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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 Super Hero Comics:
- The Early Stage roughly coincides with The Golden Age of Comic Books
- The Middle Stage roughly coincides with The Silver Age of Comic Books
- The Late Stage roughly coincides with The Bronze Age of Comic Books and its subsequent Ages.
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 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 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 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 Superhero Setting.
- In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, we have exactly one superhuman (the title character) and her pet/mentor at first. Half-way through, they are pitted against her superpowered rival and some superpowered Space Police joins the fray towards the end.
- 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.
- 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, unless you count the Red Skull.
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.
- Kim Possible: The epynomous main character only has Charles Atlas Superpower, and the only persons with real superpowers are Dark Action Girl Shego and Team Go. Two other characters have powers that they got through Kung Fu Magic. All other powers are technology-based.
- In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha As, 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).
- 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 is harder to classify, even though it is in the same continuity as Thor. We have a team, and ultratech support, but the existence of supers doesn't seem to be common knowledge before the end of the movie, and even then, we have a bare handful.
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.
- Agents of Shield picks up where The Avengers leaves off, and seems to be about firmly shepherding the world into the Middle stage and beyond.
- Freedom City and possibly the flagship settings of most Superhero Tabletop Games are set in a mid-to-late scenario.
- 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.
- 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.
- In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS and beyond, every named character who matters is a superpowered mage, cyborg, clone, mutant, etc.
- Tiger and Bunny is well into the Late Stage. NEXT have been around for forty-five years and are generally regarded as a normal occurrence. A reasonable Super Registration Act (for superheroes, not NEXT) is in full operation, and superhero is an actual career that people get salaries and can go to specialized colleges for. Watching supherheroes arrest criminals and save lives is a national pastime, complete with a hybrid news-RealityTelevision show covering their exploits. While most superheroes are technically competing against each other, joint operations are common for larger threats, facilities are shared, and many of the superheroes are actually friends.
- 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.
- 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 alternate Earth depicted in GURPS International Super Teams]] is clearly in the opening years of the Late Stage.
- The world of the Paragons sourcebook for Mutants and Masterminds is firmly in the Late stage.
- 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.
- The Whateley Universe starts off in the Late Stage, with kids manifesting their mutant powers and going off to a Super-Hero 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.
- 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.