I've been on a real superhero kick lately. In the last six weeks I've watched The Dark Knight, The Incredibles, episodes from Lois & Clark, and I've read Watchmen.
Of course "superhero story" is about all that these four have in common. In terms of format, one is a graphic novel / comic book, one is a television show, one is a live-action film, and one is an animated film. They also have little in common in terms of tone, from The Incredibles, which is a family-friendly comedy (albeit with some serious moments) to Watchmen, a dystopian murder mystery, with Lois & Clark and The Dark Knight falling somewhere in the middle.
But they all fit the broad definition of a superhero story, which has given me a chance to examine what I love about these stories.
It turns out that I think secret identities are very important in a superhero story. (It's probably why I've never really gotten into the X-men. No mild-mannered alter ego? No thanks!)
But what I really love is not just the existence of a secret identity, but the interplay between the dual lives, especially the times that each life bleeds into the other.
For example, my favorite scenes in The Dark Knight are when Bruce Wayne takes out one of the Joker's thugs who thinks he's just a "pretty boy," and later, when he crashes his Lamborghini to protect Coleman Reese, the Wayne Enterprises employee who's been targeted by the Joker for trying to reveal Batman's secret identity. (Jim Gordon foreshadows the second event when he sarcastically says "Maybe Batman will protect you," which, of course, Batman does but nobody realizes it was him. And then Bruce catches Coleman's eye and gives him the slightest of nods and Coleman, who was in a panic after the Joker puts a price on his head, looks even more terrified to have been rescued.)
In The Incredibles, it's the family dinner argument that forces everyone to use their powers (and then suddenly stop when they're startled by a knock at the door), plus Bob often doesn't know his own strength, so a tough day at work leads him to crush a doorknob, dent the frame of his car, close the car door so hard the window shatters, and accidentally throw his boss through about six cubicle walls.
In Lois & Clark, Clark often uses his powers on the sly or forgets that he's not supposed to have them. E.g.:
Lois: Do you want to borrow my binoculars?
Clark: I don't need them.
Lois: [gives him a quizzical look]
Clark: I mean—it's hard to use binoculars with glasses.
Clark's life intrudes on Superman, as well, because Superman constantly has to think of excuses for where Clark has just disappeared to and pretend that Clark has filled him in on things he wouldn't otherwise know about.
There wasn't a lot of this in Watchmen—I can't think of anything besides Daniel and Laurie beating up a bunch of muggers. (With such a large cast of characters, it's hard to focus much on the daily life of any one of them. Plus, most of them have given up their superhero lifestyle when the story starts. I guess maybe you could count Adrian fighting off his would-be assassin, but Adrian's also given up his secret identity, so I'm not sure it counts.)
I'm not sure why the interplay between identities is so important to me. (I mean, it seems like an awful lot of work to create a character with separate identities if all I then want is to see those identities come together again in some way.) Perhaps it has something to do with the idea of seeing past a superficial exterior to recognize the depths of the person underneath.