A Hero is . . . Coded?

He’s a superhero, I tell you!

(Warning: This post contains serious spoilers for anyone who has not seen Free Guy. If you haven’t seen it, SEE IT. If you have, then carry on.)

Thanks, everyone. I have been . . . concerned that Joyeuse Guard’s tardiness (a year late!) would affect its reception, but it’s been meeting milestone after milestone. High Amazon rating, #1 New Superhero Novel (briefly), first 1,000 sold in five days, and now 100+ reviews. So I’m breathing much easier while working to make 2022 much more productive. But of course all work and no play makes Jack crazy, so . . .

So I was watching Free Guy for the second time with a friend I won’t name because that would be name-dropping, and I realized something; Guy is a superhero.

This came as something of a shock since I’m a bit of a superhero snob. In the way that Frenchmen are adamant about champagne only being champagne if it’s produced in the Champagne wine region of France under the rules that demand specific vineyard practices, sourcing of grapes exclusively from designated vineyards etc. etc., I’m adamant about who is and is not a superhero. It’s a hill I’m willing to to die on. I’ll go down arguing that V is a superhero while Punisher is not, for example (Punisher is a supervillain).

And I should have spotted it. The movie poster alone screams “superhero” in the campiest way. But I commented on it on my Wearing the Cape Facebook page, and readers started speculating about his superpowers, so I’m going to elaborate here.

First, Guy has no superpowers.

Wait, what?

Really. I just thought that needed to be said. Guy is a superhero, but he has no special powers; everyone else in his world can do exactly what he does. Well . . . this isn’t entirely true. Players can’t stay in the game to grind grind grind the way he did (it’s commented by Real World fans that he leveled up extraordinarily fast). But still, he played by the same rules as Players, could die just like their in-game characters did, etc. Guy isn’t even a superhero in the mold of Batman, since Bruce Wayne’s wealth gives him a “cheat” (all those wonderful gadgets) and his natural talents plus insane levels of practice and training make him “super-competent.” While Guy levels up to an impressive degree, he isn’t superhuman by the scale of Free City, and his gadgets are gadgets any player can acquire for their arsenal/inventory.

So how is Guy a superhero?

Superhero: A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers–extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mystical skills; who has a superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and who is generically distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary on of which is a closely guarded secret.” (From Superhero: The Secret Origin of A Genre, by Peter Coogan.)

I highly recommend Mr. Coogan’s book to anyone interested in superheroes as literary types, but the above definition may leave you scratching your head. What mission? What powers? What superheroic identity?

Guy’s Mission.

This bit’s simple; help Molotov Girl. But interestingly it’s a mission none of his Real World fans knew about. The pro-social mission they saw was Help the NPCs. This became an incredibly attractive mission to his fans. Why? Because they all knew Free City was a fantasy; In Real Life they were the NPCs, victims of forces over which they had no control. Now you can argue that Guy was just doing it to level up, and he was. This brings us to his superpower, but before I go there I’ll point out that Guy’s mission evolves to, in fact, literally become Save Everyone; he sets out to save all the NPC’s whose existence depends on Free City. But he was a superhero even before that.

Guy’s Superpower

So what is Guy’s superpower? A superpower, literally, is a power not possessed by others. Yes superhuman strength is a superpower, but sheer excellence of ability can be a superpower in that we see the excellence in action and are awed by it. Guy unintentionally creates his own superpower in his quest to level up without victimizing the NPCs of Free City. In doing so he displays an ability (to win) without doing what all the Players in Free City normally had to do to win; he leveled up purely by grinding along in Player vs. Player (PvP) mode. This was not just leveling up in an astonishingly short time but leveling up in the hardest way possible. The Players witnessing this saw this as a superpower although they couldn’t define what that power was. Superhuman levels of determination?

Guy’s Superheroic Identity

Now here’s where it gets truly subversive. The above elements, Mission and Power, are needed to make a superhero, but not sufficient. Characters with missions and powers exist in every other fantasy/sci-fi genre and aren’t superheroes.

Guy unintentionally created his own superheroic identity, or rather, his fans created it for him from their misunderstanding of what he was. In the land of Free City, Players crafted their avatars (skins) to be . . . “heroes,” embodiments of the human physical ideal, costumed like action heroes, outlandish heroic names, and so forth. And the Players not only saw Guy “saving the day” for the NPCs and taking on PCs who, well, behaved like the villains in Free City, but he did it with a skin that looked like a mundane NPC. The “NPC skin” became his superheroic identity, a pure statement of his perceived pro-social mission. He became Blue Shirt Guy. The LOL thing about this is the superheroic identity of Blue Shirt Guy hid nothing; there was no secret identity (assumed Anonymous Player) behind it. And Guy never had an “I’m Blue Shirt Guy!” moment; he was never even aware of his superheroic identity that was inspiring Players and viewers in the Real World.

So, pro-social mission, superpower, superheroic identity, Guy had them all. I’m sure other viewers realized this much sooner than I did (I’m slow like that, sometimes). People like myself and Mr. Coogan tend to overthink things; the movie unironically broadcast the judgement that Guy was a superhero with the interviews of fans it clipped in, including the interviewed Japanese kid wearing the Blue Shirt Guy costume just in case you didn’t get it (and yes, I’ve seen the BSG costume at conventions now).

It’s wonderful. A new superhero was born and I didn’t even spot it.


4 thoughts on “A Hero is . . . Coded?

  1. The generic conventions (like the code names and the brightly colored costumes) are important. In fact, I would say they are more important than those in fantasy and SF. Just the generic conventions of a sonnet are more important than an epic.

    You can have a superhero with neither a code name nor a costume, but you’re getting a border-line case.

  2. Glad to see your holiday season is going well. I like the idea of brightly colored costumes and code names. Although in the series I am working on, the term “Code name” is actually “call sign,” since I use a lot of Navy references (base commander, call sign). I also like superteams who get “paid,” and have a costume allowance–trash your costume, it is $50,000 per outfit taken out of your pay. But things can be rather expensive in the Pacific Northwest.

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