This question has been on my mind for such a long time and I'm talking about way back when I was at least 10 years old. I could never understand why my childhood friends would call Superman a "superhero", and then they would call someone like Punisher an "anti-hero" or "vigilante". It just came off as odd to me! So I'm going to give you guys my two cents on the "differences" between all three. Let us begin.
We're going to tackle the basic definitions for these titles... According to Merriam-Webster dictionary the full definition of superhero is:
a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also : an exceptionally skillful or successful person
As we see in the definition of a superhero it's very straightforward. An individual that has extraordinary powers and skills. Now lets see what's the definition for antihero (or anti-hero):
a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities
Ok, this is where things get a little foggy. What exactly are "heroic qualities"? We'll figure this out very soon let's move onto the last title, which is vigilante:
a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate); broadly : a self-appointed doer of justice
Yet again definitions begin to cross paths with one another, and we're starting to realize things aren't so black and white.
My Two Cents!
The reality of this situation is that being a superhero, antihero or vigilante isn't as black and white as we make it out to be. Yes, I understand these are fictional characters and I understand the writers automatically decide what a character is going to be. Still, I think this conversation can fall into the real world and it deserves to be discussed.
Right off the bat! The definition of superhero caught my attention because it is straightforward, but at the same time it comes off vague (as do the other two definitions). It tells us that in order to be classified as a "superhero" you need to have extraordinary powers OR skills. It further mentions that a superhero can be individuals that are extraordinarily successful.
To me this falls into the "Is Batman actually a superhero?" category. In my opinion and based on this definition, Batman is a superhero. I'm also a firm believer that he has superpowers instead of taking the "he's just a man in a batsuit" argument. The astonishing feats that Batman has accomplished are things no "ordinary" human being could accomplish in the real world. When you look into the definition for both "super" and "power" you might be surprised that it actually makes sense to say that this man has superpowers. What does it mean to be super? It is more than good it exceeds something!
Full definition of super from Merriam-Webster:
of high grade or quality
Power... Power is such a beautiful word to me. It's a word that can be used in a positive or negative way. It can be used for motivation or corruption. I used Merriam-Webster dictionary again to find out the definition of power:
ability to act or produce an effect (2) : ability to get extra-base hits (3) : capacity for being acted upon or undergoing an effect
There are multiple meanings to this word, but it's safe to say that a character like Batman fall under the category of being a superhero. He may not fly, cover his body in flames or shoot lasers out of his eyes... He still has powers of his own that far exceed so many beings. Remember, not everyone can be a Batman, but anyone can be a Bruce Wayne.
The title of antihero has always bugged me out for many reasons; one in particular is the word hero. What is a hero? I mean it may come off as a downright dumb question for certain people, but think about it for a minute. I bet if you told me a certain person, place or thing was the BEST - it wouldn't necessarily be the "best" to/for me. The same thing can go for the perception of beauty... You can have a room full of people - say, 30 or so. Twenty of the thirty say they find Kim Kardashian atrocious while ten of the thirty find her caring and beautiful. Even though more people find her atrocious that doesn't mean their answers are automatically right.
It just happens that more people look at this person in a negative light. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. That's the same way I look at the word "hero". Everyone on this planet has a definition of what they think a hero is. If you think I'm wrong check this out: Neo Nazis love Adolf Hitler, some people actually look up to George Armstrong Custer as a war hero, in America we still celebrate and act as if Christopher Columbus "discovered" a country. The list goes on, but these people are revered as heroes to others. I'm going to breakdown the definition of antihero and try to get a better understanding.
So from what we know an antihero is an individual that lacks "heroic qualities". I looked up the definition for what a hero is... Out of every single thing I've read about the definition, they all have three things in common: Admiration. Bravery. Nobility. These are the three main components that make a hero, so what separates Wolverine from being a hero like Spider-Man? The same can be said for Deadpool and an entire lot of others. I mean many admire Wolverine. He has proved countless times how brave he is. When it comes to being noble, Wolverine fits that as well. He may not come from a wealthy family, but he does have outstanding qualities. Wolverine is very courageous which goes hand and hand with being recognized as noble.
Ugh! I still don't get it. What makes him so ANTI-hero? Wait, I got it!
Now we're cooking. See, this is my issue with a silly rule like this. The antihero in reality actually fits everything that makes an actual "hero". Except there's one thing you'll notice about any character that's deemed an "antihero" or "vigilante". They're all killers and for some odd reason, that means they have no moral compass. Which is actually far from the truth. To have morals is to know what's right from wrong in human behavior. Just like the concept of beauty. Morality isn't that simple. Everyone has different standards of what they believe is right or wrong.
Here's an example for you guys: A villain by the name of Professor Pain kills ten people in a bank with toxic chemicals. Now, you the hero finally tracks down the Professor and the fight is on! A.) You beat the snot out of the Professor and turn him/her into the law (even though you know escape is imminent). B.) You kill the Professor. In return saving the lives of so many in the future.
No matter which one you pick, you're not in the wrong or the right. You did what you had to do based on your own morals. By killing the villain it doesn't make you any less of a hero or any more of one. What it all comes down to is taking down that threat by any means necessary. This is why I never have an issue with superheroes killing. We're not them. We don't understand what's going on inside their heads.
It's all up to YOU, the individual. This is why comic books are fiction. Comics make everything black and white. When in reality things are much more complex (As the cliché goes...There are many shades of grey) between what we call "good and evil". There will never be a decisive and definitive answer to what we call a "hero". All three titles share the same meanings. To sum it all up there's no difference. As human beings we have an obsession to label things so we can create a sense of "order". This is why we create words like "normal" and "weird". This is why people are split 50/50 whether or not to call soldiers in war heroes. That's just how humans work. We may have a lot of similarities with one another, but we are very different at the same time. After reading this article you can continue calling Wolverine, Deadpool and Rorschach whatever you want. Still, remember that all three can easily be labeled as heroes.