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Committed: Superheroes and the Social Contract

With the popularity of superheroes there is much talk about the modern mythology we’re creating. But the movies aren’t being made about any old superheroes, the most popular heroes are the golden and silver age ones who not only fight evil operating on their own authority, but are motivated by a need to support the weak, to help the poor and generally aspire to lofty, humanitarian goals. These are not the violent vigilantes of modern superhero creation, but the old guard, created not to uphold the status quo, nor to simply destroy criminals, but above all to help the helpless. These are the superheroes that have universal appeal because they embody the dreams of humanity to propagate a healthy future.

Last night two blocks in my neighborhood were completely shut down for 7 hours while police hunted a murder suspect who’d been shooting at them. I got back from dinner at about 11.30pm to find the way barred by police. With multiple road blocks they were directing people away from the area. Apparently, around 9.30pm a murder suspect had been spotted near a local supermarket and when approached, he shot at the police then ran, which led to this manhunt and forced the lockdown of a couple of blocks while he was found. The police were very clear about it, with a murder suspect loose and shooting, no one could risk going home until he was caught. People were advised to stay in a hotel or stay with friends. While this was inconvenient for people coming back, it was worse for people out to dinner or parties in the neighborhood who just weren’t allowed to leave. The murder suspect was eventually tracked down to a rooftop around 4am. This hunt for just one man took dozens of patrol cars, officers and at least one constantly circling helicopter to comb the area for nearly 7 hours.

On a daily basis we manage to keep our society running because we all abide by a social contract. There are laws which are negotiated by the people we (mostly) vote for and we all agree to uphold them. The reason it works is not because there are enough officers to enforce the law, but because we all agree to adhere to the law. If we all suddenly stopped doing what works best for everyone, then there would never be enough police or prisons to catch and punish everyone.

I’ve read a few comic books which try to deal with the potential fallout of super heroes in the context of the “real” world. There are so many excellent books, like Gotham Central, (from the point of view of the police who have to cope with Batman and his foes), Kingdom Come (with ruminations on the political implications of super hero vs super villains), Marvels (written by a human observer explaining how it feels to live in the shadow of super powered beings), and The Boys (romping through attempts at policing amoral superheroes.) I thought we’d put a reasonable amount of thought into the super powered genre and had established the emotional need for these almost mythical heroes. But now that I’m faced with the reality of the ridiculous disruption caused by one basic manhunt, I question whether these works really are examining the most salient issues.

Taking the practicalities into consideration, and acknowledging the tenet set up by Thomas M. Disch (in his book The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of), when he theorizes that our fantasies and fiction plant the seed for our desires, which then leads to the experimentation necessary to discover new technologies. If we take this as fact and we acknowledge that fiction is where we play with what we want our future to look like, then we also need to acknowledge that on some level, in the last few decades we have been embracing the concept of superheroes in wider circles. They have developed a broad level of appeal outside of the niche market they originally inhabited, as movies about superheroes spread the mythology far and wide. So it could can be said that humanity is we’re looking for a tangible embodiment of our superhuman attributes.

We dream about being rescued by super powered people, people who aren’t elected or employed by any regulated body, who are more powerful than we can ever be. But in our current reality, those people would not be lauded as heroes, but feared as dangerous vigilantes. The idea of these vaguely violent super heroes is fundamentally flawed as a fantasy. In reality if one man with a gun can massively disrupt the lives of an so many people for so much time, what horrible chaos would come from super powered battles on a daily basis?

No one would welcome violent fights in their neighborhood. Last night, when I was checking in to a hotel down the road, they said that eight other locals had already checked in, some of whom were worried about pets trapped in their houses. If this is the kind of disruption that a lone criminal suspect can create, I can only imagine how much intense destruction and chaos would be caused by super powered heroes and villains at war. No society would put up with it, they wouldn’t even call superheroes that, they’d call them terrifying lunatics in capes who kept fucking shit up. They would be universally hated, just for the peripheral damage they caused, let alone any destruction they caused directly. Far from co-operating with the police, they would be hunted.

If we’re dreaming about ways to create a better world, creating beings which embody the better parts of ourselves, we need to move away from these violent, destructive models and towards resolution-oriented heroes, people who understand that the true superpower is one wielded with care and respect. There are superheroes among us to provide role models for the lofty goals of these superheroes, people like Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha… the humans who have reached out to to unite us, and help us become more than we ever could have alone. There is room in our culture for superheroes who support and foster peace, and it is no wonder that the most enduring superheroes are still the ones originally created with that in mind.

15 Comments

I suppose it depends on what these super-humans actually did. If they simply fought never-ending battles as in the comics, then I agree with your thoughts about how they’d be perceived. But if they actually used their powers to help people solve real problems, like disaster recovery, famine and drought relief, diffusing wars, etc., then I think people would welcome their presence. But that wouldn’t make for very interesting literature or movies, would it?

@ Craig B
I’m not sure I agree. If done right, that could make an extremely intersting comic or movie. I’ve seen movies about disatsters and the after effects that were pretty good. Throw a Superman, or God help us, even a Hancock into the mix, and we could have something special.

I’d agree with CraigB, above. Look at the amount of aid someone like Green Lantern could give to disaster recovery or prevention.

I think, though, that people would put with the occassional destructive super-fight if they also knew the consequences of no superhero intervention. That world would probably have a handful of examples of what happens if, for instance, Dr Vivisector WINS and turns the entire population of Scranton into inside-out pop-art. Memorial services 1000x the scale of 9/11 would be the norm. ‘Remember Scranton’ armbands would be worn by millions. “If we hadn’t complained about Captain Scranton being knocked through that diner last year and made him retire his cape, those 80,000 people would be alive today!”

Interesting you say that civilization works because we “all” agree to abide by the SC. Obviously, most of us do, but a few don’t. And look at all the attention they can attract.

I always wanted to see Superman say he wasn’t interested in petty crimes, but rather helping people. He’d benefit a lot more people by drilling through a mountain to divert a river in Africa or building a foot bridge in Colombia than by catching one mugger.

And I always hoped the Hulk could be redeemed by Rick Jones. “Hulk! The Teen Brigade ham radio says some miners are trapped in Mexico! Let’s go dig them out! You’ll be a hero!”

But as a commenter noted, not so exciting. But maybe way more satisfying.

Craig B: If you think about it, the first “Superman” movie is pretty much a disaster movie that turns out OK. There’s an earthquake, train derailment, plane crash, helicopter crash, even a nuclear attack — all of which are resolved through Superman’s timely intervention. Coming at the end of a decade’s worth of disaster movies in which things fundamentally do not turn out OK, it’s no wonder that people embraced the movie’s imagery.

I think “The Dark Knight” does a good job of showing just how disruptive a super-hero/super-villain conflict would be. But it also shows how inspiring having a super-hero around might be. These days, when we’re faced with a tanking economy, a poisonous political atmosphere, devastating earthquakes around the world, terrorist plots and the possibility of another New York Yankees victory in the World Series, it would be a wonderful thing to know that some powerful person actually gave a damn, and was actively doing something to make the world better — even if doing so sometimes inconvenienced our lives.

As we know, Superman could’ve ended WW2 in short order, so they used the plot devise of him failing the eye exam. Today, to up the ante, a city is destroyed every other week in DC and Marvel books. The days of innocence are past. In the 60’s when I climbed aboard, comic’s were Liberal. Black superheros were slooowly being introduced and Diana Prince, already a self-actuated Amazon, introduced us to Women’s Lib. Jimmy Olsen had stories about slum lords, hearkening back to the Golden Age. A story line in Ironman w/ I believe Firebrand, dealt w/ the issue of profiteering off war. The Adams/O’Neil Greens Lantern and Arrow still rei
Enter Wolverine.and Punisher. Still Good Guys but now Good Guys Kill. X-Force. Green Lantern.
After 9/11, the nation was polarized-best exemplified by Marvel’s Civil War, Dark Reign And Seige. Reed and Sue split. Johnny was on the fence and Ben went to France. Remember Free Fries?
Some heroes remain socially conscious -Spidey comes to mind. The rest and we the reader have grown-up.
Whether good or bad, who knows. I enjoy an old dumb, 60’s DC where everyone’s lying to each other for a later to be revealed “good cause”. And I enjoy The Boys for gritty realism. Good topic, Sonia.

Sonia this is the thing that Marvel failed to express or leave a lasting impression of with Civil War and The Initiative… Anytime this stuff is attempted to be explored in comics by either of the “big two” (Legends comes to mind over at DC), it is hard to make lasting change…..

One the other hand, Top Ten, Astro City, Project Superpowers, along with the stories you mention did succeed in various stages with a realistic “action and consequences” atmosphere around superheroes and civic duty.

Although I will say where Civil War succeeded was in getting fans to debate about power regulation/registration and I have to admit, even as a Cap fan, Iron Man was right from the start

This touches upon one of my major problems with the famous (infamous?) Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 by Denny O’Neil & Neal Adams. The residents of the ghetto take Hal Jordan to task for not protecting them from people like the slumlord. But what, exactly, was Green Lantern supposed to do to help them? Yes, the slumlord is a morally reprehensible piece of slime. But, as far as we, the readers, are made aware, he does not actually break any laws until he decides to hire a hitman to kill Green Arrow.

As I have pointed out before, Sinestro turned his homeworld into a crime-free paradise. But in the process, he became a fascist dictator who completely suppressed free will. If Hal decided to only enforce those laws he personally agreed with and ignore those he did not (i.e. the laws protecting the slumlord’s actions) he could sooner or later find himself walking down the same road as Sinestro. And I think that the residents of the ghetto might very well go from hating Green Lantern for what he was not doing to help them to fearing him for what he was doing in the name of “protecting” them.

And if Batman had broken through the barricade, punched out the criminal, and left him tied to a lamppost, so that everyone was home in under and hour, everyone would be cheering him as a hero. And many more people would be grumbling about police incompetance than the spectre of vigilantism.

You are a priori declaring Superheroes as failures because they resort to violence. This is no different from assuming all police are closet fascists and all soldiers are murdering thugs. Yes, some of them are. And yes, it turns public perception against all of them at times. But we still keep them around to enforce the social contract when not everyone agrees to it. Superheroes are by definition an extreme, Fantastic case. But they too would eventually be absorbed into the fabric of society, just as their printed parallels went from beating up corrupt landlords and breaking innocent men out of prison to being best friends with the police comissioner and working for the President.

Sure, Batman stopping the guy who disrupted Sonia’s neighborhood would be a good thing. What about the people webbed to a lamp post with a note attached? Is there any conceivable way to convict a criminal with no evidence and no witnesses? Vigilanteism can’t work in the real world, and too much reality in super-hero comics makes the stories less believable. There are exceptions, of course, and steering away from the real world does not mean all super-hero comics should be mindless pap.

I dig your point about ‘violence not serving much use in the real world’ and its a valid one. Most people following the social contract will never need to punch somebody in the face.

And your point about the destructive nature of hero/villain battles is also valid (see Powers vol 2 or Kingdom Come or even Civil War). But just like in Powers the problem arrives when we don’t have a system (or force) capable of dealing with those that act outside the social contract.

We have the military to protect us from other militaries and the police to protect us from civilians but in a world of superheroes and villains those two institutions are not equipped to deal with threats like the Joker or Sinestro.

The problem with your point is that you do not give us a real alternative. MLK and Gandhi were great at affecting social and political change but would be completely ineffective on somebody like the Joker (or the mafia), who is immune to empathy. You can’t ‘reach’ those that live outside the social contract with social and political tools.

Sometimes you just have to punch them in the face.

Sonia said: “No one would welcome violent fights in their neighborhood.”

An understandable point — but sometimes the alternative is worse.

A couple of years ago I parked outside the apartment building I live in, got out of my car to head upstairs to my apartment, and was mugged at gunpoint by two guys.

Did I enjoy that? No.

Did I try to put up a fight? No. (They didn’t hurt me — they took my wallet and cellphone and drove off with my car, but abandoned it a couple of blocks away, as I later learned.)

Now suppose Batman — or Spider-Man, or Wonder Woman, or any other superhero — had been lurking in the shadows, had waited until the muggers were moving away, with the gun no longer pointed at my head, and then had pounced, beaten them up, tied them up, and politely handed my wallet, cellphone, and keys back to me.

Take a wild guess how I feel about costumed superheroes under those circumstances. (Hint: I wouldn’t say, “You dangerous lunatic! How dare you start a violent fight in my neighborhood! I never want to see you around this apartment complex again!”

Likewise, take a typical situation in the DCU or the MU. No superheroes are in sight, but a supervillain is already running amok, maiming and killing just because he can, and then a costumed hero shows up, fights him for a minute or two (with further property damage), and finally subdues the super-powered murderer. If the whole thing were captured on film by a security camera, and/or multiple eyewitnesses were ready to testify to what had already been happening before the hero showed up to put an end to it, then I think the superhero’s public image would vastly benefit from this instead of suffering from it. Despite the incidental property damage.

I understand what you are saying, Lorendiac. But what if, instead of punching out & tying up the guy who mugged you, the crime-fighting vigilante shot down the crook in cold blood, or broke his neck, or disemboweled him with a big-@$$ sword? Yeah, the guy may have just robbed you, but would he deserve to die violently like that? And if a vigilante did kill criminals, who would hold him accountable?

I am sorry, Sonia. But fiction whose main point is to illustrate an utopian future is extremely boring. I can’t disagree with you more. What I want the future to look like is completely different from what I think makes for interesting fiction. Among the reasons I read novels or watch movies, predicting solutions to world problems is very low on the list.

Gandhi or Jesus make for interesting protagonists in 2-3 hour movies, but try to write a whole comic book series about Gandhi… And even most movies about Jesus end up enphasizing the violence of his final hours. A whole movie about the quieter parts of Jesus’s life? Snore fest. Not to say that listening to one of Jesus’s sermons or MLK’s speeches would be a boring experience. Far from it. But it’s not interesting as fiction.

Ben Herman — the worst-case scenarios you’re describing, in your response to me, go in a very different direction than the thesis Sonia was setting forth in the original post.

She didn’t just say: “Super-powered individuals who ran around calling themselves ‘superheroes,’ while deliberately killing people on the slightest excuse if they saw someone committing a lesser crime, would quickly become hated and feared by us ordinary people in the real world. We would worrying about how to arrest or otherwise neutralize them before they caused even more death and destruction!”

That’s more or less what you’re/I> suggesting, and you certainly have a point, but it’s not what she was saying, and thus it’s not what I was responding to in my previous comment.

Sonia was suggesting: “Any and all super-powered individuals who ran around calling themselves ‘superheroes’ and fighting crime would quickly become hated and feared by us ordinary people in the real world. Regardless of how those ‘superheroes’ behaved! If the heroes and villains occasionally engaged in slugfests which caused property damage along the way, we would blame the heroes just as much as we did the villains whom the heroes had labored hard to prevent from murdering lots of people!”

That was the proposition I had some serious trouble with!

But if someone runs around gratuitously butchering people, then I’m all in favor of finding a way to arrest him and confine him if possible (and I’ll understand if he dies in a shootout instead). Regardless of whether the serial killer in question is “super-powered” or “ordinary”; regardless of whether he wears a costume or civvies; regardless of whether or not he calls himself “a superhero” and expects other people to believe it.

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