1) Ordinary people who try to help end up dying/getting hurt.
The audience needs to see that the bad guy is, well, bad. Which means we need to see them doing something horrible. But not so horrible that it prompts the audience to stop watching. For many writers, this sweet spot is having the bad guy hurt someone who is trying to help them.
We've all seen it. "Hey, are you okay?" the Samaritan-victim asks as they get closer and closer. Then the monster/bad guy leaps out as soon as they get close enough. Then cut to the good guys finding out what the bad guys have done.
|I'm fine. Thanks for asking. I really appreciate your concern.|
2) The authorities can't help or aren't prepared.
Again this comes from a logical narrative necessity. If the only challenges are ones that should be directed to the cops and that they could easily handle, why would superheroes be necessary? A larger-than-life hero demands larger-than-life villains.
The downside of this is that after watching Gotham and the Batman movies, I'm pretty sure that the Gotham Police are the last people you would ever want to call if there was a problem. They probably handle traffic tickets okay, but anything more than that and they are inevitably corrupt or about to be corpses. One of the key plot points in Dark Knight Rises is that the entire force gets locked underground, having been tricked into it by the bad guys.
In The Avengers, the New York police show up and desperately try to help, but are severely outmatched by the alien invasion already in progress. The Avengers use them as crowd control, sending them and the other potential collateral damage victims out of harm's way.
|You say that the 6 of you can handle the incoming horde? Okay then.|
3) Experiments always go wrong.
Quick. Take a minute to think of every lab you've ever seen in a superhero story. Now ask yourself if things ended up going well for the people inside. Fantastic 4: mutated by a cosmic storm while trying to take measurements. Hulk: created by gamma rays while trying to experiment in regeneration or supersoldiers. Joker fell into a vat of chemicals, Ultron was created in Tony Stark's lab while trying to create a less-hurtable version of the avengers.
There's even an obvious bias in most of the character names. "Doctors" tend to be evil while the good guys are "Mister" even if they have a Ph.D.
|If only Doc Ock had gone into marketing like his mother wanted...|
4) Romances are doomed to fail.
This is one that particularly irks me. If we see a superhero happy and in a committed relationship, it is a virtual guarantee that the partner will be dead/kidnapped within 10 minutes or 3 pages.
|Happy Wolverine = Boring Wolverine|
|Now he can get back to kicking ass. And now it will be personal. No one's ever thought of that before.|
There's another variant of this: the Old Friend trope.
Hero: "Hello, Old-Friend-Whom-I've-Never-Mentioned-Before. It's great to see you." This is the moment when you know that some pain is about to happen. Either we will discover that the Old Friend is actually the bad guy that the hero has been searching for or is otherwise mixed up in the plot. Or the Old Friend is about to be killed by the bad guys so that the audience can feel bad for the hero and want him/her to win even more badly.
Audiences respond better to their heroes being in pain, which means...
5) Being happy means bad things will happen.
There's an old joke that writers spend their time thinking of ways to ruin other people's happiness. And, to a point, it's true. Happiness in stories almost always signals that something is about to go wrong, unless it's at the end. And then that happiness will almost certainly be taken away by the sequel.
I was chatting recently with a friend and commented that when anything starts to go well, I find myself constantly worrying about the other shoe dropping, which tends to spoil the happiness. My friend said she felt the same. We speculated that maybe it's because happiness tends to be trap or a ruse in superhero and other speculative fiction stories.
Like in Astonishing X-men, when a psychic held all the world's heroes in a trance where they thought they were saving the world but were actually standing there drooling.
|Don't worry. She hit him back off-panel.|