Analysis

Five Injustices in Superhero Stories

Batman on his Bat-Cycle

We'll just pretend Batman's machine guns have never killed an innocent bystander.

I’ve written about injustice in speculative fiction before, but this week I want to focus on the superhero genre. For superheroes, justice is a particularly important topic. A huge number of superhero origin stories focus on a person seeing some kind of injustice and deciding to do something about it. Superman’s famous motto reads, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”

So when a superhero commits injustice, it hits extra hard. These characters are supposed to be our moral vanguard, even when they’re swept up in the modern obsession with dark and gritty stories. These five examples serve to illustrate what happens when a superhero fails to uphold their own ideals.

1. Hench-Murder

Green Arrow pulling back his bow.

In the CW show Arrow, Oliver Queen is a vigilante who stalks the city by night and sets his sights on evil doers that the law can’t touch.* His targets include mobsters, corrupt politicians, ruthless businessmen, and the like – people who use their wealth and power to damage his city. Oliver does kill, but only when he has to. He always gives villains the opportunity to change their ways, because even the worst among us deserve a chance at redemption.

Well, unless they’re hired help, anyway. You see, while Oliver does everything he can to avoid killing the main villain, anyone working for that villain seems to be fair game. Bodyguards, hitmen, arms smugglers, Oliver shoots them all down without a second thought. This puts Oliver in a moral contradiction. If we’re to accept that his cause is so important that killing is justified, then why is he so soft on those who make the evil decisions?

Certainly, the foot soldiers of a mob boss are not good people, but most of them are there for the paycheck. Their boss is the one who’s calling the shots and doing the real damage. By going out of his way to spare the boss while casually executing employees, Oliver sends a strong message that some lives matter more than others and that the value of life is correlated with how much money a person makes.

The worst part is that Oliver doesn’t seem bothered by this. He makes little effort to minimize casualties, even though we know he’s a master of stealth. He never has a moment where he bemoans the necessity of shooting a man who probably didn’t even know what his boss was up to.

2. Genocide

Superman from the Man of Steel film.

In the film Man of Steel, General Zod leads the last remnants of the Kryptonian species to Earth. Once there, he decides the planet should be more like Krypton and begins to terraform* it, which will have the nasty side effect of killing all humans. Once that’s done, he plans to use an incubator ship full of Kryptonian embryos to repopulate the planet, thus saving his species.

Zod’s plan has holes large enough to fly a Fortress of Solitude through. He could use any planet, including Mars, but picks the one world with Superman defending it. He could activate the incubator ship without the terraformer. We already know Kryptonians can survive on Earth, plus they’d have superpowers!

But leaving aside the logical issues, Superman’s response to Zod’s plan is chilling. He destroys not only the terraformer but also the incubator ship. This dooms the Kryptonian species to extinction, and it has no purpose. The incubator ship isn’t dangerous, and destroying it doesn’t weaken Zod in any way. In fact, losing the embryos only enrages Zod further, making him determined to exterminate humanity out of spite.

Destroying the incubator ship ends all hope of a peaceful solution, because at that point Zod has nothing left to lose. And while Zod is a bad dude, surely the Kryptonian species as a whole wasn’t responsible for his actions. Paradoxically, Superman is much more broken up about killing Zod, a murderous megalomaniac, than he is about the destruction of a ship that could have brought a sapient species back to life.*

3. Needless Vigilantism

Guardian from the Supergirl TV show.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a disaffected young man* witnesses his city wracked with crime and decides the only solution is for him to put on a mask and beat up petty criminals in the street. I know, I’ve just described half of all superhero backstories, but it’s important to understand how common this trope is.

The idea is that what society needs is more law enforcement, specifically law enforcement that isn’t accountable to anyone. The bizarreness of this concept is starkly illustrated in the show Supergirl, when sidekick Jimmy Olson wants to do more to help people. Olson is the head of a multibillion-dollar media empire, but he never once considers how his position might be useful in helping people. Instead, he decides to put on a mask and fight criminals in the street.

This feels particularly ridiculous because of the show’s main character, Supergirl. She works in concert with the US government to deal with high-level threats, the kind of threats that will level a city. The execution isn’t perfect, but the basic premise makes sense. Supergirl has powers that allow her to take on problems not even the military can defeat.

In contrast, Olson has his martial arts training and some body armor. The only kinds of opponents he can credibly defeat are normal human criminals. There’s already an institution in place to stop human criminals. You may have heard of it. It’s called the police. If National City’s police force was meant to be corrupt or incompetent, that would be something, but it isn’t.

Instead of using his journalistic skills or corporate influence to improve people’s lives, Olson is spending his time injuring people who are by and large forced into crime by economic circumstances. He’s accountable to no one, so if he makes a mistake and punches the wrong person or uses disproportionate force, no one can hold him accountable.

4. Hoarding Wealth

Christian Bale standing beside the Batsuit.

This injustice is the flipside of needless vigilantism. A hero takes to the streets to punch crime in the face, even though they have truly embarrassing amounts of money that could be spent alleviating the core causes of crime. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

These films explicitly state that Gotham’s main problem is the high level of crimes, and from there it’s heavily implied that this crime is the result of high poverty. We learn that before their deaths, Martha and Thomas Wayne invested heavily in public works to improve the city, but without them, funding dried up.

When Bruce comes of age, he looks at all the great works his parents planned and instead spends his money developing a new line of Bat Tanks. He then drives one of the tanks through downtown Gotham, damaging the city’s already overstressed infrastructure. Maybe he had to do that to stop various supervillains, but he’s only making the city’s poverty problem worse.

As the trilogy unfolds, Bruce doubles down on his strategy of developing new weapons, including a device that lets him spy on every cell phone in the city simultaneously. But we see little indication that he’s using his fortune to increase the city’s prosperity. It would be one thing if he felt the city’s well-being wasn’t his concern. But he’s clearly obsessed with making things better, so much so that he puts himself in routine physical danger.

By hoarding his wealth, Bruce encourages the circumstances that make it necessary for him to become Batman in the first place. At best, it demonstrates a surprising ignorance of basic economics. At worst, it seems like he’s creating a justification to go out and punch criminals.

5. Indefinite Imprisonment

An iPad showing the cells from The Flash.

Superheroes refusing to kill people is a pretty common trope, which is understandable. They’re supposed to be the good guys, which doesn’t mesh well with murder. But that leaves heroes in a difficult spot once they defeat a villain. Regular prisons can’t contain superpowered bad guys, so some heroes go the extra mile and construct their own holding facility. That sounds like a good idea until you realize that we have a justice system for a reason.

Consider the TV show The Flash, where Barry and the gang throw every metahuman criminal they find into one of the cells pictured above. Notice how tiny it is. There’s barely enough room to lie down, and the prisoners are never let out, even for exercise. If the cells have a bed or even a toilet, we don’t see one. It’s possible they fold out of the wall, but I’m not assuming anything at this point. Worst of all, every prisoner is kept in permanent solitary confinement; they have no contact with any other human beings unless one of the main characters needs to speak with them. Even in America’s abuse-riddled prison system, that would be considered extreme.

The Flash’s prison is clearly a form of cruel and unusual punishment, but it gets worse when you realize who’s being held. The inmates range from a mass murderer to a woman who broke her boyfriend out of prison. Any crime committed by a metahuman results in a life sentence. This is ironic because the Flash has committed a number of crimes himself, but he doesn’t seem eager to spend the rest of his life inside a tiny blue box.

Making matters even worse, this prison is completely secret, operated by a small group of private citizens. There’s no oversight and no accountability. This means the only hope of improving the situation is that one of the main characters will suddenly have an attack of conscience. The ACLU can’t sue over the violation of human rights when the whole thing is secret.

Strangely, the Flash isn’t the only superhero show to embrace the idea of grossly unjust prisons. Supergirl does the same thing, throwing any aliens the DEO doesn’t like into secret black sites. And they’re the good guys! This trope is particularly irresponsible now, especially when the United States has a terrible habit of locking people up without cause. It’s not something superheroes should be endorsing.


It’s doubtful that the creators of these stories actually think a bodyguard’s life is worth less than the person being guarded or that imprisoning people without trial is a good idea. It was just easier to make exciting fight scenes if Green Arrow killed the opposing mooks, and it’s more convenient for the plot if villains could just disappear into a cell after being defeated. Unfortunately, the messages of injustice shine through no matter the storytellers’ intentions. This should be avoided in any genre, but it’s particularly sad with superheroes, because they are supposed to show us a better way. When the capes embrace bad ideas, those ideas start to seem just a little more reasonable.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. RHJunior

    3. Thus becomes the question of “needless” vigilantism:The whole reason a protagonist becomes a vigilante hero is A: Because he perceives the system is not stopping crime in the first place– largely because the system is there to punish crime, not prevent it and often because the system in the story is either incompetent, corrupt or both B: by the time the “proper” authorities arrive, all they can do for the victim is draw a pretty chalk outline. (Call an ambulance, call a cop, call a pizza boy, see who gets there first.)

    4. It’s his damn money, can he or can he not do with it as he pleases? I tire of people calling others “greedy” or accusing them of “hoarding” simply because they want to keep what they have earned or use it for their own interests. A great philosophy if you’re Bernie Sanders and you want poorly educated millennials to vote for you; a lousy one if you have even a grade-school understanding of economics.
    Besides which, in the movies it’s made clear that Wayne industries DOES empty largesse upon the city– he and his parents are remembered for their philanthropy, creating jobs and businesses, sponsoring city renovations, making massive charitable donations, and funding research for advanced equipment for the police and military…Ras Al Ghul had them KILLED because they were helping too much! Anyway, Batman’s gear is made up of leftovers: all the high tech prototypes that got mothballed because they were too impractical or expensive to mass produce. Consider that Bill Gates is rich enough that buying a brand new lamborghini has about as much impact on his finances as you or I experience buying a Bic pen; that’s the level Bruce Wayne operates at economically. The entirety of what he spends on being Batman is effectively a pittance… especially as he’s just recycling stuff that was gathering dust in his company’s warehouses.

    5. Yes, it’s troubling that the Flash has that private little prison. But we’re not dealing with garden variety street criminals or even mass murderers, here, are we? The lab prison is all they’ve got. If the Flash “left it to the system” those super-criminals would stay imprisoned about as long as it took them to break their cuffs and pull the entire police station down around the cops’ ears and kill them all. Of course he could turn them over to the GOVERNMENT or the MILITARY… in which case they would probably end up in the basement of the Pentagon being vivisected, so much for your compassionate concern for their rights and well being, right?
    The Flash is basically dealing with a terrible situation (criminals contaminated by runaway Mad Science) that is light years beyond what “the system” is equipped or designed to handle. It’s a poor solution, and implied to be a stopgap measure while they try to figure out how to depower the villains they capture so they can be turned over SAFELY to the authorities.

    • VoidCaller

      “Hoarding” might be a bad word, but it is not hard to agree that “rich heroes” often proclaim trying to help a city/world/country, while simultaneosly focusing disproportionate amount of their time and resources on punching bad guys instead of actually solving their problems.

      I mean, sure a Batman stoping whatever supervillain is now causing a havoc realy is heroic and in the context of a story important, and some time is spend on establishing him as a philanthropist, but ultimately he does very little compared to his massive capabilities, by limiting himself to being a one person crisis response team and philanthropist.

      Just think of the Bathman’s potential! He could have used his money and money related push in politics to fix so many Gotham’s problems. Starting with razing the Arkham Asylum and building working mental hospital capable of treating and containing his rouge gallery.

      Sorry for errors, foregin dyslexic here

    • SunlessNick

      Besides which, in the movies it’s made clear that Wayne industries DOES empty largesse upon the city– he and his parents are remembered for their philanthropy

      It’s clear his parents did, it’s less clear that he still does. (Although in the comics, he definitely does).

      Ras Al Ghul had them KILLED because they were helping too much!

      No he didn’t. One of my favourite things about Batman Begins is that Joe Chill was a random mugger, and William Earl was just a venal businessman – neither worked for Ra’s al-Ghul. I liked that the film didn’t go the entirely neat route.

    • Alverant

      What exactly did Bruce do to “earn” his money? Most of these greedy hoarders either inherited it (like Bruce) or made it through unethical means (like Tony). Yeah, they can do what they want with it, but don’t we have the freedom to criticize? Especially since their actions have an impact on others.

    • Cay Reet

      5.: Yes, they’re not your ‘run off the mill’ criminals, that’s right. But if you decide to rather lock someone up for the rest of their existence instead of killing them, don’t make killing look like the more humane option. Either be honest and say ‘only a dead villain is a good villain’ or at least give them a suitable cell with working facilities for the long rest of their lives. Perhaps throw in a few books or a TV screen, too.

  2. Dawn

    I agree with RHJunior. I want to comment on #2. To most people, especially the pro-abortion left, embryosare just balls of tissue and not people. What’s the problem with killing them? Millions are killed every year.

    • Mike

      Because a woman deciding she has no conditions to raise a child and the extermination of an entire species are the exact same thing.

    • N

      In Man of Steel, Superman could have won without destroying the embryos. Or he could have sent them to a Martian colony. They weren’t a threat. With human abortion, the problem usually is that a child will a: endanger the mother’s life, or b: imperil the finances of a destitute family, or c: be condemned to a family not equipped to look after it (like teenaged parents). Women don’t wake up one morning and decide to get an abortion. Notice that none of the above applies to the situation in Man of Steel.
      The left isn’t pro abortion. The problem is that giving birth necessitates that the woman carry the foetus/baby inside her body for 9 months (and it’s drawing nutrients and messing with her biology during that time). If there was a way to make the entire gestation process happen outside the womb (so that the mother doesn’t have to destroy her health for a child she never wanted) and if adoption and foster care systems were more reliable and better funded, then the pro choice movement would fizzle out.

      • Alverant

        There’s millions of forced-birthers in the USA but only a few hundred thousand children up for adoption and in the foster care system. Something is out of wack.

        And even if the forced-birthers did take responsibility for all kids who need good homes, we would still need abortion to be available for health and personal reasons. A woman may not want to have her DNA be merged with a man’s through rape and she should have the right to refuse it.

        • VoidCaller

          But why kill a child just because he was result of rape? I mean the child is innocent of the crime.

          Also, yes the child might have been created by merging DNA of two peole, but he still is separate person.

          • N

            True, the child is innocent. But a female rape survivor has already been in a situation where the things being done to her body were out of her control. To endure a 9-month long reminder of that trauma can feel like a further violation courtesy of the same rapist. Not to mention, some women might reasonably fail to care for children who remind them of their rapist. In which case, the child has still been born, but has a mother unwilling to look after him/her. Which is why I’m hoping for technology to come up with artificial wombs so that such children can be born with minimal distress to the mother. A better foster care system would be useful too, for taking children out of unloving families and putting them in loving environments. Abortion isn’t a perfect solution, but sometimes it is better than the alternative.

    • Alverant

      It’s not “pro-abortion”, it’s “pro-choice”. As in “the individual has a choice on whether or not to be pregnant”. Making the choice for someone else is what the force-birth conservatives do.

      • VoidCaller

        Pro-choice is about giving some people power to chose for others.
        Namely, they want to give women power to chose if they children will live or not.

        People talk about a choice of being pregnant, but forget that ending pregancy equals ending live of the unborn child.

        • Mr. Bottle

          A woman has a right to her own body. That right is called bodily autonomy, which no one has the right to violate except for self-preservation (and similar causes).

          If we must mandate that every pregnant person carry to term in the name of life even at risk of her own death, then we must also mandate that anyone, even those whose lives and livelihoods would be at risk, can be called upon to donate blood or organs. It would certainly remove the shortage.

          And yet we don’t. We don’t even collect the organs of the recently deceased unless they have given explicit permission. Because we respect bodily autonomy in those cases.

          Bodily autonomy extends also to matters such as assault and rape. Our bodies are not for the use of others if we do not allow it. If someone violates that boundary, why shouldn’t we defend ourselves? Why does it matter if the violation is intentional or not? If the violator is malicious or not? Why is innocence a factor?

          Why ascribe to a corpse a right that you are not willing to grant to those with the (mis)fortune of being born with a working uterus? Why is a fetus, who cannot think or feel for most of their gestation, any more important than one already born?

          • VoidCaller

            Did you just seriously called the gestating, unwanted child the violantor, from whose actions woman needs to defend herself?

            Also I have to point out that abortion is against body autonomy of the child, because ending his live means making decisions about his body without permission.

            And it can be argued that if you are biologicaly connected to another person’s body, you should not make decisions about your own body that will phsysically hurt that person.

            And yes, I differentiate between cases when it is medicaly impossible to save both patients (mother and child) and abortions.

          • Cay Reet

            Do you know which biological havoc a pregnancy wreaks on a woman? It’s one thing to go through that, if you want the child. If you don’t (perhaps because the pregnancy was forced upon you through an act of violence, such as rape), then forcing that woman to go through that havoc is definitely at odds with her right to bodily autonomy. A lot of pregnancy are never carried to term, the human body is able to terminate as well. Some scientist suggest the rate of very early terminations (within a few days, a week or two at the outmost) may be as high as 50 %.

            You are giving a possible human life more rights than the life already existing, you know. Giving the child which for other reasons might never live more rights than the woman who is already alive.

    • VoidCaller

      To N, because we hit formus limit of replies in one line

      As far as I condem abortion, I have to agree with you in two thing.

      One, yes we need better solutions for problems and tech solutions might help.

      Two, yes better foster care system and legal system in genneral would have allievated some of problems. I’m especially for making rapis responsible for the child financialy.

  3. Bronze Dog

    Mooks getting killed so readily is one that bugs me. Star Wars is pretty bad about stormtroopers being used as faceless cannon fodder for the heroes to mow down, even if one of them is a recently turned ex-stormtrooper in Force Awakens. One thing I’ve been doing in Edge of the Empire is going against the grain of the setting, having my character carry a heavy stun pistol, and possibly working on a long range stun rifle with his Mechanics skill.

    If our NPC Jedi ally once again denounces blasters as an uncivilized weapon, I’ll probably comment, “I’ve seen what a lightsaber can do to a person.”

    • VoidCaller

      Yeah, that “An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age” thing, I wonder if they didn’t meant “for times when of relative peace, when conflicts and violence are on personal level and lethal weapons are used only in most serious fights”.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So here’s the thing: I’m not against killing bad guys. The Storm Troopers are supporting an oppressive, genocidal regime even if they are not individually evil. I don’t think the Rebels should have to feel bad about the troopers they killed in order to prevent another Alderaan.

      What bothers me is that in Arrow, there’s a big idea that killing is wrong, but that rule is only applied to the bosses. If Arrow thinks killing is necessary, fine, why doesn’t he just finish the job?

      I agree that TFA does complicate the situation a little, specifically that it seems weird for Finn to be all about killing the people who were on his team five minutes ago, especially since it was one of their deaths that made him decide he didn’t want to be a Storm Trooper in the first place.

      • SunlessNick

        One thing they *might* be going for in Arrow is the way Daredevil comes across, which is being ok with mid-combat killing, but not setting out on a mission to kill, or executing the defeated. I don’t think Arrow gets there (though I do think Daredevil did).

      • Cay Reet

        I don’t have a problem with killing in battle. If you’re in a fight and you either never have a chance to survive unless you kill or the death happens during the fight as a such, then it’s fine for me.

  4. SunlessNick

    This dooms the Kryptonian species to extinction, and it has no purpose.

    I disagree that it has no purpose. Zod is using it to attack the plane carrying the phantom drive, and his command key means that Clark can’t take control of it – bringing the ship down is the only way to prevent Zod’s attack.

    The Flash’s prison is clearly a form of cruel and unusual punishment, but it gets worse when you realize who’s being held.

    Furthermore, they eventually share this technology with the CCPD, so that metahumans can be held in regular jails – something they could have done at any time they wanted.

  5. Laura Ess

    I found these examples really interesting because I’m currently in the process of watching ARROW s5, SUPERGIRL s2, and FLASH s3. Not quite finished yet, so there may be surprises down the line.

    ARROW
    The big arc for Oliver this season was facing his inner killer. Prometheus is one step ahead of him for most of the season but rather than just kill Oliver he attempts to break him instead. And the back story with the Bratva supports the idea of a blood lust within him. So does he give himself up, come out as the city’s resident psychopath, or try somehow to atone for his actions? I’ve liked the idea of his personal arc. As “the Hood” he was deadly (and hence the hook with Prometheus), then as “the Arrow” less so, and as “the Green Arrow” he seems to try to avoid needless deaths (though come on, anyone could figure out that all three are the same man). Will he succeed – well I’ll see in the finale.

    I always liked the AUSTIN POWERS take on this, where we see the aftermath of Powers killing a security guard at the super villain’s complex. He was only trying to support his family.

    SUPERGIRL
    Actually, the motivation for Olsen to become The Guardian was more that as a long term superhero entourage he’d become envious of the results that both Kal and Kara had achieved. This was brought out in the most recent episode that I saw where when he attempted a street bust it turned out NOT to be what he expected. The resolution of that episode seems to have had him abandoning the Guardian person and embracing the the “superpower” he has – human compassion.

    In a way Olsen was there as a connection to Superman, whom who don’t see until the 2nd season. People might not be familiar with Supergirl, but anyone who’s seen any of the Superman films knows James Olsen. The big difference in this world and the classic comic story lines is that Olsen (and an awful lot of other folk) know Superman’s and Supergirl’s secret identities. So it makes sense that James WOULD know Kara’s as well.

    In fact ARROW, SUPERGIRL and FLASH all have a similar scenario – the big hero is not a solitary agent acting alone, but part of a team of friends, family and coworkers. And I like that because if such folk existed in real life it’d be damn hard to keep their personal lives and identities secret. The difference in teams reflects the difference in focus of the three series. ARROW is all about crime, street fighting and darkness. So most of the characters have secrets and done stuff they shouldn’t have in the past, shit to work out. FLASH is very into Villain/Problem of the Week stuff, with a single Big Bad for a a season arc (who so far is always a Speedster). I like that because it reflects the Flash comics I read in the 60s. So really it’s reflecting just what life would be like if there were meta-humans . Flash works best in contrast to Arrow. And SUPERGIRL is more about the impact
    of having both extraterrestrials and and super-technology on Earth. So naturally her team’s going to have one or more extraterrestrials on it, and have ongoing issues about stuff from off-planet – Flash has alternate worlds, but Supergirl gets alien planets.

    Anyway, because of these differences, we know that Olsen being Guardian ISN’T going to work out in the long run. Fighting street crime (other than the odd heist with super-weapons or androids) isn’t what the show’s about. Rather we get a focus on refugees and about losing one’s home, and recovering from that. Olsen has his place in the show, but not as the Guardian.

    THE FLASH
    Here I have to agree – having Rogues and other villains incarcerated in “the Tube” doesn’t make a a lot of long term sense. If they have the technology to dampen or prevent the captives powers, it’d be better to share that with the authorities so that they could install that in Iron Heights. Dramatically it’s easier if they can have a villain on hand for charts and interrogations. There were other issues similar to this too. They had to kill off Captain Cold because he KNEW Flash’s real identity. Just how long can you have an arch-enemy in town before they’d share that (intentionally or not) with others? Then it’d be open season on Barry’s family and friends.

    I hope in season 4 they address the incarceration issue, like they addressed Oliver’s killing in s5 of Arrow. It’d make a good secondary issue.

    BRUCE/BATMAN
    I refer you the Cracked video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2d5QVq3aKM&t=212s. That’s why no one does anything.

  6. Oren Ashkenazi

    It’s interesting the the discussion around #2 has focused on abortion. For the record, Mythcreants unequivocally supports a person’s right to terminate their pregnancy, and their right to have such procedures covered by healthcare.

    But the intent of #2 was more to comment on the destruction of the Kryptonian species, not the loss of individual fetuses.

  7. Jerome

    Boy I agree on your Flash super-prison thing. They deserve a trial–otherwise they are not American. I’ve always had a problem with Flash’s penal system—and you touch on all the major points I would make–no toilets, no room, solitary confinement. Are we supposed to assume that Vibe goes out for Big Belly Burgers for every single prisoner, delivers it individually, every meal? It’s a plot hole, but it lends itself to critique as injustice. And you’re right, as a country we’re not thinking about our prisoners. We just toss them away. And this just strengthens that narrative.

  8. Richard

    Interesting stuff here!

    One could also wonder about superheroes and “regular” justice. I mean their interactions with law enforcement and the justice system. Can Batman be called into court to give testimony? What’s Thor’s immigration status? Things like that.

    Also, don’t you think there’d be something like “superhero insurance” to cover the damage that they do? By the way, if Loki destroys your property, does that count as an “act of god”?

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