February 25, 2017 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Are there any media representations of superhuman individuals where there is no built-in suspension of disbelief?

It seems like in the (admittedly, limited) amount of superhero media I have consumed, there's no HOLY SHIT FREAKOUT when the existence of individuals who defy the laws of physics/gravity/reality is discovered.

There may be real-life-ish consequences (mutant registrations, the aftermath of cleaning up after a superhero/villain fight), but there's no real "this individual goes against everything we have known about people since the beginning of time" and the crises that would necessarily follow from that. How would the the earthly adventures of Thor, a Norse god, affect the Roman Catholic church? Would scientists around the world have nervous breakdowns after learning that there exists a person who can actually fly? Would it be seen as a sign of the Apocalypse?
posted by Lucinda to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure if it counts as superhuman the way you're thinking, plus it's a comedy, but I think Splash did a pretty good job of what would have gone down in science vs. merfolk.
posted by Mchelly at 5:18 PM on February 25, 2017

I think that Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series handles this quite well.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:37 PM on February 25, 2017

Lame answer because I can't think of specific examples, but I am almost positive this happened in Buffy the Vampire Slayer a few times (of course, to comic effect). Maybe this will jog someone's memory--if you knew the right search terms you could probably find it on TVtropes.
posted by lovableiago at 5:49 PM on February 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Many science fiction stories try to explore (relatively but still not extremely) realistic consequences of people/mutants/aliens-among-us having superhuman powers: Odd John, Slan, "The People," "Understand," Jumper, etc. Among those, I vaguely recall Zenna Henderson's warm, kind, gentle stories about superpowered aliens who look like us and just try to live normal lives on Earth having human characters whose reactions were more like what you expect, but it's been a long time since I read them. Within comic books and superhero fiction, the slice of life / mildly realistic sub-plots you mention form basically the whole point of a sub-genre that I wouldn't totally count out: Wild Cards, Astro City, Powers, Velveteen, Soon I Will Be Invincible, etc., etc. So while the science fiction stuff probably comes closer to what you're after, you might be able to find something relevant reviewed at
posted by Wobbuffet at 6:03 PM on February 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Jessica Jones stops a guy from driving away by holding onto his car. He definitely doesn't react as if this is normal.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 6:40 PM on February 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

In the anime Samurai Flamenco, the reaction to episode 7 is generally WTF from the both the characters and the audience.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:37 PM on February 25, 2017

There was The Greatest American Hero TV series that used the holy shit freakout pretty regularly if I remember right.
posted by smcameron at 8:54 PM on February 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

What's really common is superhero universes where people just don't believe or know about them. The '70s Hulk series, the one with Bill Bixby, for example--a few people had it figured out but the rest of the world treated it like Bigfoot sightings. So individuals react, basically the way you put it in your question title, all the time. But it's not like it's about that.

(Origin stories too of course. I basically thought Unbreakable was an origin story if you played it completely straight. But again, it's not mostly about the reaction in those, except maybe of the hero.)

Wobbuffet's post is good and I'd agree with him that SF more than "superheroes" is where this stuff lives. I'd add The Stars My Destination as a classic in the vein of thinking through all the weird things that happen if people start getting super powers (in that case teleportation.)
posted by mark k at 9:07 PM on February 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Lame answer because I can't think of specific examples, but I am almost positive this happened in Buffy the Vampire Slayer a few times (of course, to comic effect)."

Yes, Buffy has this sort of off and on. I'm watching for the first time now, and only in season 3, but I'd say the show waffles on how much it deals with how normal people deal with the supernatural. People generally seem sort of underimpressed with Buffy's fighting ability, and under-traumatized by the crazy stuff that constantly happens at the school and environs. But on the other hand, often characters do acknowledge the weirdness, usually to comic effect.

From Season 3, Episode 01 (a high school football player speaking): "Best football season ever. I'm so in shape, I'm a rock. It's all about egg whites. If we can focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths"

So the show plays like mostly people don't know what's going on, but then covers how unrealistic that is by poking fun at it.
posted by abrightersummerday at 9:22 PM on February 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's been too long since I've read the original graphic novel for The Crow, but the Brandon Lee movie had some wonderful freakout moments when the junkies realize that the guy who's going all vigilante on them and is seemingly immune to bullets is the guy they threw through a window to his death the year before.
posted by radwolf76 at 9:30 PM on February 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mythology, perhaps. I'm reading the Mahabharata right now, and though ordinary people marvel at extraordinary powers, it's more like you'd get excited at a really good sporting event. Humans and demigods and gods can all have superpowers, and are expected to have them, so there's less freaking out.

Closer to home, in Malory, people aren't really freaked out by superpowers; in the story, at least, no one is fazed when a queen happens to know a magic spell or a hermit has supernatural insights. If it's part of your worldview, you may be scared or thrilled, but not gobsmacked.

In superhero comics, there are some stories set in worlds where nearly everyone has powers-- e.g. Moore's Top Ten.
posted by zompist at 1:19 AM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

In Doctor Who the people of Earth generally react pretty realistically to aliens / spacecraft / time travel.
posted by heatherlogan at 3:29 AM on February 26, 2017

Check out Kurt Busiek's Marvels which chronicles the beginnings of the Marvel Universe (1940s-1970s) told from the perspective of an ordinary man. It explores many emotions people have in reaction to the extraordinary events that are occurring in their once ordinary world: disbelief, fear, awe, shock, dread, hope, hatred, despair. I think Busiek wanted to show how such events would, in fact, challenge and upset everything we think we know about the world and ourselves - and we would not come away unchanged.

Also, the artwork is amazing!
posted by jammy at 5:11 AM on February 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Watchmen dealt with too, in terms of people's reactions to the existence of Doctor Manhattan:

"...Still reeling from this morning's announcement, possibly the most significant event in recent world history. We repeat: the superman exists, and he's American." (panel)

"It's May. I have been here two months. The Vietcong are expected to surrender within the week. Many have given themselves up already... Often, they ask to surrender to me personally, their terror of me balanced by an almost religious awe. I am reminded of how the Japanese were reported to have viewed the atomic bomb, after Hiroshima." (panel)
posted by jammy at 5:23 AM on February 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's not a superhero movie, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind is essentially one long reveal of how individuals and humanity deal with the discovery of aliens.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:48 AM on February 26, 2017

There's a trope involving a stoned character who sees things as they really are, seeing through the camouflage and manipulation that superbeings use to hide their identity. Not quite the same thing in the one example that leaps to mind, which is the stoner in Sausage Party who gets high on bath salts and suddenly sees all his food and drinks as the living, thinking, and terrified creatures that the audience sees. But, you know, a stoner having a freakout at the unbelievable is the sort of thing that makes the sober reinforce their own [erroneous but status-quo] beliefs.

TVTropes calls it Higher Understanding Through Drugs.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:31 PM on February 26, 2017

Check out the Marvel universe on television. The Netflix shows (especially Luke Cage) look at individual's and communities' reactions to local superheroes. They're set after the first Avengers movie, so everyone already knows super-powered individuals exist. Similarly, the last 2 seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (set after Captain America, Civil War) deal with the political fallout -- there's a registry, but there's also a lot of PR and an anti-inhuman terrorist group. I haven't seen much that deals with philosophy and religion though.
posted by natabat at 8:15 AM on February 27, 2017

The new NBC sitcom "Powerless" is set in a super-hero universe, but in a normal city that is jaded to superhero good vs evil stuff. One of the main characters just came from a small superhero-less town, though, and the show frequently highlights the difference between her reaction and her coworkers when something goes down. It's only three episodes in so far, so it should be easy to catch up on via streaming. I like it so far!
posted by jhope71 at 9:41 AM on February 27, 2017

I can't believe no one's mentioned Ted.
posted by pupsocket at 10:46 AM on February 27, 2017

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