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"I grew up in Westchester, and have never traveled anywhere else without this stupid domino mask on my face! Am I the only one who's scared that people are looking to me for answers because I can lift a car over my head? This is crazy!"
Alison Greene, Strong Female Protagonist
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"Capepunk" is a term which refers to the increasing prevalence of super-hero fiction which deals with superheroism in "realistic" manner. This is nothing new, given that Spider-Man has been dealing with the everyday problems of a normal as a superhero being since the 1960s. However, the genre has taken off in recent decades with the greater freedom allowed creators to deconstruct traditional superhero tropes. To be Capepunk, your story can't just be about superheroes. It has to be about why they put on the cape and whether or not putting it on is worthwhile.

Capepunk stories tend to be either Deconstruction or Reconstruction in nature, analyzing what makes the characters tick as well as how they relate to the setting as a whole. Much effort will be put into justifying why people have a variety of powers, are allowed by law enforcement to run willy-nilly, or don't change the world overnight. By and large, the series tend to be very satirical in nature, showing why superheroic tropes either don't work or require massive contrivances in order to be justified as existing. While the traditional Capepunk story is cynical, there are just as many stories which cast heroes as standing against the mundanity of the world and leading humanity into the light (or at least trying to).

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One common feature in the stories is that superpowers are terrifying to normal people. People with the powers of Mind Control, being able to fly, or heat vision are dangers to normal Muggles with even those who protect them being so far removed from normal life they often are enemies. Other times, regular Humans Are the Real Monsters with the people trying to use their abilities to help others being deliberately targetted by those who hate and envy them.

Stories in this genre are just as likely (if not more) to star original characters as opposed to being part of established superhero franchises. This is for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the writers of popular "mainstream" superhero characters don't want to let them be used in such a way. Another reason is that Capepunk stories are often written by independent comic writers without access to the most popular characters in the genre, leaving them no choice but to use Expies. They also may not even be comic books at all, but completely original novels and films.

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Common tropes to be found in Capepunk stories are:


Examples

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     Anime & Manga  
  • AKIRA combined this with cyberpunk motiffs as we see Testsuo as a trope-codefier for With Great Power Comes Great Insanity. It destroys all of his relationships, innumerable innocent bystanders, and eventually makes him believe A God Am I. One of the messages is human morality is incompatible with being superhuman.
  • The mecha anime equivalent of this was Neon Genesis Evangelion, which told the story of a fourteen-year-old Chosen One who agrees to save the world in a giant robot, not out of righteousness or charity, but to impress his abusive father. When it doesn't work at all, Shinji becomes severely torn about whether the world is still worth saving if it's never made him happy, and the main conflict shifts from whether he's able to save all mankind to whether he's willing. In the end, he's not.
  • Concrete Revolutio: Choujin Gensou takes a cast of "superhumans" based on popular fictional characters from The '60s... and drops them into the complex socio-political climate of the actual 60s, where they frequently interact with real-world events. A recurring theme in the series is whether a Superhero can truly exist.
  • Outside of being a superhero Saitama of One-Punch Man also deals with the day-to-day struggles that normal people go through such as trying to make it to the grocery store in time before the big sale expires. He also doesn't do it for the standard reasons that we usually see in superhero works. He usually thinks of it as a hobby. We also get to see how nightmarish it actually is for a normal person in a world where a city can be completely destroyed when a hero really cuts loose with their powers and monster attacks are a daily occurrence.
  • My Hero Academia takes place in a world 20 Minutes into the Future where roughly 80% of the world's population has some kind of superpower referred to as "quirks". Being a superhero is a legitimate career option that requires a special education course. Hero jobs also vary depending on what area a person decides to specialize in, such as crime-fighting, disaster relief, team support, etc. The entire business is heavily regulated and up and coming heroes typically seek employment at agencies run by senior heroes in an attempt to make a name for themselves. The series focuses heavily on themes such as what it takes to be a superhero, the importance of society having a positive view of them, and why anyone would want to be a hero in the first place. It also takes a hard look at what it would take for a someone to be the Big Good in a world of superheroes, the dangers of having a single person be the symbol of hope and heroism, and just what would happen if that person were suddenly unable to continue to fill that role with no suitable replacement.

     Comic Books 

There are too many comics which try to give a "realistic" view of what superheroes are like and authentic World Building, so this will just list some of the standout examples.

  • Alan Moore is possibly the Trope Codifier:
    • One of the earliest examples of the genre is Moore's Miracle Man. A Deconstructor Fleet of the goofy Captain Marvel-esque stories about such a hero, which are shown to be lies, propaganda, and subversions. It remains one of the most influential comics most American readers had never heard of - until Marvel finally acquired the publishing rights.
    • Watchmen changed the way superhero comics were written forever, by focusing on the kind of neuroses which would afflict people drawn to fighting crime in costume and how superpowers would affect the world.
  • Invincible thrives on providing a sense of continuity and world-building for someone entering into a superhuman world for the first time. It runs on a basic premise of what if there is no status quo and the world and the characters within it continue to grow and evolve? Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
  • Mark Waid's Irredeemable series takes a lot of the Silver Age tropes built around Superman and then proceeds to tear them down ruthlessly as well as the idealism behind them to create a Villain Protagonist. Its sister series Incorruptible then switches to taking an utter monster and showing just how much work it would take to turn him into a hero.
  • Mark Millar has had tremendous commercial success working within these themes:
    • Wanted is ultimately revealed to be one of these. It's not until the last panel the satirical nature of the story is revealed. This used to be a world of hope, joy, and love but the villains have stripped it of such and it was because of fans like the reader who let it happen. It's a Take That! at comic book fans who wanted less wonder and joy in their entertainment.
    • One of the original ideas behind the Ultimate Marvel was to try and update the superhero franchise to a modern day 'real-world' context. Superheroes were all registered with S.H.I.E.L.D., death largely meant death, and real-world events affected events in the comic book and vice versa. While Darker and Edgier, it was a wildly successful experiment that saw many elements adopted into the 616 continuity. That was, however, before they went off the deep-end with the concept...
    • Marvel's Civil War played with the idea that superheroes were an unregulated bunch of amateurs needing supervision after a supervillain blows up a school. Instead, much of the story devolved into illustrating the government would do anything to gain complete control over superhumans.
  • Garth Ennis' The Boys is pretty much built on how much superpowered humans suck and do not live up to their claims of heroism. They range from Smug Super jerkasses to utter horrors with very little in-between, with the few good supers being shining examples of Dumb Is Good.
  • As mentioned, Spider-Man was originally quite revolutionary. The idea of a superhero struggling with his normal identity's everyday problems as well as crippling guilt for his failures was something new to the genre. It soon became Marvel's standard and a case of "Seinfeld" Is Unfunny but worked well for bringing in new readers.
  • The Xmen were one of the early franchises to treat superpowers as a Blessed with Suck situation. While they were initially treated as heroes by the public, their reception became gradually worse and worse with hate-groups, discrimination, and a number of attempted genocides against them. Events in their past have included: Operation: Zero Tolerance, the destruction of Genosha, Weapon X creating a death camp, the attempt to "cure" the mutant gene, and the Scarlet Witch getting rid of the vast majority of their powers. These are just some of the crappy situations they've had to deal with.
  • The Squadron Supreme series is another early example of the genre, dealing with a group of Justice League Expy characters who attempt to avert Reed Richards Is Useless only to have it backfire on them horribly.
    • Its successor, Supreme Power is all about how human beings would drive the superhumans of the world to insanity.
  • One of Marvel Comics' other attempts to do realistic superheroes was The New Universe, which was intended to be more grounded in reality than the mainstream Marvel Universe. The setting was explicitly stated to be the real world until a Mass Empowering Event provided a Point of Divergence . Several of the super-powered "paranormals", instead of fighting criminals, were on the run from people who wanted to exploit their abilities. A few of the protagonists were Jerkasses who didn't want to help anybody. Star Brand briefly tried to be a traditional superhero, but it didn't work; in one memorable scene, he met an Author Avatar of writer John Byrne, who explained to him that it would be easy for someone to learn his Secret Identity.

     Fan Fiction  

     Film  
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy does as good a job as any movie maker could do in order to ground Batman into someone who might conceivably exist in the real world, spending large amounts of time justifying how Batman relates to both Bruce Wayne's psychology and Gotham City as a whole.
  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe also puts some work into making superheroes work in a "real-world" context:
    • The Iron Man movies have been given much praise for the fact they used real-life science to justify many of the figure's traditional gadgets. Likewise, the films serve as deconstructions of many War on Terror tropes as well as the kind of attention such a figure would garner. The third one also had a moving portrayal of Tony Stark dealing with PTSD from the literally world-changing events of The Avengers (2012).
    • Most superhuman origins can be traced back to some kind of Super Soldier project that was deliberately attempting to create a better kind of defender (in the case of the heroes) or enforcer (when the bad guys were making one).
    • As more supervillains crop up, the Superhero Paradox becomes more prevalent. Captain America: Civil War (a rough adaptation of the comic of the same name) tackles it head-on, as the heroes' conflicts have caused inevitable bystander fatalities, which leads to calls for government regulation and the heroes themselves are divided on whether this is a good idea or not.
    • Although it shows up more in the TV spinoffs than the films themselves, some people have begun to respond to the emergence of superhumans with Fantastic Racism.
  • The Incredibles touches on this, as once-active superheroes were forced to retire due to lawsuits over damages caused by their fights. It also takes a look at the thought that would have to go into superhero costumes to ensure they're effective. ("No capes!") The movie as a whole deals with what it means to be "special", both in terms of superpowers and in the mundane sense.
  • One of the criticisms of the DC Extended Universe is Zack Snyder is very fond of this trope. Man of Steel and its follow up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice deal with a public that barely tolerates superheroes. Superman's attempt to inspire them is less than successful as we find most of them living in isolation or deeply troubled.

     Literature  
  • Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman gets into the heads of an Evil Genius and the people who oppose him. Much attention is made of how superheroism and villainy is the result or cause of intense alienation from normal humanity.
  • Peter Clines's Ex-Heroes is about how the world has been overrun by zombies but a small band of superheroes protects Los Angeles' survivors in a place called the Mount. Much attention is given to how the superheroes are selfless people, but this can be aliennating to normal humans.
  • Jim Bernheimer's Confessions of a D-List Supervillain follows the adventures of the titular third-stringer, Mechani-Cal, who becomes a hero through sheer necessity. It shows its heroes to have feet made of clay while its villains run the gamut from downright horrible people to "just" irresponsible or misguided.
  • Thom Brannan's Sad Wings of Destiny is a Watchmen-like Deconstructor Fleet which tears down just about everything even remotely related to superheroes.
  • On the other end of the idealism scale is Marion Harmon's Reconstruction series Wearing the Cape which sets out to make superheroes as realistic as possible yet still awesome. Sadly, the inclusion of supervillains still makes the world terrifying for normal people and makes muggles envious.
  • The Wild Cards shared universe series very often made its superheroes out to be anything but, and the supervillains were just as often simply people Blessed with Suck by their wild card lashing out against a world that treats them like freaks. The authors also played quite a bit with the question of where one draws the line between Blessed with Suck and Cursed with Awesome: for instance Hiram Worchester, an Acrofatic Gravity Master who's chair-breaking obesity may be related to his powers.
  • Brian Clevinger's Nuklear Age doesn't appear to be this at first. It later becomes a novel showing how so much of the wackiness and craziness around its protagonist is the result of his status as a god.
  • John Ridley's Soledad O'Roarke books Those Who Walk In Darkness and What Fire Cannot Burn have a atypical Crapsack World take on superheroes. Specifically, they postulate humanity will turn on them with Fantastic Racism and ruthless brutality the first time they fail big.
  • Warren Hately's Zephyr stories follow the eponymous superhero and his struggles to reconcile his superhero lifestyle with his life as a civilian. Death, divorce, drugs, and infidelity seem to be incredibly common among the heroes. It's lampshaded near the end when discussing a fallen colleague and commenting that it's not like the comics.
  • Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain and its sequel Please Don't Tell My Parents I Blew Up the Moon are Lighter and Softer examples of this trope. Both novels attempt to show how supervillains and superheroes are able to handle their feuds and rivalries but take the tact both prefer to follow rules for each other's protection than going all out. Those supervillains who cross the line are killed by the superheroes' deniable executioner, keeping things reasonably civil. There is a prequel story, I Did NOT Give That Spider Superhuman Intelligence!, which shows how this system came about in the first place.
  • The Supervillainy Saga is a book series starring a somewhat offbeat fellow, Gary Karkofsky, who finds a magic cloak and decides to become a supervillain. The book Deconstructs the '90s Anti-Hero and The Dark Age of Comic Books by having Gary disgusted by heroes who kill and overly psychopathic villains. It also serves as a Decon-Recon Switch because Gary, himself, is a well-written '90s Anti-Hero. The book, notably, treats Lighter and Softer superheroes significantly more sympathetically than most examples of the Capepunk genre.
  • Hero is about Thom Creed, the son of a retired Badass Normal superhero, who hates superpowered individuals. Unfortunately, Thom has Healing Hands. His father is also an extreme homophobe, which is a problem becausse Thom is also gay. In addition to Thom's problems, the book also deals with the consequences of certain superpowers, such as one character who gets powers from radiation only to also be diagnosed with cancer from said radiation.
  • The Infected tells the story of a fat gamer cursed with the power to replace people who are in deadly danger. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a world where superheroes are outlawed, they're all agents in a federal bureau. And Congress is still debating the merits of concentration camps to "deal with the Infected problem" since it's worked out so well abroad.
  • Super Powereds deals with a world with three categories of people: Muggles, Supers, and Powereds. The first two are self-explanatory. Powereds are people with superpowers, except, unlike Supers, they're unable to control them. They tend to be treated as second-class citizens and seen as potential threats by both normal humans and Supers. While this is justified in some cases, it still leaves Powereds feeling bitter. Another reason why Supers look down on Powereds is that they're all aware that only an accident of birth kept them from becoming Powereds instead of Supers (3/4 of people with superpowers are Powereds). The novels are focused on a group of Powereds, who volunteer to be guinea pigs for an experimental procedure to turn them into Supers. Each of the teens have their own reason for undergoing the procedure and entering the Hero Certification Program at Lander University. Later on, they find out that one potential future, foreseen by a clairvoyant, has all Powereds becoming Supers, resulting in a three-way global war between the three categories. Additionally, former Powereds are, on average, more powerful than those, who were born Supers. The spin-off Corpies shows a different side of this world with PEERS, who aren't certified Heroes, but who use their powers to help with disaster recovery.
  • The New Humans veers this way. Supers are distrusted for their highhanded actions, and extensive research is being done into powers.
  • Worm digs deep into the idea of what drives people to be superheroes and supervillains. Central to the story is the internal conflict of the protagonist, Taylor, who desperately wants to do the right thing and become a hero, but who keeps ending up in circumstances that force her to act like a villain, first while trying to infiltrate a team of villains and later by more and more extreme and desperate situations that culminate in her becoming the undisputed queen of her city's superpowered underworld.
  • The Reckoners Trilogy goes the route of Decon-Recon Switch. With Great Power Comes Great Insanity is in play, and every Epic we see is Always Chaotic Evil. The more powerful ones have carved out their own fiefdoms, such as Newcago or Babylon Restored (Chicago and New York, respectively). However, the Reckoners are genuinely heroic and lead by an Epic who refuses to use his powers and ultimately David is able to provoke a Heel–Face Turn on another by helping her overcome her fear, and thus undoing her brainwashing
  • Renegades by Marissa Meyer features capes as the de facto government after the "Age of Anarchy", the old government having been wiped away by the Anarchists. Notably, the remaining Anarchists, including the book's protagonist, see the Renegade government as holding back society from truly recovering, because their presence has driven regular humans into apathy.
  • All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault coaches it's battle in the Darkness (beings from a universe closer to where Your Mind Makes It Real who make deals with the rich and powerful for eternal life in the forms of vampires, werewolves, demons, and ghosts) versus the Light (which comes from about the middle of the spectrum between hard and soft reality, and thus much coach what abilities it gives under a lampshade of pseudoscience, and runs on Rule of Drama). It then promptly shows a Light aligned super villain and a number of sympathetic Dark characters, muddying the waters immensely.
  • The Velveteen vs. series by Seanan Maguire portrays traditional superheroes as self-absorbed marketing-driven corporate creatures with the concept of kid sidekicks treated as just a variation on Child Soldier use in wartime. Velveteen, herself, wants nothing more to do with heroism but ends up having to be one just to survive.
  • The Blackjack series is about a supervillain who deals with the ups and downs of being a former supervillain in a setting where Easily Forgiven is not the case. Furthermore, how lethal the powers of superheroes might actually be when used against other people. It also reflects how Gray and Gray Morality is how the world really is but not how the public perceives it.
  • The Omega Superhero by Darius Brasher has a idealistic young man named Theodore Conley become a superhero only to find out the resident Justice League Expy is a Smug Super group hiding deep corruption. It's played even more straight in its sister-series, the Superhero Detective where the protagonist is a PI who deals with superhuman dirty laundry.

     Live Action TV 
  • Alphas works hard to ground the powers, the characters and the setting. The existence of superhuman Alphas is a closely guarded secret, their powers aren't flashy, and cause as many problems for the heroes as they solve.
  • Credit where it's due, Heroes definitely qualifies as this.
  • As does The 4400 where a few thousand superhumans are suddenly and mysteriously dumped on the world, people who had vanished across fifty years of time.
  • On Disney's broadcast network, ABC, the Marvel Cinematic Universe began Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. by looking at the Capepunk exploits of the Badass Normals tasked with dealing with all the threats that the Big Good heroes (for whatever reason) don't. It has moved on into a fairly realistic take on how normals — even Badass ones — might react emotionally when they suddenly acquire metahuman powers.
  • On Netflix, Daredevil (2015) and Jessica Jones (2015) are Marvel Cinematic Universe doing Cape Punk Up to Eleven.
  • The X-men spinoff Legion compares Psychic Powers to mental illness and how they must incredibly suck given you can't necessarily tell what's real. The people who try and actually give him a positive environment actually make it worse because they have such a cheerful view of superhuman abilities.
    • Another X-men spin-off, The Gifted pretty much has mutants living on the run and hunted constantly due to Fantastic Racism. Being a mutant isn't officially illegal but any crime they commit will get them locked away for decades and bigots aren't afraid to antagonize them into doing so. Also, it's gotten worse to the point people are planning a Final Solution. Much attention is given to how families handle the situation as well as the logistics of surviving on the run.

     Tabletop Games 

     Video Game  
  • The Infamous series dealt with the prejudices and responsibilities which come from getting superpowers in real life. Most people react to the condition by going a little bit nuts while others try to hide their abilities. Cole attempts to help as many people as possible but has an extra-motivation for doing so since everyone blames him for the destruction of Empire City.
    • Infamous Second Son continues this trend as we watch Delsin become a superhero primarily because he hates the establishment but also to drum up support against the DUP. As long as the public thinks he's doing good, it's harder for the DUP to label him a bio-terrorist.
  • Injustice: Gods Among Us deals with Superman going rogue after the death of Lois Lane at the hands of the Joker (along with all of Metropolis). Superman proceeds to go insane as a result of these actions but the scary part is the majority of the world is willing to go along with his madness...at least, at first.
    • Its sequel, Injustice 2, continues on this storyline by having Batman and the others trying to fix the world after Superman's regime, with complications along the way.
  • [PROTOTYPE] followed a character equipped with all the powers of a superhero (something between the Incredible Hulk and a shoggoth) who was stuck in a city under lockdown by the military as well as Private Military Contractors. It showed a cynical view of good versus evil being a poor fit for a Blue and Orange Morality being that is an Outside-Context Problem for humanity.

     Web Comic 
  • Shades of this in Grrl Power where many a superhero trope is deconstructed or lampshaded as the realities of superhuman law enforcement are laid down.
  • The Specialists is this set in WWII with accompanying grittiness, racism, sexism, etc.
  • Strong Female Protagonist focuses on a young woman with super-strength and invulnerability who's frustrated with her powers' inability to do anything substantive to make the world a better place. The overarching plot also involves the realization that a shadowy conspiracy has killed off all the people who developed powers that could have genuinely been world-changing (e.g., ability to provide unlimited green energy, or to communicate with viruses). It also tackles issues like the amount of collateral damage, including civilian deaths, caused by superheroes and the fact that since the superheroes were all teenagers when they started out, they're all basically Child Soldiers and all the baggage that's come with that.

     Web Original  

     Web Video  

     Western Animation  
  • The Justice League Cadmus arc dealt with the United States government trying to develop countermeasures against the Justice League going rogue. What made this arc so effective was it drew from the extensive history of both Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series plus the show's own past to illustrate why the Justice League would be so terrifying to quote-unquote normal people.


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