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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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