Usually, we think of superheroes living in a black and white sort of world. It’s all good versus evil. There’s supposed to be that clear distinction between who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. We sometimes get stories that like to muddy the waters, depicting the good guys against other good guys. But the norm is to try to show the world as black and white. Noble heroes, despicable villains.
Yet, you don’t really get much grayer than the superhero.
Let’s be honest about what a superhero is. Superheroes are vigilantes. They don’t take the law into their own hands. They ignore it. They operate by their own set of rules that don’t really line up much with the rule of law. And we’re okay with this because we tend to think of those rules of law as the red tape and technicalities that allow bad people to get away with bad things.
It’s not just those rules, though.
What about the rules that are supposed to protect people from being harassed, brutalized or forcibly coerced by authorities? Yeah. Superheroes regularly break those too. Hell, that’s how they do their work half of the time. Think about it. How often do you see a superhero breaking into a place or beating information out of a person? How often do you see one get a bit too upset and brutalize someone? It’s all a staple of superhero work. Excessive violence, violations of privacy, torture. That’s just how superheroes roll when you really look at it.
But the point of it is not to really look at it. Comic book superheroes are just a part of vigilante fiction. You’re supposed to appreciate it on a limited case-by-case basis while being appalled by it as a general, real-world practice. It’s really not a difficult tightrope for writers to walk. You just don’t shine a light to brightly on it. You don’t make a habit of showing superheroes harming innocent people with their actions.
Except when you do.
Marvel Comics tripped over this problem when they pulled off their big Civil War event several years ago. That put as bright of a light as you could get on the matter, and that put them in the awkward position of trying to defend the superhero. I’ve always wondered at what point in the planning and production of Civil War the guys at Marvel realized they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t come up with a reasonable position against superheroes being held accountable. Because the story itself never really had one. The anti-registration case depended entirely on writers forcing the authorities into the roles of bad guys with blackmail tactics and itchy trigger fingers. Marvel put itself in the position of having to distract from the fact they were having a rather one-sided argument.
But I’m not saying I didn’t like Civil War. I actually did and think it’s an event Marvel has yet to top. It definitely had more of a legit conflict than the current Avengers Vs. X-Men does. And I like superheroes. Hell, I like vigilante fiction in general. I’m an American. It’s in our blood.
What gets me at times is the moral superiority attributed to superheroes in some cases. This comes up a lot when on the subject of whether superheroes should kill. The idea is that superheroes are somehow above that kind of conduct as though they respect law and order. What’s that based on? If anything, it’s totally incongruous with everything else they do. Keep in mind that I’m not saying they all should kill. What I’m saying is that the presumption that they wouldn’t or shouldn’t is out of place given that they are all violent vigilantes to begin with. Oh, they all have their own moral codes. But those codes all do include violently stopping the bad guys.
The thing is that superheroes have become so commonplace in the Big Two universes that this facet of what they are gets lost. DC Comics has tried to reclaim the whole vigilante mystique of superheroes in the New 52, but that endeavor has really become so disjointed they’re still as guilty as Marvel Comics is of trying to have it both ways. We still have superheroes as institutions, when by their vigilante nature they’re meant to be inherently anti-institution.
Even when you put them up on a pedestal, superheroes are still supposed to be a little gray.