Ten years after Iron Man and The Dark Knight kicked off a comic book movie renaissance that allowed superheroes to infiltrate nearly every corner of the media, a new class of live-action heroes is emerging on the scene, one that skews significantly younger than those we’ve seen so far. The Avengers may have begun as a team of middle-aged men (and Scarlett Johansson), but the stars of new shows like Runaways, Cloak & Dagger and Titans are all still in their teens.
And they’re not the only young heroes on the scene. The teens of Teen Titans Go! just had their big screen debut, Young Justice will be returning to the airwaves after a six-year hiatus, and a youthful Miles Morales will be in theaters this December when Into the Spider-Verse hits theaters. (Miles isn’t the only high-school-age Spider-Man we’re seeing, either: Unlike some of his predecessors, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man feels as grounded in his high school student persona as in his superhero one, as invested in scoring a date to the dance as he is in saving the world.)
It’s tempting to consider this explosion of teen superheroes as just a way for Marvel and DC to keep the superhero money train going by slightly repackaging it in the hopes of appealing to new and different demographics. But writing off these properties as merely a phoned-in money grab would be a mistake. The truth is, teen superhero stories have long been some of the most complex and compelling ones around, and this latest generation of justice-seekers is offering a fresh and interesting take on what it means to to be a superhero.
Why are teen heroes so fascinating? For one thing, high school is an ideal setting for a superhero tale. Quite a few superhero origin stories function as metaphors for the discomfort, excitement and confusion of puberty and adolescence, and teen superheroes are able to explore that connection pretty directly. On Hulu’s Runaways, Molly discovers her super strength while she’s battling some intense period cramps; Karolina is hiding both her alien appearance and her attraction to women. Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe — perhaps the most explicit entry in the canon of superpowered coming-of-age tales — makes clear that Steven’s discovery, and mastery, of his abilities is part of his path to adulthood, as is adjusting to his changing voice and newly acquired facial hair.
And it’s not just the struggle of managing a rapidly shifting identity (and body) that teens share with superheroes. In many cases, superheroes take on the mantle of crime fighting because they recognize that the institutions that are set up to serve and protect the people are failing to do their job. In real life, it’s youth activists like Never Again MSD, Malala Yousafzai and Little Miss Flint who lead the charge in a number of our most urgent social battles. Unlike older counterparts, who are all too often beaten down by the system and circumstances of adult life, teens naturally possess a sense of moral clarity and dedication to justice that’s necessary to power social change.
Tandy and Tyrone, the stars of Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger, offer an illustration of how this youthful dedication to justice can pair compellingly with superpowers. Both characters suffered a traumatic loss at a young age — for Tyrone, an older brother shot by a crooked cop; for Tandy, a father who lost his life, and then his professional reputation, in the wake of an oil rig explosion. As they discover and develop their superpowers, the two teens dedicate themselves to setting these past wrongs right — even as the adults around them urge them to give up, move on and just accept the world around them for the corrupt and broken mess that it is.
And the jaded attitude that adults bring to many questions of justice plays another important part in teen superhero stories as well. Because more often than not, adults serve as obstacles in the lives of young superheroes, whether they’re mentors who don’t quite trust their proteges’ abilities, teachers and school staff who get in the way of justice, or parents who just don’t understand.
Throughout his time as Iron Man, Tony Stark’s pretty much been able to do whatever he wants — there are few people willing, or able, to tell a middle-aged billionaire how to live his life, particularly when he’s equipped with a bunch of high-tech weapons. In contrast, the MCU’s Peter Parker frequently finds himself bucking up against the rules put in place by Stark himself, even getting his suit taken away when he goes against Stark’s expectations of what a teen superhero can, and should, be.
Similarly, the stars of Young Justice unite as a team because they’re tired of the Justice League taking them for granted as sidekicks. In Runaways, conflict with authority figures is taken to a whole different level: The show’s stars come into their own as superheroes as they’re trying to figure out how to handle the revelation that their own parents are members of a mysterious, and powerful, cabal that’s spent the past few years sacrificing teenagers to an alien power.
And it’s these conflicts that teen superheroes have with adults as they test out their powers, fight for justice, and figure out who they are that may be the most alluring aspect of these properties. As Abraham Riesman noted in Vulture, some of the best supervillains draw us in because their goals are grounded and relatable, more about getting revenge for a personal slight than carrying out a 20-step plot to conquer the entire globe.
Most of us haven’t fought off an alien superpower that’s determined to destroy the planet, but we all know what it’s like to fight be seen, understood and respected as we figure out who we are, and what we believe in. Those struggles are embedded into the stories of every teen superhero, and they help even most fantastical superpowered mutant feel grounded, relatable, and real.
Lux Alptraum is a writer whose work has been featured in a variety of outlets including the New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Hustler. Her first book, Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal, comes out from Seal Press on Nov. 6, 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.