Hardly a month goes by without a new superhero movie, and November is no exception: Justice League is coming out November 17, bringing together the heavyweights of the DC Universe, plus Aquaman. Sorry, Aquaman. No one likes you.
The Justice League isn't quite the oldest superteam, but it's an extension of the oldest. The very first team of superheroes, long before the Avengers, the X-Men, or the Guardians of the Galaxy, was the Justice Society of America, who debuted back in 1940. The Justice League of America (JLA) was an update of the concept in 1960, and the America part has been dropped and restored several times over the years. Since DC is trying to make a bazillion dollars worldwide, you can understand why they left the A out of JLA for this movie.
Recent DC movies have been, as my grandpappy would say, "total horsepucky" (with the exception of the terrific Wonder Woman film). But whether the Justice League movie is a winner or loser, it's a good time to look at some terms associated with the omnipresent genre of superheroes. Vocabulary shouldn't be your kryptonite.
Your identity is who you are, but identity is a more complicated issue for superheroes. Batman and Superman are not known to the world as Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent: those are their secret identities. You could say Superman has a third identity as Kal-El, his Kryptonian name. Some superheroes don't have a secret identity, but most do. It's a handy way of keeping the bad guys from constantly menacing your family and friends.
Some superheroes, like Batman, have no powers but plenty of training and gadgets. Others, like Thor and Wonder Woman, come from mythological races and are born with powers. But the most common way to get superpowers, especially in Marvel Comics, is through radiation. Cosmic rays turned Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm into the Fantastic Four. Gamma rays transformed Bruce Banner into the Hulk. An irradiated spider made Peter Parker into Spider-Man. A radiation accident blinded Matt Murdock, but gave him enhanced senses as Daredevil. Real radiation doesn't work like that, but it is an actual phenomenon, consisting of waves or particles of energy. In real life, too much radiation is dangerous, which is why you cover your privates with lead when you get X-rays.
Mythology refers to the accumulated stories of a people, like the tales of the Greek and Norse gods, which often explain the origins of the world and natural phenomena. The word is also used more loosely for any set of stories, such as superhero mythology, which might be the densest, most confusing set of stories in human history. If you'd like to know the complete history of Batman, good luck, since he's been continually published, usually in more than one comic a month, since 1939, not to mention numerous cartoons, live-action TV shows, movies, etc. Even Wikipedia can't keep up with this stuff.
Batman's parents getting murdered, Superman being rocketed from his home planet of Krypton, and Billy Batson meeting a wizard named Shazam all have something in common: they're origin stories. Superheroes almost always have dramatic origins to explain their unusual powers and even more unusual choice to fight evil clowns and giant robots in spandex. You can use origin to describe the beginning of just about anything. Many scientists believe the Big Bang was the origin of the universe. Theories about gravitational waves originated (started) with Einstein. Origin is a borrowing from Latin; people who discuss word origins are etymologists. Things that are the first of their kind are called original.
Technically, most superheroes are vigilantes: people who take the law into their own hands. Generally, the word doesn't totally fit the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman, who are mostly on the side of the police and government in their worlds. A vigilante is a violent outlaw, not a peaceful protector. The Punisher, who kills criminals, is a good example of a vigilante.
A nemesis is an enemy, but not just any enemy: a nemesis is your archenemy, the biggest foe you know. In real life, we joke about a person being our nemesis, but you could also consider laziness, time management, or schoolwork your nemesis if they often give you trouble. Each superhero has several nemeses, but there's usually a big one: the Joker for Batman, Lex Luthor for Superman, the Green Goblin for Spider-Man, and the uncreatively named Reverse Flash for the Flash.
Spider-Man's famous credo is "With great power comes great responsibility." He learns that the hard way after failing to stop a thief who ended up murdering his Uncle Ben. Though responsibility is particularly associated with Spider-Man, all superheroes feel similarly. Superman wouldn't be Superman if he sat around watching TV all day while Brainiac and Lex Luthor wreak havoc on Metropolis. In real life, we all have responsibilities, such as the responsibility of a parent to take care of their child, a teacher to educate their students, and a police officer to serve and protect. In Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker paraphrased his philosophy: "When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you."
Fortunately, it doesn't take radiation or a distant home planet to learn new words. We're all capable of donning the mantle of Word Person. If that's your mission, begin your training with this list: Superhero Lexicon.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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