Superhero Prevalence Stages

When it comes to settings that contain superheroes (or superpowered individuals by any other name), each setting or work can be ranked according to how common and well-known superpowers and superpowered beings are in it. For ease of categorization, we can divide this spectrum into three categories: Early, Middle, and Late stage. This refers not to the date of publication— an Early setting could be published very recently or a Late setting very long ago— but to the setting's progression from "relatively down-to-Earth with a few Acceptable Breaks from Reality" to "wacky crazy crossover land where anything goes."

These three stages roughly correspond to the first three of The Ages of Superhero Comics:

This correlation shows itself clearest in newly created superhero universes of each era: the Charlton Universe (1960) and the Lee-Kirby-Ditko Marvel Universe (1961) both began in the Early Stage, but progressed to the Middle Stage within a year or so of publishing. Similarly, the Image Universe (1992) began as a Middle Stage universe and rapidly progressed to Late Stage. (Arguably, the only reason Image took any time at all to progress from Middle to Late was the necessary time to introduce a sufficiently large number of characters.)

Early Stage:
  • Early settings tend to contain as few as one or no powered superheroes. In a work centered on a superhero team, there may be five or six. Technological superpowers and gadgets will tend toward the hard side of Mohs' Scale.
  • Due to the relative lack of other superheroes beside the main character(s), there will be few to no crossovers. Those that do occur will typically concern two superheroes meeting for the first time; they are likely to be antagonistic toward each other at first.
  • Antagonists are likely to be garden-variety crooks and mobsters as opposed to supervillains and will generally lack superpowers, with the possible exception of one main archnemesis. Any villains with powers are likely to derive them from the same source as the hero(es). (Magical heroes will have magical villains; alien heroes, alien villains; mutant heroes, mutant villains; etc.)
  • The existence of the superhero(es) and other superpowered individuals is likely to be unknown to Muggles, or at most an urban legend. If there are a number of superpowered individuals, there is likely to be a masquerade to conceal their existence.
  • The superhero is unlikely to work directly with/for the authorities. If aware of their existence, the authorities are likely to either deny it or call for his arrest as a vigilante. Any cooperation that does exist is likely to take the form of one or two "inside men" who cooperate with the superhero on a strictly informal basis. If the government is the source of the hero's or villain's powers, it's because a shadowy Government Conspiracy started a Super Soldier project.

Middle Stage:
  • Middle settings may include more than one major superhero, most with superpowers and each with a rogue's gallery of villains both powered and unpowered. Technological superpowers and gadgets will begin to trend toward the softer side of Mohs' Scale.
  • In settings with more than one hero, crossovers and team-ups will be relatively common and relations between superheroes generally friendly, with several small, organized superhero teams forming. Villains will still be largely disorganized, with only the occasional team-up.
  • The existence of superheroes and supervillains is likely to be public knowledge. In the best case, some of them may be considered celebrities; in the worst case, it may take the form of Fantastic Racism.
  • More superheroes are likely to work directly with or for the authorities on a regular or formal basis. Some nations may "sponsor" one or more superheroes or hero teams, openly providing them with a headquarters, police cooperation and possibly even the source of their powers (if technological).

Late Stage:
  • Late settings tend to include dozens if not hundreds of superpowered individuals. They may be considered a minority group (likely if they are mutants or aliens) or even form one or more small nations. Technological powers and gadgets will represent the entire spectrum of Mohs' Scale.
  • There is likely to be one large, very organized superhero governing body with a shared headquarters. It may have the authority to sanction or reprimand individual heroes, divide regional territories as the responsibility of individual heroes or smaller teams, dispatch heroes where they are needed in times of crisis, etc. This organization may be considered a military (pardon the pun) superpower and have diplomatic relations with governments or the United Nations as though it were a nation itself.
  • Supervillain team-ups will be common; they may organize into one or more large teams as a counter to the heroic governing body.
  • The authorities are likely to have formal legislation in place to govern the activities of superpowered individuals. Most positively, this may take the form of guidelines for what they may and may not do within the law to protect them from charges of vigilantism; in the worst case, it may be a Super Registration Act. If the government is directly involved in the creation of superheroes, they are likely to have moved on to mass-producing Super Soldiers by now.

Any setting that persists for any length of time will find itself naturally sliding toward the Later end of the spectrum as more characters and plot elements are added. Almost nothing short of a Cosmic Retcon can shift a setting the other way. On the other hand, individual works set in an established setting may very well display earlier stages, if the author chooses not to borrow too many superhuman elements from the overall setting for that particular work. Case in point: Batman Beyond, while set in the Late Stage DCAU, falls squarely into the Middle Stage itself.

See also Standard Super Hero Setting.


Early Stage:

Anime and Manga

Comic Books
  • Most "Year One" books and origin stories fall in this category.
  • Most if not all Golden Age comics belong here: Typically, characters like Superman and Wonder Woman were assumed to be the only superheroes in their universes, and it was only later that they were combined into publisher-specific, overarching universes encompassing many different heroes.

  • Batman Begins falls here: no superpowers, relatively grounded tech, mob bosses instead of supervillains, etc. Fitting, since it was loosely based on Batman: Year One.
  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe began in the Early Stage with the first five movies (Iron Man 1 and 2, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) and progressed to the Middle Stage with The Avengers.
    • Iron Man — the hero fights terrorists, and his only superpowered enemy has a knockoff of his power suit.
    • Captain America: The First Avenger definitely falls here: Captain America is the only Super Soldier, created to fight a threat with a science-fiction bent to their methods, without any superhumans to oppose him, except the Red Skull (an archnemesis whose origin involves Cap's super-soldier serum).

Live Action TV
  • Power Rangers in the "Zordon era" (its first six seasons). It has some elements of the Middle Stage already, but it's mainly just the one team and the public is in the dark about the details.
  • Alphas falls here, no-one wears costumes and the very existence of superhumans is kept secret by the government. The only thing that differs it from most Early settings is supervillians (albeit non-costumed ones) are numerous, and highly organized. Of course given that at the end of Season One, Rosen reveals the existence of Alphas, it may become Middle stage soon.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel start out as early stage horror/superheroes, with only one Slayer and only one ensouled vampire. Over the course of each series "champions" become more numerous, and in the continuing comics they pretty clearly reach stage 2.
  • The first season of Arrow firmly falls into the Early Stage. Oliver isn't considered a hero, but is a vigilante (known simply as 'the Hood'). He is wanted by the police. Most of the villains he takes on are mobsters and corrupt businessmen and officials. Even the occasional 'super-villain' is fairly grounded - Deadshot is a contract killer, Merlyn is essentially a domestic terrorist, Firefly is an arsonist etc.
    • Its sibling series, The Flash (2014), starts off somewhere in between the Early and Middle stages. Barry Allen is the only known superpowered hero (though Firestorm makes his debut in the middle of the first season), but the Mass Empowering Event that granted him his speed also gave rise to a large number of metahuman criminals, and there is technology that falls on the softer side of Moh's scale, like Captain Cold's Freeze Ray.

  • The period from the start of the Heroic Age to the epoch of the Argonauts in the Classical Mythology was mostly centered on individual heroes (like Cadmus, Perseus, and Bellerophon) battling their respective monsters, with the implication being that other heroes are not part of their worlds.
    • Hercules in a way starts out here. Most of his early adventures are solo stories and the character is usually older than the members of the middle generation (Theseus trying to emulate him when he starts his adventure, the Argonauts wanting him to be their leader because he already had a long established history as a hero and going to war with Nestors father when Nestor was still a child). He lived long enough to fall into the middle generation.

Western Animation

Middle Stage:

Anime and Manga
  • In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's, we have superpowered team vs. team action, but there is still a considerably Muggle presence (as in, there are some who are still relevant to the plot).
  • The first Pretty Cure All Stars movie was a Bat Family Crossover featuring characters from the six seasons screening up to that point (a total of 14 heroines), and a new movie was made every year, incorporating the team from that season (and Sixth Rangers from the previous season who had not been introduced when the last movie was released). By the time of the fifth movie (coinciding with the tenth season, DokiDoki! Precure), there are 32 Precures, and at one point in Doki Doki Precure, one of the villains comments that at this rate it won't be long before there are a hundred.
  • In Kotoura-san, this is the main goal of Yuriko Mifune's ESP club even though she doesn't have Psychic Powers herself. However, her mother did (Super Senses to be exact), and was Driven to Suicide for being called a fake. Yuriko also suffered by proxy, hence her motivation.
  • Dragon Ball is an odd duck, roughly Middle stage crossed with World of Weirdness. Strange creatures and martial-arts-based superpowers aren't exactly common, but they're not unknown to the general public either, and there's no real Masquerade to keep them from finding out. There's not much organization more formal than a few loosely-affiliated martial arts schools. In the Z era, the characters travel to space where they find that the galaxy at large tends more toward a Late era setting, but Earth stays more or less Middle thanks to an implied Weirdness Censor that has all but a handful of characters perpetually acting like they somehow forgot about the last time the Earth was invaded by aliens. A low-key Masquerade is introduced, not to keep Earth in the dark about superpowers per se, but to tone them down enough that the non-powered Mr. Satan can take credit for defeating Cell. (Some of the non-canon movies feel more Late, such as Bojack Unbound, in which Earth apparently has friendly enough relations with other planets to be able to invite a bunch of aliens over for a martial arts tournament.

  • Nolan's The Dark Knight arguably falls here: The sci-fi is starting to go a lot more soft, the existence of the Batman is an established fact of Gotham life, his cooperation with the police has gotten a lot more regular now that Gordon is promoted and once they bring Harvey Dent in, and the Joker is a bona fide supervillain (albeit sans superpowers).
  • Mystery Men seems a pretty quintessential example. Soft sci-fi is showcased throughout the film, the plot focuses on a team of heroes going through some rather disorganized recruiting, the existence of superheroes is widely known (though disorganized unlike later stage works), and one "celebrity" superhero takes on a number of sponsors (although all of the sponsors in question are corporate ones).
  • Thor lands here, for while he and all his foes are Asgardians, there are agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on hand who know about superheroes.
  • The Avengers falls at the upper edge of the middle stage. Superheroes are starting to become a fact of life, although villains are rare enough that the only team up thus far is between Loki and his mysterious benefactor, neither of whom are from Earth. The relatively small number of superheroes means that, for now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still middle stage, but it looks like future films are slowly going to transition into late stage.

Live Action TV
  • Power Rangers, post- "Zordon era". The Rangers are a known quantity now, and with the format changing to have new teams every year there's room for occasional team-ups. As for relationships with the government, Power Rangers Lost Galaxy (season 7) hints that the local authorities are Secret Secret Keepers and Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue (season 8) sees the military field their own Ranger team. Private businessmen, independent scientists and secret martial arts orders have since replicated this, and multi-season team-ups tend to occur around franchise anniversaries.
  • Arrow starts to move into the 'Middle Stage' with the second season; with the introduction of super-powers (albeit, reasonably grounded ones); the emergence of other costumes figures; and Oliver now re-branding his alter ego as the 'Arrow', working alongside Quentin Lance (who now serves essentially as his The Commissioner Gordon) while increasingly being perceived as a 'hero' rather than a 'vigilante'. By the third season, the show is arguably firmly in the Middle Stage.

  • The peak of the Heroic Age in Classical Mythology coincided with the adventures of the Argonauts (Jason, Heracles, Theseus, etc.), who were all acquainted with each other and regularly teamed up against common foes (or each other).

Tabletop Games

Video Games
  • The Freedom Force games start with early as Energy X creates heroes and villains, but quickly reaches middle period as more and more heroes join the Freedom Force.

Western Animation
  • The Bruce Timm Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series fall pretty squarely here. The existence of the heroes is well known, they fight powered villains, work directly with the police, team up frequently but are not yet part of an organized team, and the sci-fi is pretty soft.
  • Batman Beyond brings the DCAU setting back to the Middle after Justice League Unlimited took it far to the Later extreme. No explanation is given for what happened to the dozens of heroes that made up the old Justice League, but we can speculate that it may have had something to do with the near-apocalypse of '09.
    • The League does show up again in a limited capacity in the third season, but it seems nowhere near as large or organized as it was in Justice League Unlimited. Call it late Middle to early Late.
    • Of course, Batman Beyond was mostly made before the Justice League series, even though it's set later.

Late Stage:

Anime and Manga

Comic Books
  • The main DC and Marvel universes currently fall in this category, and traditionally have for most of their history. The occasional Crisis event or other large-scale retcon or reboot might temporarily push them farther up the scale, but this seldom lasts longer than a year or two before they're right back at the extreme Later end of the spectrum.
    • With the 2011 DC relaunch, several titles are focusing on a hard year one (as opposed to in the previous universe where there had been a "Year One" for the current age of superheroes but there had been superheroes in prior eras.) The rest are focused on year five which seems to be middle stage. Lots of secret organizations alongside several heroes acting publicly but only beginning to meet each other and organize.
  • Empowered starts right off as Late. Suprahumans are ubiquitous and derive their powers from a wide variety of sources, and a single organization regulates them all.
  • PS238 is Late, superheroes and villains have been around for several decades now and the principal setting is a grade school for their kids. It turns out that the stages are cyclical in this universe, in the late stage the powers that be take someone and let them decide whether people should still have powers, in previous cycles they all chose "no", Tyler on the other hand decided that he had no right to make the decision for everyone else on earth. Nodwick took place during the medieval Heroic Age.

  • The Avengers may have still qualified as a middle stage work, but it looks like future Marvel Cinematic Universe works will make the transition into late stage. The series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. deals with the resurgence in appearances of technologies used to make superheroes and follow the way SHIELD and the world copes with this.

  • Hero by Perry Moore, about a teen who ends up as a trainee with the League of superheroes. There are multiple other trainees, and his father is also a superhero.

  • The Trojan War period of Classical Mythology features so many semi-divine heroes that the line between them and regular Badass Normal warriors blurs (e.g. Achilles met his match in a decidedly non-divine Hector), and many of them serve the authority figures like Agamemnon side by side.

Video Games
  • City of Heroes/Villains. Player heroes start out with a contact in the Federal Bureau for Superpowered Affairs, villains join the organization that rules a small island nation, and Praetorian metahumans are conscripted into a special division of their universe's police department. Enemies run the full spectrum from normal humans to gods, often within the same group.
  • Dragon Ball Online moves the Dragon Ball setting from the Middle to something of a Late. While most humans still Can't Catch Up per the head Director's words. Goku, and Vegeta had alot of descendants who learned of KI through the protagonists schools, thus giving high-level superpowers to many more people, and that Majin Buu founded his own race, certainly helps.

Web Original
  • The Whateley Universe starts off in the Late Stage, with kids manifesting their mutant powers and going off to a Superhero School of roughly 600 teenagers with dozens of powered teachers and staff. The backstory of Charlie Lodgeman is set starting in the late 1800's, and the universe was already Middle Stage at that point. He and five others form the superhero team the Mystic Six.
  • Magellan starts off in Late Stage, with a girl motivated to become a superhero because she was saved years earlier by one of many well-known supers.

Western Animation
  • The DCAU's Justice League and Justice League Unlimited fit here, particularly the latter. Dozens of superheroes and villains operate in large, organized teams, working with (and occasionally against) the government on a large scale.
  • The first scene of The Incredibles takes place in the Middle period, but the setting quickly shifts to Late after the superhero ban is put into effect.
  • Young Justice features a large Justice League (with sixteen members at the start of the series), a well-organized Legion of Doom and a history of superpowers going back to at least World War II. The legal issues are also addressed, with Batman noting that the Justice League has U.N. approval to operate in most (but not all) countries.