A Brief Thought on Superheroes, Justice, and Violence

I’ll just come out and say it: I am irritated. Sorry for the grumpiness; it seems I’m going through a phase right now.

The astounding Avengers movie and the mostly “Amazing” Spider-Man reboot are keeping bright tights and larger-than-life heroics on the silver screen, while Christopher Nolan prepares to unleash the conclusion of his masterful Batman trilogy later this month. So, just about every blogger or critic with an opinion is weighing in on heroes, antiheroes, and supervillains.

The reason for my griping, in a nutshell: There is an increasing trend in commentary on superheroes, the trend of ascribing the laws made by (and for) normal humans, and using them to indict comic book characters.

More and more of this commentary looks at classic heroes, no matter how noble or selfless, with a suspicious and sour eye. It’s starting to sound like the prologue from Pixar’s The Incredibles, where an increasingly litigious society contends that heroes are causing more harm than they prevent. Anthony Lane, from The New Yorker, has weighed in on this fashionable sport of taking potshots at the heroism of fictional characters, in a shoddy Avengers review. (My guess is that the New Yorker crowd is starting to realize they can’t spend all their time staring at abstract art and chuckling dryly over glasses of wine at dinner parties) If you’re not already a diehard fan of the Avengers and therefore biased in their favor, Lane waves off the film as an experience where the audience gets “mugged by a gang of rowdy sociopaths with high muscle tone.”

No, sure, let’s just let the UN get into a bureaucratic nightmare debating how to deal with an alien invasion. After all, heroes who save the world are no better than the villains threatening it! (See above — he actually implies that) Or let the NYPD deal with the Lizard (despite their repeated failures to do so) as he’s killing people. Peter Parker can’t just swing around a few skyscrapers and subdue him, because that would be recklessly disregarding the law.

In one especially insane online discussion, a certain…gentleman asserted to me that there is no real difference between Captain America and the Punisher, and that their actions and motives don’t look all that different.

What? All right, let’s do a little comparison. If you have read tons of comics and you can note moments where Punisher or Cap acted differently, let me know — I’m generalizing here.

Captain America, doing double-duty as a soldier and a patriotic symbol. Kills enemy combatants while defending others from unprovoked harm.


The Punisher, antihero and vigilante who fights urban crime through many unsavory practices, including torture, murder, and extortion. Vents his anger on criminals by maiming and killing them.

I will go out on a limb here — I’m not quite seeing double.

And going back to The Avengers…what was the UN going to tell the Avengers? “Sorry, but this isn’t authorized under the Geneva Convention. You can’t just go firing weapons at assailants and throw the city into chaos.”

Yes, they can. The aliens were trying to kill innocents. When you just found out there is an alien invasion about to arrive in New York City, and you have at your disposal some assassins, a technological genius, a giant green rage monster, a Norse god, and a supersoldier, all of whom are willing to help, you get them between the incoming enemy and the civilian population. Forget about the question of whether the statutes of conventional warfare would, theoretically, apply to an alien race. When civilians are being targeted, you get in the way and throw the biggest hammer you’ve got.

This hammer, to be exact.

There are these little things in life called “emergencies,” when certain legal issues need to be put aside for the moment. Even though most comic books are fantastical, larger-than-life, and just plain wacky, they depict events that I would think qualify as “emergencies.” Regular cops and soldiers can be trusted to deal with the more familiar forms of crime and evil. Generally, superheroes are for super-threats.

When it comes to Batman…ah, now that might be a different matter. Certainly in the Nolan trilogy there are legal consequences to Bruce Wayne becoming the Caped Crusader, even though everyone with half a brain stem was glad Batman was there when Ra’s al Ghul or the Joker set their sights on Gotham. But that is probably best left for another rant, another time. This particular rant is, I think, finished.

Have your own thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Want to yell at me that I’m full of it? There’s the comment window. Use it as you please.

5 thoughts on “A Brief Thought on Superheroes, Justice, and Violence

  1. John,
    Love this post. Well said and well put. Espescially in this current age of do nothing fear driven politicing. Grrr. Makes me feel like going all angry green giant myself, really.
    Hope the writing is going well. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts and stories soon.

    • Very kind of you, Bree. Thank you so much!

      Glad to see you back online. Actually, the writing/editing/rewriting has been going slow, mainly due to incessant Facebook, mail, and blog checking. I will be taking a mini-break of my own for a couple of days and try to make a dent in the editing. Catch you later!

  2. I highly enjoyed the rant. Thankfully, I’ve only seen good reviews of The Avengers, and blog posts discussing the good points of superheroes and such. I think that people who attack superheroes are just jealous because nobody will ever like them as much as they like Iron Man.

  3. I’d like to note that different things matter to different people. To some people, abstract art is more important than superheroes; to other people, 1940s movies are more important than abstract art. Just because someone puts down what you like doesn’t mean that what you like loses its validity to you.

    I skimmed the New Yorker review, but I find it far from shoddy. It’s snobby, to be sure, but Lane’s writing for the New *sniff* Yorker, after all, not Fangoria. He makes quite an interesting point about cinema being better serviced by sticking to the realm of the private, and blockbusters increasingly going for the realm of the public. A former film student like me could talk for hours about that, about the evolution of cinema out of the stage and what that shift meant, and how blockbusters have evolved drastically since Jaws, and etc. Lane points out purposefully that it’s not going to be a fun movie for you if you’re not a Marvel fan, which he obviously is not. Different strokes for different folks; The Avengers isn’t for everybody, just as The Seventh Seal isn’t for everybody. Lane’s writing to his audience.

    Also, I think it can be fun for people to debate how human laws would impact superheroes. The opening of The Incredibles was taken in part from Watchmen, which used it to important dramatic effect, and I’m betting that even Watchmen wasn’t the first time tort law and superheroes clashed. Since everything about superheroes is projected into fiction, what’s the difference if people theorize about laws sometimes?

  4. Pingback: Villains, Punishment, and Fiction « John K. Patterson

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