3 Superhero Tropes That Are Better Than They Get Credit For

“Some people say ‘trope’, I say well-hones writing tool” ~ John Rogers.

I’ve said before that I don’t have a lot of patience for people who put more value on ‘creativity’ (in the sense of doing something no one’s never done before) than on telling a good story. Like I said then, it isn’t so much that I have some sort of disdain for actual creativity; its more that I respect well told stories and using what’s there in the genre/setting. To put it another way, I don’t give credit for being ‘bold’ or ‘daring’ if it doesn’t work (See also Ang Lee’s Hulk).

So when we talk about a genre like superheroes, where a single formula (urban contemporary) has prevailed for so long, it’s very easy to pine for something new and get… Civil War or Future’s End, or god help us, Villain’s Month. Not that there aren’t a lot of cool new takes and formulas coming out, but whenever you have a bunch of any creative work, the vast majority will be crap.

And that’s when it’s an even fresher breath of air when someone pulls off something classic and does it well. Classic things like…

The Alley Save

Allow me to paint you a picture:

It’s late at night. The city sounds fill the air. Somewhere, there is a siren wailing. A hapless innocent is walking down the street—a street they are obviously not familiar with and which is making them nervous.

They have good cause for that fear. Some of the local thugs have noticed and are starting to draw closer, waiting for an opening to relieve them of their wallet and other valuables and then give them a lesson in pain on the subject of how much they don’t belong in the neighborhood.

It isn’t long before the innocent notices they’re being followed. They try to lose their pursuit, but they aren’t familiar with the neighborhood. A few twists and turns and they find themselves turning down a narrow alley with a dead end. By the time they realize, it’s too late; the thugs have reached the mouth of the alley and are closing in with pipes, chains and knives in hand. Terrible things are in store…

…Until the music swells from dark to triumphant and a figure drops from above, scattering the thugs like leaves before the wind, landing punches, kicks and bursts of light. Within moments, the thugs are all on the ground, waiting for the police. The would-be victim goes to thank their savior, only to find them gone—off again to find someone else to protect.

The Alley Save is a classic in the genre and for good reason. I’ve touched on this in my discussion of minions, but it bears repeating: anything that showcases the hero fighting on their terms adds to their characterization in a way that one generally won’t get a chance to show in the main plot.

Most things powerful or interesting to drive a superhero plot will, by necessity, force the hero to fight on its terms, at least to an extent. This means you won’t get the same view of just how powerful they are because main plot villains and setpieces are strong enough to last a full issue/book/movie.

That’s where the Alley Save comes in. It’s a quick little capsule of story that shows you the things you can’t show in a full plot and it’s familiar enough to the audience that it doesn’t need a lot of set-up. It also serves as a nice set-up for a twist, such as the save being set up as a trap, the innocent actually being someone known to the hero… or the innocent secretly being the hero or villain.

Like all the tropes on the list, it’s an old warhorse, but its’ solid. The reason it shows up everywhere is because it works so well at what it does and putting something in its place is really a case of reinventing the wheel.

Which is not the same issue when it comes to…

Trick Projectiles

Every few years, some writers forget what ‘fun’, ‘superhero’ and ‘utility’ all mean and they take away Green Arrow’s trick arrows because they’re silly or some such nonsense. I haven’t seen Arrow beyond a couple of episodes, so I don’t know for sure, but I’m sure he doesn’t have them there either because drama (not that I’m saying it’s a bad show or even not a fun show, just that I’m willing to bet it got thrown by the wayside because Flash hadn’t proven that a TV superhero could be four color flavored awesome.).

This happens a lot to archer characters as well as some gunslingers, and dudes who have weird guns like grapplers or gas guns. It’s a cyclical kind of thing: they start with a bunch of trick projectiles, get to weird or esoteric, and as punishment, end up being turned boring for a few years.

In my opinion, this is a mistake. Granted, some of the trick arrows down through the years have been over the top. I don’t think anyone is going to argue in favor of the oxygen mask with an arrow shaft sticking out of it, but there is a reason why these characters weren’t just outfitted with normal pointy arrows from the start. That boils down to a simple fact: just shooting arrows is extremely limited even for perfect marksmen.

When you just have regular arrows and are in a work where the hero can’t just murder everyone (and kneecaping them so they can never walk again is also way too harsh), you’re pretty much stuck pinning people to things and shooting the environment for effects (steam pipes being the most often used). While archery is a very dynamic looking mode of fighting, it really just existed for maximum legality (there’s a reason not many superheroes use non-magical swords or spiked flails). Same goes for most thrown weapons and guns: great visuals, zero practicality for the setting.

Hence, trick projectiles. They increase the versatility of the attack form while maintaining the awesome visuals. AND THEY MAKE SENSE. Yeah, a boxing glove arrow looks silly, but an arrow that can non-lethally knock people out (and we do see them in some works where the arrowhead expands into a large, blunt weight, which in fictional logic knocks people out instead of fracturing their skull) is. Same thing with arrows that deliver explosives, gas or other chemicals at range (fire extinguisher arrows in particular are just a plain great idea).

Further, consider the kind of people and creatures a superhero is going to go up against. Robots, aliens, mutants—things that are quite often bulletproof in the first place. That’s why you’d want to be packing EMPs, shocking, and immobilization methods, which you would then deliver in the manner you’re accustomed to.

Speaking of which, there have been a number of strange projectile users throughout the history of superheroes and villains. Rings, throwing knives, boomerangs (always popular with Batmen and dudes with ‘boomerang’ in their names alike), and even juggling bowling pins. Well stop and think about it: using any weapon with expert marksmanship is a unique skill that takes years to master for whatever reason (circus performer, actual aboriginal hunter?). Being trained in that and not in, say a regular gun, it make sense that they would look for a way to continue to use the skills they already have when they change vocations.

Keep in mind that various ‘trick’ arrows and other projectiles have existed throughout history and even today, you can arm say, a shotgun with scattering, solid, beanbag and even taser bullets. Yeah, I didn’t make those up for The Descendants, they’re an actual thing that’s around today. There have even been returning arrows uncovered and reconstructed, so think about that when you’re disparaging the noble boxing glove.

In the end, it puts more tools in the character’s toolbox and it is much more interesting to watch someone use a limited number of tools creatively than it is to watch them somehow pull off a miracle every outing with a single highly limited tool.


I hate it when people reference the Warren Ellis ‘underwear perverts’ meme in a genuinely derogatory sense. If you’ve never heard this lingual ‘gem’, it’s a reference to the common costuming trope of having male superheroes wear a certain garment over their tights. A lot of people think that this item is underwear worn on the outside.

What they really are is a set of trunks, specifically the kind of shorts circus strongmen (the design inspirations for Superman) wore in the 30’s and 40’s. Lazy artists throughout the ages have turned them into a sort of speedo now. And despite people calling the few male heroes that fall under this trope out for their apparent perversion, no one seems to complain about the fact that most female heroes where these and leotards if not thongs.

Aside from the somewhat innocent ignorance of the attacks, I used to not care too much about this. It was just a part of Superman and Batman’s designs. It did a decent job in terms of its original intent (breaking up the color scheme of the hero in less detailed art) and there wasn’t much else to them.

The reason I am not vehemently for trunks now is 1) the sense of history of connecting them to strong men, and more importantly… 2) I’ve seen the New 52 and movie designs for Batman and Superman.

This is going to be so awful.

L-Look… I get that DC wants to jettison everything right and good about superheroes from their movies while bringing a tiny amount of it back in Convergence. Sure. Whatever. I don’t care anymore. But for the love of all that is good and holy…

Hold on. I need a minute.

Okay I’m back.

Here’s the thing. Go back to the trailer and pause on the body shot of Superman. They have once again used their boring, un-creative Underarmor-inspired design for their Supes costume. Like all of the Under-armor designs of the Modern Age of Comics, it’s mostly made up of unnecessary textured lines. Now follow the lines. All of them are pointing to a single point on the Man of Steel.

Yes. His Super-dong.

Same thing goes for Batman’s new duds. The belt does a little, but since this is the DCCU and colors do not exist, it is, of course, black like everything else he’s wearing and so the tools just contribute to the lines pointing to the enormous Bat-bulge.

Listen, I’m trying to be mature here, but this is Bat-nipple levels of unfortunate costume design. Some Very Serious Person was paid money to design these suits and that was what they came up with. And remember that this is what we’ve been given as a less silly and more ‘serious’ interpretation vs strongman trunks.

While there are doubtlessly other costume styles that work, there’s really nothing wrong with trunks and I think they work very well for what they do and as a shorthand for superheros of a Silver Age bent. Especially if they’re going to be replaced by something far, far sillier.


That’s it for this week. Next week I’ll be going over some of my thoughts on the evolution of World of Ere D20’s Combatant class (last discussed here). To get in the mood, I highly suggest listening to some of the fun Actual Play podcasts over at Gamer’s Haven. Wizard’s College is my current favorite.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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One Comment

  1. “It also serves as a nice set-up for a twist, such as the save being set up as a trap, the innocent actually being someone known to the hero… or the innocent secretly being the hero or villain.”

    That’d actually be a great start for a story. A standard issue alley rescue, which leaves the innocent victim thoroughly confused because they’re the hero’s secret identity. Nicely sets up a pretender, an alternate universe cross-over, sanity lapse, timey-wimey confuzzlement, or a variety of other silver agey scenarios.

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