Ever since they were introduced in comic book form in the mid-20th century, superheroes have had a major impact on pop culture, including the way we speak. With Avengers storming the box office this summer movie season, we thought it was only fitting to take a closer look at some of the words and phrases we now know and use, all thanks to the wonderful world of heroes and villains.
After blazing a path to the top of the all-time box office, The Avengers have made movie history. But where did their catchy moniker come from? As we saw in Captain Marvel, Nick Fury was originally going to call his superhero collective the Defenders Protocol. But when viewing a photo of Carol Danvers, Fury noticed her flight call sign was Avenger, and aptly retitled his project the Avengers Initiative.
The name’s origin makes for wordplay at the start of Avengers: Endgame, when one hero criticizes the team for always being reactive. But it’s actually quite apt: An avenger refers to someone who exacts punishment or harm in retribution for an injury or wrong, and the Avengers are only ever called on after a villain wreaks havoc on their world.
Think of kryptonite as a modern-day Achilles heel. Superman – quite possibly the greatest superhero of them all – has one fatal flaw in the form of this toxic radioactive element from his home planet of Krypton. Today it’s used to describe anything that seriously weakens or harms someone, whether it’s innocuous (“Chocolate is my diet kryptonite”) or downright detrimental (“Flip-flopping on issues was that political candidate’s kryptonite”).
Most of us haven’t been bitten by radioactive spiders, but many of us have adopted Peter Parker’s descriptive sense of intuition that danger is lurking. While the phrase hasn’t made the Oxford English Dictionary yet, tell someone your spider senses are tingling and they’ll immediately know something’s up.
Most superheroes are mutants of some sort. Inspired by the Latin mutare, meaning changing, this word was coined in the early 20th century. It solidified in popularity once comic books adopted the term to describe everything from the diverse powers of the X-Men to the Jekyll and Hyde-esque nature of The Hulk.
Adamantium and Vibranium
X-Men fans are quite familiar with adamantium, a fictional metal alloy that gives Wolverine his nearly indestructible skeleton and claws. Of course, Wolverine isn’t the only part-adamantium being; Ultron from The Avengers and Sabretooth also have adamantium as part of their makeup. Another infamous Marvel metal? Vibranium, which bears the ability to absorb, store and release energy. It’s harvested in Black Panther’s fictional kingdom of Wakanda and used in King T’Challa’s suit and Captain America’s shield.
This moviemaking term was popularized in the 1930s by Alfred Hitchcock to describe a filmmaker’s shortcut to provide a desired object or other goal for the protagonist to pursue, usually with little or no explanation. While it’s not exclusively a superhero term, many people associate it with movies where the hero is in pursuit of an object: think The Avengers' Infinity Stones as a primo (and oft-mocked) example.
Speaking of Infinity Stones, their first sighting came in the form of the tesseract in Captain America: The First Avenger. Believe it or not, the word tesseract is a real thing and not just something crafted for comics. A tesseract is cube in a 4-dimensional space, where every face is a cube. In The Avengers series, it’s the ultimate early days MacGuffin that laddered up to the series’ infamous Endgame.