We’re living in the age of superheroes, a cultural phenomenon approaching its zenith in the next few years with a grand culmination of team up films and interconnected television shows. Superheroes appear to be universally beloved despite the reality that their actions are intrinsically unethical and anti-social in nature. How can we as morally responsible viewers condone the violent anarchic behavior of these few individuals whose unchecked power threatens to tear apart the very societies they claim to protect?
When you view a superhero film or television show, you’ll notice right away that superheroes operate within a wildly different world than we do. Our world is imperfect, but still we implicitly trust that the police, the government, and our other social structures will work at least some of the time. They still may fail, sometimes spectacularly, but we have reasonable expectations that the authorities can and should ensure both our welfare and the common good. In other words, we don’t think that an untrained militia of armed citizens would be much improvement over what we have now. Our system, flawed though it is, works most of the time for most people.
Superheroes do not exist in that kind of world. Either through expert training or an unusual set of powers, heroes apprehend criminals and don’t hesitate to interfere with the work of police, firefighters, rescue workers, and military personnel. They exercise their power unilaterally and operate far outside the boundaries of a courtroom or the Geneva Convention. Who gave them permission? No one. They simply willed their personal sense of justice into existence and took matters of life and death into their own hands.
Of course, superheroes are driven by a sense of moral responsibility to protect the populace. However their actions are legally indistinguishable from the very criminals they seek to prevent. Heroes are ethically quite problematic.
We excuse their behavior for several reasons and not just because they have cool powers. There are plenty of anti-heroes, gunslingers, secret agents, and assassins just doing their job who make no claim to moral superiority. But heroes almost by definition ask for our permission. And we give it to them by our veneration and respect for them. We wear their t-shirts, watch their films, and buy their toys because we support them. Somehow we agree with their fictional actions and condone them.
How do they receive such widespread pardon for their technically illegal acts? Why do we applaud them and hold them up as role models for young children? In order for this ethical puzzle to work, there is one big difference: superheroes must inhabit a broken world, not a functioning world. There are two types of broken worlds in which superheroes may arise.
The first is the Helpless World. In this set up, the police and the city officials and the government are still doing their jobs, but they are hopelessly outmatched. The villains have better weapons, greater resources, and more ruthless schemes. A few bad guys even have superpowers of their own. In the Helpless World, the governing authorities are desperately outgunned and deeply demoralized. From the perspective of the populace, violent crime seems unstoppable and the current structures in place have utterly failed.
In Man of Steel, Superman comes out of hiding to face a threat that mankind cannot deal with on its own, General Zod. This is a helpless world. When Nick Fury calls together a band of unlikely heroes in The Avengers, it is precisely the same reason: the people of Earth do not have the resources to deal with Loki and the Chitauri on their own. In the show The Flash, the police are undeniably good but still mostly defenseless against the superpowered metahumans roaming the streets. Superheroes fighting crime in a Helpless World supplement a benign system of law and order in need of extra firepower.
The second natural home of superheroes is that of the Corrupt World. Heroes that emerge in this setting discover a system that is too broken to ever be fixed on its own. The top political figures are either themselves corrupt or simply too afraid to do anything about the problem. For those able to resist corruption, the cost of standing up against injustice is too high: lack of departmental support, demotion, threats of violence, and harm to loved ones. The real source of power is usually not “the people in charge” but crime families, unscrupulous corporations, and hyper intelligent psychopaths. In a Corrupt World, there is no hope for political reform nor any hint that things can ever get better.
A superhero in this kind of world cannot work directly with the existing authorities, although they may be able to find trusted individuals within the system to work with covertly. In this scenario, heroes function as a shock to the whole system. The powers that be are dealt a special brand of vigilante justice since the current laws have failed to do anything. The hero becomes a beacon of hope for the beleaguered masses who have lost trust in their politicians and law enforcement to protect them. By rooting out the underlying causes of social dysfunction, the hero attempts to clear the way for good governance to be restored.
In the show Gotham, the whole system is so corrupt that cops happily work with known murderers without giving it a second thought. It is the perfect example of a Corrupt World. The same is true of the first season of Arrow where Starling City is under the thumb of a long list of powerful moguls with little value for human life. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we similarly see the deep corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operations to the point that the whole organization must be dismantled in spectacular fashion.
Superheroes enter these two worlds as reluctant saviors. They do not come to upend the social order but are accepted as a last resort to preserve lives and restore the balance of justice. Using a clever sort of moral gymnastics, we grant these heroes something akin to temporary wartime powers. This extralegal power is given to them to apprehend criminals, infiltrate their operations, and capture top level leaders by any force necessary. When things go south, we accept the resulting human casualties and property damage incurred as the price of doing business in desperate times. It is unpleasant work, but sometimes a villain will get thrown off the top of a building.
So why do we accept the inherent immorality of fictional superheroes who work outside the law, employ violent force, and are accountable to no one, all actions which would never be condoned in real life? If real people began engaging in such vigilantism, they would be swifted punished to the full extent of the law. Despite the billion dollar box office grosses and impressive Nielsen ratings, we would neither accept nor want heroes in the real world.
Superheroes do not answer to any authority other than themselves. Consider. Even wartime soldiers authorized to kill have to answer to someone. No one is so perfect and good that they do not benefit from moral accountability to a larger body. Even when our institutions and authority figures fail, we still trust in them to ward off the worst forms of evil, injustice, and anarchy.
Humans, especially empowered entitled vigilantes operating on their own, are easily susceptible to hubris and misuse of power. Just rewatch Iron Man 2 and you’ll get a realistic picture of this eventuality. We don’t trust any one person, even the President, to have our best interests in mind. In America we trust in a complex set of checks and balances, executive, legislative, and judicial power, democratic process and republican representation, and a mix of municipal, state, and federal authority. The point is not that our modern form of government is so wonderful, but that there are good reasons we should hesitate before handing over our fate to the whims of a lone individual with an axe to grind and a propensity for doing things their own way.
The real reason we champion our fictional superheroes is because we intrinsically believe they are incorruptible. They may make mistakes, but somehow we have faith that their hearts are pure. We know them to be sacrificial and brave, serving the greater good. Unlike Caesar we know that they will lay down their extraordinary extrajudicial powers once the threat has passed. They are a temporary solution and once the last villain is locked away, they will step back and get out of the way. They can never become evil. And in the end, they will always win.
They may go outside the system to pursue justice. They may on occasion kill a bad guy by accident. But we never doubt that they are necessary for the particular world in which they inhabit. Superheroes embody the best that humanity has to offer, not the worst, and that is why we put our trust in them.
We don’t need real life superheroes nor do we want them. However we do want fictional ones. In whatever small way, they inspire us by their example of dedication. They demonstrate the importance of self-sacrifice. They are an extreme measure needed in extreme times.
In the show Arrow, Oliver Queen makes a decision not to kill any longer in his pursuit of justice after an entire season of indiscriminately killing bad guys. He realizes that he has become his own sort of villain. A murderer. In season two in order to honor the memory of a lost loved one, Oliver vows to only kill as a last defense. He chooses to keep criminals alive. In a symbolic gesture, his name is changed from the Vigilante to the Arrow. Although this new policy is heavily tested and not always with positive results, the plausibility of maintaining this evolving sort of ethic can only exist in Corrupt and Helpless Worlds. In the real world, not killing anyone should be considered a very low bar to jump over, not the cornerstone of our ethics.