Families are different for those with superpowers. Sarah Shaffi explores the importance of the ‘found family’ trope in superhero and supervillain narratives.
What is family? The Oxford Living Dictionaries defines family first as ‘a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit’, with a sub-definition saying that a family is a ‘group of people related by blood or marriage’. That definition is now, to put it mildly and kindly, narrow and outdated. A secondary definition, of family being ‘all the descendants of a common ancestor’ is slightly more inclusive, but even then the emphasis is on bloodlines.
Many of us do have people we love because we share DNA with them, but the definition of family is now much looser and more nebulous, and doesn’t need to involve a formal familial connection. Often in life we’ll have ‘found’ families too: a group of people who we choose to love like we would a family member.
As a trope, this is particularly common in fiction, where stories of happy, conventional families rarely prove as interesting as stories of orphans or outsiders forced to find their own family. And nowhere in fiction does the found family, or family of choice, exist in such abundance as it does in superhero narratives.
Found families in superhero stories are brought together for many reasons: through tragedy or the necessity to work together to fight an outsize power, through a desire for love and acceptance, or through a need for mentorship.
Taking a superhero away from their birth parents means their motivations for operating as a hero are more complex than if they remained in happy, birth family situations. Creators of superheroes, as well as writers, illustrators, filmmakers and more playing in these worlds, find a rich stream of issues to explore, from feelings of abandonment and inadequacy to daddy issues. For readers, therefore, this ups the stakes and makes the individual more interesting to fans – essential for the comic book business, which needs people to purchase its work week after week after week. This can go some way to explaining the popularity of the found family trope, which, if you look even briefly, is everywhere in comic books and their film and TV adaptations.
That’s not to say that traditional family set-ups aren’t a part of the superhero canon but, like any good story, these do often come with a twist.
The Fantastic Four includes siblings in Sue Storm and Johnny Storm, as well as a couple in Sue Storm and Reed Richards – as a foursome the group has elements of both a conventional and found family, and is also a group of colleagues. Spider-Man seems to have a conventional family set-up – although he’s an orphan (his parents are killed in a car crash), he is brought up by his aunt and uncle. In the newest reboot of the Spider-Man films though, he’s also got a found family – Tony Stark (Iron Man) and his chauffeur Happy both act as mentors and father figures for the teenager. Wonder Woman has a mother –Wonder Woman’s official title Princess Diana of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta –, and in later comics her dad is Zeus, but she is brought up by a collective group of women on Themyscira.
Perhaps the most famous example of the traditional/found family melding is the Kents. Kal-El, whose parents send him to Earth to save his life, is literally found by Martha and Jonathan Kent after his rocket reaches the Kansas town of Smallville. He is adopted and grows up in a fairly conventional family set-up as Clark Kent before assuming his Superman identity – Martha and Jonathan become Clark’s found family only after he’s a superhero and understands that he has a blood family. Here, we get the best of both worlds – a loving family set-up, and a person who is also seeking who they are outside of this family. Superman, although he has lived through his fair share of hard times, is a superhero who has love and support in abundance from his found family and his birth family.
Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, is an altogether more angsty superhero. His desire for revenge for the death of his parents motivates him to become a crime-fighter. More compelling, perhaps, than Batman’s battles against the dark forces of Gotham City are Wayne’s daddy issues – his need to both live up to the father who died a hero after being shot and his desire to find someone to look up to and teach him how to be a man. His relationships are often complex, from Alfred, who is a substitute parent but is also in Wayne’s employ, to Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing), who in some narratives, such as the recent Netflix show Titans, has left his role as Robin because of Wayne’s increasing need for control and for blood.
Many superheroes are, like Batman, searching for a new family after losing theirs. Others need a new family because they were rejected by their original family for being different, or left them for their protection. Outsiders can become insiders once they find those in a similar position to them.
The X-Men, for example, are brought together by their Mutant status; hiding from the world they find a home – sometimes literal in the form of the X-Mansion – and a band of people who have experienced the same emotional journey as they have.
The aforementioned Titans brings together four people who don’t have a family in the traditional sense. Rachel Roth discovers the woman who brought her up is not her mother; Dick Grayson lost his parents in a tragic circus accident as a teenager; Gar Logan has until recently has been living with another found family, all of whom share the fact that their corporeal forms can change in ways that don’t fit with accepted norms; and Koriand’r remembers nothing about herself except that she is on a mission that involves Rachel.
The Titans are also fighting outside forces, something families of choice like the Avengers and Justice League also do. But it’s not only superheroes that operate in found families; supervillains, the other side of the same coin, also need love and companionship. The Suicide Squad – from the 2016 film – is a found family of supervillains brought together to execute dangerous black ops missions, while the DC TV show Legends of Tomorrow sees a grouping of villains and lesser superheroes working together.
These groupings are fascinating because they often bring a disparate group of individuals together: the Avengers are made up of stoic Captain America, gregarious Iron Man, mysterious Black Widow, et cetera. There’s nothing like the feeling of satisfaction you get when seeing or reading about people who set aside their differences, find a common cause, and work together in the name of the greater good.
But in this kind of found family the possibility for tension and disagreement is high – the rifts hurt so much more and feel more like a betrayal when it’s people you have chosen to love who turn against you. Take Civil War, billed by Marvel as a political conflict. It’s actually the story of a found family torn apart when Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man find themselves on opposing sides of a government proposal to register all superheroes. The consequences of this conflict (spoilers ahead) are devastating – not only does the argument cause rifts between other superheroes, in the comics it also results in the death of some characters including, in the aftermath, Steve Rogers himself.
When we’ve had to watch or read about those found families working their way through internal conflict, we appreciate it all the more when they come back together. After all, all families – chosen or not – fight, but when something bigger threatens them they, hopefully, make up.
In their found families, superheroes find friends, mentors and romantic partners and, most importantly of all, a family that accepts them without any judgement. A found family doesn’t judge its members for being a bit different – in looks or abilities – because they’re usually all a little different.
A found family doesn’t look down on someone who has trouble voicing their struggles sometimes, because all the members understand what it’s like to suffer. A found family is there to stand by a superhero’s side in times of trouble and in times of triumph.
And really, isn’t that what everyone wants from a family?
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and editor. She writes about books for Stylist Magazine online and is books editor at Phoenix Magazine. She is a judge for the Jhalak Prize 2019. Sarah is editor-at-large at independent children’s publisher Little Tiger Group. She regularly chairs author events, and is co-founder of BAME in Publishing, a networking group for people of colour in publishing. She can be found tweeting @sarahshaffi (where you can often find her talking about superheroes) and online at www.sarahshaffi.com.