible isn’t all “Hulk smash!” He uses his brains too (like figuring out how to defeat the killer machine twice), and when he doesn’t stop to think, then he runs into trouble (getting sued for two different occasions that happened on the same night, injuring his boss, all the multiple times he had to relocate his family due to using his powers when it’s illegal), hence the consequence that I mentioned. And he almost gets burned by two closing walls of lava, so he is not invulnerable either.

  16. carloson 26 Apr 2015 at 9:03 am

    If you think about, feats of strength are easier to depict in comic form. With acrobatic scenes/feats, you have to draw several panels, but with a strength feat, you can just draw your hero lifting weights, or a car or whatever in one panel.

  17. Corduroyalon 26 Apr 2015 at 9:35 am

    They are easier to depict, but that doesn’t make them cooler. When Batman dodges gunshots, it is certainly more interesting then when they bounce off the Thing.

  18. Halbruston 15 Dec 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Great article, and good comments. I LOVE the Hulk. My foray into superhero writing was obviously going to be a big strong smash-em-up hero.

    Thanks to your website, and this article in particular; I have created a hulk strengthed hero who has poor endurance, is not impervious to physical damage, and is an albino so even the sun hurts him.

  19. Blaze Kodakon 09 Jun 2016 at 8:14 pm

    My smasher MC, the big gun per se, is named Freight Train. He’s a weight lifter, but his super power is Kinetic Absorption. When his body is subject to force, his body responds by acquiring more efficient muscle patterns, i.e. Becoming stronger. With every ounch, he grows in strength, but his powers are incredibly taxing on his body. He is drained for days after tough fights. He often relies on his friends mimick and big iron to take on most foes, where he handles anything left.

    Another “strong” character my partner wrote is Rake. He is the loose cannon. The government only releases him when they decide killing a particular metahuman is desirable. He is naturally strong, but not beyond human means. His real power is called osteoregeneration. His body has high calcium bones which heal quickly, in a matter kf minutes. His muscles are good at forcing bones back into place. His nail beds also produce bone, so he has claws. His mind is broken, and he has only animal urges left.

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