Readers of The White Knight & Black Valentine Series sometimes ask me why I chose to make my heroes “older.” The superhero genre doesn’t have an age limit: it includes heroes from children to seniors. Just look at the Power Pack or the Justice Society of America. Like most media, though, I’d say it skews young, and the genre has its roots in teen heroes and superpowers as a metaphor for puberty.
With the explosion of live-action superhero films and television starring actors who are human rather than ink on page and therefore age, we’re seeing a few more characters on the older half of the spectrum. Except when CGI makes them look younger. Oh, and those aging actors are rarely women.
But we’re all growing older (unless you’re reading this from a Lazarus Pit), so let’s take a look at those awesome elders of superhero media who don’t let age stop them from saving (or destroying) the world.
It’s still rare for older characters to be the star of the show; more often, they’ll be in the supporting cast. That’s where you’ll find the best supporting character of all time, Alfred Pennyworth.
The Batman supporting cast actually has several older characters: Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox, Leslie Thompkins. Granted, after decades of stories, the Batman supporting cast is enormous.
Spider-Man’s Aunt May also fits in this category, though she seems to get younger with every casting, like she’s moving backwards through time. (Is Aunt May secretly Merlin?)
Often, these characters don’t have superpowers, but sometimes, they do. Storm Forged by Patrick Dugan is a young adult novel with a teen hero, but a good deal of the minor characters are older people with powers who were heroes before the city-destroying disaster that turned the world into an anti-superhero dystopia.
When written poorly, these types of characters often exist solely to dispense cheesy wisdom and sometimes get imperiled for the hero to later save, but when they’re well-developed (and snarky), they can become fan favorites.
The wise old mentor is obviously a popular character archetype not only in the realm of superhero stories, but it’s worth checking out superhero-specific ones. My personal favorite is Agatha Harkness, powerful witch (and occasional ghost) and mentor of the Scarlet Witch.
My least favorite is Stick from Daredevil. That guy was a jerk.
I love retired and semi-retired superheroes (obviously), and they make great mentors, the older generation training the new. That’s the case of the intimidating Mrs. Frost in Serpent’s Return by Trish Heinrich, a no-nonsense, demanding old woman who was the first Serpent and trains the main character to be the third.
It’s also the role filled by the main character’s grandfather in Kevin Hardman’s Kid Sensation novels. Gramps is a retired telepathic superhero known as Nightmare who shows his grandson the ropes and fits the badass grandpa trope to a T.
Older heroes don’t have to be side characters, though; they can be the main hero of the story. The best-known example is probably the Justice Society of America. Their whole premise is that they’re the first generation of heroes in the DC universe, still kicking butt in their golden years. You’ve got the original, lesser-known Flash and Green Lantern, and then there’s Wildcat, who shows up in other heroes’ books as the mentor and trained Black Canary.
But the best is Ma Hunkel, AKA the first Red Tornado.
Black Lightning is another awesome example. Though he’s middle-aged and arguably not “old,” he definitely has several years on the other superheroes on the CW shows, who are closer to his children’s age. Mr. Fantastic and Blue Marvel are usually drawn with a bit of gray in their hair, showing them as more mature than their teammates.
Then you’ve got a cornucopia of alternate future older versions of current heroes: Batman from The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Beyond, Old Man Logan, Old Many Hawkeye, Old Lady Squirrel Girl, etc.
Oh, look. That hotshot young supervillain just made a rookie mistake and got busted. Sad, right?
An older villain can have a sense of gravitas and menace that comes with the experience and wisdom of age. I’m tempted to say “Magneto” and leave it at that, but he’s not alone. You’ve got the Vulture, Granny Goodness, and of course, Ra’s al Ghul.
Gravitas by Ben Mason is a novel with an older, retired supervillain protagonist—which came out over a year ago and I still haven’t read despite how awesome it sounds. I need to get on that.
Oh, and the Fairy Godmother from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. She was an absolute delight.
I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch of examples of older characters, so let me know who I forgot in the comments—and who your favorites are.