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.

Versus…

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.

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