A "legacy hero" is a superhero whose name has been passed down one or more times, such as The Flash, Green Lantern, or even, apparently, Spiderman in the Ultimate Marvel universe. A dream that I had some weeks ago got me thinking about a setting where every hero (and villain too) was a legacy character. In fact, being so was what gave you your powers.
The process starts with someone short a few mental marbles. There is something in this person's life so powerful to warp his or her entire life around it, and this person is at least mad enough to think nothing of adopting a new persona and even clothing style- whether as simple as a peculiar mask or as outlandish as a full costume- in the pursuit of their goal. Their crazy is not the Joker's crazy, but the Batman's crazy. This person has no powers- although they may appear otherwise as a result of ingenious tricks- but each person to take up the Mantle pushes slightly further into the realm of the superhuman.
At first Bearers are only slightly more capable specimens of humanity but as the Mantle continues to be passed down they begin to exhibit strength enough to crush diamonds, or the ability to fly. Always the powers attached to a Mantle are suitable to its Bearers' behavior and modus operandi- the Mantle of "the Batman," were it subject to this effect, might develop invisibility, control over shadows, and more. The inheritors of a Mantle need not be quite as mad as the first to Bear it, but each Bearer, starting with the first, leaves a little bit of their personality behind, which reshapes those that follow. Jack the Knife, a Mantle which has had hundreds of Bearers over the generations (high mortality rate, because it's a serial killer Mantle that attracts other psychos that would like the infamy of the name and the powers that go with it), is now close to a distinct personality in its own right that simply possesses anyone who takes on the persona.
Governments are desperate to field Bearers, of course, but the genuinely insane kind of obsession needed to kickstart the process does not happen every day. Even now, when recent generations have seen the rise of secret attempts to engineer it (imagine if the CIA has secretly been behind the murders of Bruce Wayne's parents, hoping that he would snap in the exact way that he did), not every mind snaps the same way from overwhelming pressure (which need not be traumatic, either).
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