Sep 04 2011
1. It’s not that easy to find crime from the street. Most superheroes look for crime by aimlessly patrolling the streets or otherwise looking for readily visible crimes. As it turns out, there aren’t that many crimes visible from the street, perhaps because criminals would prefer to avoid witnesses and police involvement. America’s largest city (New York) has only ~450 bank robberies and ~300 outdoors murders in a typical year, so it’d probably be really hard to find one on a given day unless you were patrolling a massive area or knew where/when to look. And God help you if other superheroes in town have the same idea.
2. Maintaining a secret identity would be practically impossible, unless you were a real loner or your significant other, friends and family were idiots. For example, most crimes happen at exceedingly inconvenient times. The most common hour for a New York City homicide is between 3-4 AM. If you’re out in the middle of the night (let’s say) 50-100 times per year, it seems implausible to me that you could go more than a year or two without a few people noticing. I doubt most people could keep that up for even a few months before their friends/families/coworkers noticed something was amiss.
- If your hero is maintaining a secret identity from his/her loved ones, what does he or she do to keep them from the truth?
2.1. A superhero is probably going to get injured once in a while, probably by gunfire. If you got shot, how hard do you think it’d be for your friends/family/coworkers to notice? If you got shot more than once, don’t you think your friends and family would have a lot of awkward questions? For example, “Why the hell aren’t you going to the police? You got shot. Were you buying drugs?” If being a superhero is illegal, going to a hospital would be tough. Most U.S. states (including New York) require hospitals to report gunshot wounds to the police and getting the police involved would also raise a lot of awkward questions about what the hero was doing when you got shot.
- How does your superhero deal with injuries? Does he have somebody he can turn to? Or does he have to treat it himself (and risk infection) or go to a chop-shop doctor whose specialty is treating criminals?
- Is there any other reason a hero can’t go to a regular hospital? For example, maybe routine bloodwork would raise too many questions or she’s not a human.
2.2. If any criminals found out your secret identity, it’d be extremely easy for the police to figure it out, too. In real life, police officers would notice that Mary Jane gets kidnapped repeatedly, which is extraordinarily rare. (I doubt anyone in U.S. history has been kidnapped more than once by different strangers). By supervillains, no less. What would supervillains care about a random Broadway actress? Of all the hundreds of superheroes in town, doesn’t it seem strange that Spider-Man is so often the one to respond when Mary Jane gets kidnapped? Any detective with a pulse could easily tell that there is some sort of personal connection between Spider-Man and Mary Jane.
- If your superhero is trying to keep his identity a secret, is he taking precautions to keep these connections hidden? For example, maybe he has a fellow superhero save Mary Jane so that it’s less obvious he’s personally involved. Or maybe he convinces Mary Jane’s parents not to file a missing persons report (to buy himself time to rescue her without getting the police involved).
3. There are probably better things you could be doing with your superpowers than getting shot at and possibly risking major jail time. At the very least, Static Shock could probably generate enough electricity to interest a utility company and Storm could probably make a huge difference for somebody’s farm. Reed Richards takes this to the next level, though. He’d rather be a superhero even though he could probably beat the CDC to a cure for cancer and could certainly beat NASA to Mars. (Which isn’t saying much. At this point, it looks like three grad students, two slices of pizza and a bathtub powered by rubberbands could beat NASA to Mars).
- There are safer jobs that pay better than being a superhero, such as everything.
- If your superheroes are not violent or physically adventurous before getting superpowers, why would they gravitate to a very violent, dangerous position? What causes (or forces) them to make that decision?
- If your superheroes are violent and/or physically adventurous before getting superpowers, why do they decide to become superheroes rather than police officers or soldiers? (The pay’s better, the support’s better and you wouldn’t have to hide everything from your friends and family). For example, perhaps your heroes want to avoid bureaucracy/red-tape and/or the police force in the city is utterly irredeemable. Maybe the character is too young or can’t admit his superpowers to anybody.
- How long after developing superpowers does it take your characters to decide to become superheroes? In particular, if it’s less than a week, why? (Are you trying to establish the character as unusually impulsive?)
4. Rolling urban battles will eventually get innocents killed. When a superhero engages a criminal without much preparation, the criminal will probably get some shots off. If a superhero isn’t careful about engaging armed criminals with civilians in the area, it’s only a matter of time before one of those shots hits a bystander. Most superheroes are not usually depicted as particularly careful, which might raise problems with non-villains. For example, a bank manager’s #1 job in a bank robbery is to get everybody out safely, even if that means giving up around $10,000. Insurance will cover that and the police can catch the robbers later without civilians in the way. If Spiderman rushes in and there’s a fight in the bank, people will be afraid to go to that bank even if nobody got hurt.
- Do your superheroes take precautions to keep civilians from getting killed? If not, have any civilians been notably injured or killed yet? If not, why not?
- Do the superheroes have any conflicts with non-villains?
5. Why are supervillains dumb enough to stay where the superheroes are? By my rough tally, approximately 110% of Marvel’s superheroes live and work primarily in or near New York. If you have some smart villains, is there some reason they aren’t shouting, “Screw you, Seattle has banks too”? On the other hand, supervillains tend to be more flashy than intelligent—note how often they get caught in broad-daylight bank robberies. They might want to perform on the biggest stage under the brightest lights and a lot of New Yorkers have convinced themselves that New York is that place. Supervillains may also be too macho to admit that trying high-profile crimes in a city with more superheroes than hospitals might be ill-advised. Alternately, they may have convinced themselves that there are only a few superheroes in town, but there are so many villains that they’ll kill Batman and his sidekicks eventually. (Personally, I’d like my chances in Denver, but I’m addicted to living).
- If all superhero activity (or the overwhelming majority) in your world happens in a particular city, why? For example, maybe supervillains are drawn to New York because it doesn’t have a death penalty. (Federal crimes such as terrorism can still result in a death penalty even if they’re committed in New York, but it’s still a fairly plausible explanation). Alternately, if a particular accident or event caused most of the supernatural activity in your story, it might make sense that most of the supernatural activity in the world is pretty close to the scene of that event.
- If superpowered brawls between hundreds of superpowered heroes and villains are a daily fact of life in the town, why haven’t people cleared out?
Please see Part 2 here!
Thanks to Myna and Wings for brainstorming on this article and to the anonymous Google user that typed in [problems superheroes would face in real-life] for suggesting it.