Superhero Theory

Published on Sunday, December 18, 2011 in , ,

Vegas Bleeds Neon's superhero placeholderMagicians refer to what most would call “tricks” as “effects”. Anytime you have an effect, however, people are going to look for a cause.

The search for the cause naturally takes the audience from the effect itself to the performer themselves. In analyzing how to guide an audience's perceptions of cause and effect, superheroes often prove to be useful as an analytical tool.

In past times, ancient myths might have served the same purpose, as discussed in Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces. Indeed, summaries of his works can be found here (archived) and here (PDF). A fuller examination of this approach can be found in the Power of Myth 6-hour miniseries.

In an age where more people are familiar with Batman and Superman, as opposed to, say, Orpheus or Daedalus, superhero examples com much more readily to mind.

I was first made aware of this approach in Jon Armstrong's article “Superhero Theory”, published in the December 2004 issue of Genii. Sadly, there is no reprint of the exact article online, but it can be largely summed up with 4 major points:

• Superheroes are defined by their powers, to the extent that they're often named after them (e.g., Spiderman, the Flash).

• Audiences are familiar with what a particular superhero is capable of, so the heroes have certain expectations (without being made predictable), and they're made more memorable.

• Superheroes are limited by their powers (e.g., Batman doesn't have X-ray vision, Spiderman can't talk to sea creatures), creating focus, as well as opportunities for challenge.

• Speaking of limitations, many superheroes also have a weakness. How they deal with this weakness can be as engaging as how they use their superpowers.
Jon himself talks more about the possibilities of examining magic in this way in the 107th Magic Newswire podcast, which is well worth a listen.

Since then, others have picked up the superhero theory concept and expanded upon it. Most notably, Andrew Musgrave's article “The Superhero Character Model for Magicians” (originally published here) is an excellent read, and probably the closest essay online to Jon Armstrong's original essay.

Andrew Musgrave returned to the superhero idea other times as well, including his posts “So you want to be a creature of power...” and “The Superhero Theory”. If you enjoy these articles, you might want to check out his other magic theory and archetype posts.

If today's post seems shorter than usual, it's probably because the links above include so much more food for thought. If you do magic, or even any kind of performing, these resources are well worth reading AND pondering.