Update September 2016
From now on, all of my superhero-related posts will be published at my A Clash of Heroes Blog.
My students all know that I love superheroes, and I often find ways to use superheroes and their stories as analogues for issues that I discuss in class. But last week a student said to me that a movie like The Avengers “doesn’t have anything to do with the real world. It’s just dumb entertainment.” I had to forgive this student for such an egregious claim. She’s new to college, and I have no control over whatever subpar education that she received before now and would lead her to think that The Avengers is just “dumb entertainment.” But she made me realize that while it is certainly true that superhero movies are wildly popular right now, some people don’t realize just how important the mythology of comic book heroes can be if we’re willing to take them seriously.
(The Desire for) Power Corrupts
One of the reasons that I think superheroes are important at this particular moment is how good their stories are at helping us think about questions of power. And perhaps more now than in any other time, we need to think about what it means to seek and to wield power.
The history of the twentieth century (and now the twenty first) is the story of the struggle for power. While the desire for power and the conflicts that arise from that desire have always been at the heart of civilization’s story, the consequences of humanity’s struggle for power have perhaps never played out more dramatically than they did between the beginning of the First World War and the end of the Cold War. Indeed, even twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the consequences of the Cold War still weigh heavily on contemporary geopolitics, and new problems of power and its uses have arisen: 9/11 and the threat of terrorism, the extreme polarization of American politics, the IRS and NSA scandals, Russia’s assertion of control over its neighbor countries, the so-called “culture wars” of Western society, the influence of the United States on the rest of the world, the rise of ISIS––each of these problems comes down to the question of power. Who can wield power? How much power can one person or entity legitimately exercise over other people? Most importantly, what is the purpose of power?
And the question of power does not exist merely in big geo- and sociopolitical arenas. Indeed, the problem of power lies at the very heart of almost all human interaction––between husband and wife, parent and child, and perhaps most surprisingly between friends. While people generally consider friendship a relationship between equals, complications of power exist even in the best of friends. For example, the archetypal superhero friendships––Superman and Batman, Iron Man and Captain America––always involve inequalities of various kinds. While Superman’s immense physical powers far surpass those of Batman (who has no superpowers), Batman’s intellect often gives him an advantage over Superman. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, when the U.S. government sends Superman to Gotham to stop Batman after he becomes troublesome, Batman’s technical and tactical expertise allows him to defeat Superman. Likewise, though Iron Man’s scientific genius is beyond the knowledge of the Living Legend, Cap’s strength, resourcefulness, and courage sometimes tip the scales in his favor.
In Marvel’s crossover event Civil War, when Tony and Steve find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict over a law requiring superheroes to work for the government, Steve’s resourcefulness and tactical genius allow him to finally defeat Tony (though he does not win the war against the Superhuman Registration Act). No one could reasonably deny that the friendship between Superman and Batman and the friendship between Iron Man and Cap are real friendships based upon mutual respect and trust, but even these relationships are not immune to the problems that come with power. Indeed, we find power distributed unevenly in most relationships––between individuals, groups, institutions, or nations.
Though contemporary culture would have us believe that the asymmetrical distribution of power is always and everywhere unjust, such a view oversimplifies the issue. Often a disparity in the distribution of power leads to great injustice, but sometimes it leads to justice. When the Nazis had Jews sent to Auschwitz and Dachau, they were able to do so because of the great power that they held in Germany. But when the Allies defeated the Germans and ended WWII, they also did so because they had the power to do it. Similarly, while the antebellum American South had the power to own human beings as slaves, the North had the power to enforce abolition in the South. One can argue that the Allies in their powerful position went on to abandon Eastern Europe to an evil regime, and some might argue that the U.S. federal government went on to abuse its power after the American Civil War, but that is beside the point. The important question is not usually about the distribution of power; more often the important question is about the character of the person wielding the power and whether or not he or she sought that power in the first place.
We don’t tend to admire the ambitious, the people who seek after power. We don’t admire the guy who tries to get ahead at the expense of his colleagues or friends or acquaintances, and we certainly don’t admire people who want to have power over others. When Loki tries to take the throne of Asgard or conquer the Earth, we want Thor to stop him––no matter how much devotees of the Trickster God admire Tom Hiddleston’s good looks or sympathize with his resentment as the younger, forgotten sibling. But more surprisingly, I don’t think that most of us admire the Phoenix Five when they take over the Earth in Marvel’s Avengers vs X-Men––even though they basically want use their power benevolently.
Most of us recognize instinctively that we should not seek to have power over others, even when we intend to use it for good.
Superhero stories frequently bear out this principle. Almost without exception, super-villains are bad because they seek after power. In Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet (which will serve as the basis of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars movies), Thanos desires the god-like power that the Infinity Gauntlet bestows upon its wearer. Though he uses this power to woo the woman he loves––Death personified––he desires the power of the Infinity Gauntlet primarily because limitless power enables him to fulfill his greatest desire: to dominate everything in the universe.
But the desire for power is not always––or even usually––a result of a disordered self-will (as in the case of Thanos). For example, in Zack Snyder’s film Man of Steel, General Zod desires power not so that he can control the universe, but only so that he will be able to save his race from extinction (albeit at the expense of Earth’s population). When Zod arrives at Earth ready to terraform the planet and make it suitable for Kryptonians, Superman implores Zod to allow the Kryptonians to adjust as he did to Earth’s gravity and atmosphere so that the Kryptonians can exist side-by-side with humanity. But Zod refuses to allow his people to “suffer through years of pain trying to adapt.” After Superman has defeated his efforts to build a new Krypton on Earth, Zod and Superman meet in the ruins of downtown Metropolis. Surrounded by collapsed buildings and ashes, Zod tells Kal-El,
Look at this. We could have built a new Krypton in this squalor, but you choose the humans over us. I exist only to protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born, and every action I take, no matter how violent or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people. And now I have no people.
Zod does not hold any particular grudge against the human race; he simply refuses to do anything but to place his needs and the needs of his people before any other consideration, and as a result, he loses both his people and his own life.
Acton famously said that “power corrupts,” warning us against the danger inherent in any kind of power. As rational creatures, all humans (or aliens, or sentient robots, or other creatures as the case might be) tend toward the will to power. Though morality or ethics exist to keep our will in check, we always tend towards this will to power, and unless we guard against it, it will certainly corrupt us.
When Warner Bros. dropped the trailers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year, I was pleased to see that it looks like the major theme of this movie will be power and its place in the world. (And, not surprisingly, one character quotes Lord Acton in the first trailer.)
But I might argue that Acton doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. Power in itself can corrupt, but the real problem is the pursuit of power or the desire for power. We can see this in the examples of Captain America.
In The Avengers, Tony Stark (Iron Man) and and Steve Rogers (Captain America) engage in a testosterone-fueled (and magically induced) contest to see who is the real hero. Steve says to Tony, “Big man in a suit of armor: take that off, what are you?” He goes on to accuse Tony of being a phony hero: “The only thing you really fight for is yourself.” Tony responds in kind: “You’re a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” Steve responds by suggesting that Tony “put on the suit” so that the two can “go a few rounds.” Unfortunately, film audiences haven’t yet seen this super-powered matchup (we get a tease of a fight between Iron Man and Cap in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but we’ll have to wait until next year’s Captain America: Civil War for the real throw-down).
On the surface, it seems that Steve is wrong and Tony is right. Steve accuses Tony of only acting only for his own good, but at the release of The Avengers, audiences had already seen Tony Stark act for the good of others in both Iron Man and Iron Man 2: in Iron Man, Stark risks his company and reputation to stop making weapons, a decision that he comes to after witnessing the suffering that his inventions have wrought upon innocent people. And in his first act as Iron Man, Tony goes to Afghanistan to destroy the weapons built by his company that have fallen into the hands of terrorists. While there, he saves a number of civilians from members of the Ten Rings, a terrorist organization. And in Iron Man 2, Iron Man saves hundreds of people from Justin Hammer’s drones. Tony is not always an exemplar of personal virtue, but the swaggering persona of Tony Stark, “genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist,” is not exactly the real Stark––it seems to be a facade for someone else, someone who wants to be a better man. The real Tony Stark, while certainly flawed, fights for more than just himself.
Stark, however, appears at first glance to be right about Rogers. Born a poor, weak boy with no special gift to compare with Tony’s scientific genius, Steve gained his strength because of the genius of another man, the WWII German defector Dr. Abraham Erskine. Having been identified as a candidate for the super soldier program by Erskine, the “ninety-pound asthmatic” (as Colonel Phillips calls Rogers) is subjected to treatment with a serum and exposed to special radiation that enhances his strength and performance to the peak of human potential. The skinny boy who had been beaten up all over Brooklyn became stronger, tougher, and faster than any other human alive––able to military-press a motorcycle with three adult women sitting on it; able to survive falls from enormous heights without injury; and able to sustain a blow (using his unbreakable shield) from Thor’s magical hammer, Mjolnir. While these abilities do indeed make Captain America something special, is Stark right? Did all of Steve’s extraordinary abilities “[come] out of a bottle”?
The problem with Tony’s claim is that he does not say that Steve’s powers came out of a bottle; what he says is that everything special about him came out of a bottle, and this claim could not be further from the truth. What makes Captain America special is not his great strength, nor his incredible speed and agility, nor the way in which he uses his shield as an offensive weapon. While the great power that he wields is indeed extraordinary, what is truly remarkable about Captain America is the fact that both before and after he became a super soldier, Steve Rogers sought only to serve. Even when he was powerless, Rogers only ever looked for ways to serve others. As a weak man, Steve Rogers looked not for power, but for the opportunity to use the little power that he has for the good of others.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, we meet Steve Rogers as a scrawny, patriotic young man so eager to fight that, though he is medically ineligible, he tries many times to enlist only to receive a 4F stamp. He finally catches a break when Abraham Erskine overhears a conversation between Steve and his best friend, Bucky Barnes. “Why are you so keen to fight?” says Bucky. “There are so many important jobs.” Steve’s response impresses Erskine: “There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them. This isn’t about me.” When Steve tries to enlist that night, Erskine personally evaluates him and makes him part of the super soldier program.
At first, Steve has no idea why Erskine chooses him. He struggles through boot camp, barely able to do the required training and frequently victim to the bullying of the other cadets. The turning point comes when Colonel Phillips, annoyed that Erskine has chosen Rogers for the first super soldier experiment, throws a dummy grenade into the middle of a crowd to prove that other cadets are better candidates, that “you don’t win wars with ‘niceness’ . . . You win wars with guts.” When all the other cadets scatter, the weakling Steve leaps onto the grenade to shield others from the blast. Though Colonel Phillips continues to feign skepticism, the grenade incident proves to everyone present what has been clear to Erskine since he first laid eyes on Rogers at the recruitment office: Steve Rogers’s character and desire only to serve others makes him the ideal candidate for the super-soldier program.
On the night before the experiment, Steve asks Erskine “the only question that really matters”: “Why me?” Indeed, why Steve? He is undoubtedly brave, but courage is not enough to win a war. The other cadets in the program are already strong, fast, and obedient to their superiors. By the measure of most people who understand military matters, almost any cadet would be a better candidate for the super soldier program than Steve Rogers, who is obedient but lacks almost all other soldierly attributes. And yet Erskine looks for something in the test subject besides his physical strength:
The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen: because the strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion.
Though Steve seems unsure whether he should understand Erskine’s words as a compliment, we know that the scientist has in fact greatly praised the skinny weakling in front of him. He has said that of all the men in the U.S. military, Steve Rogers is the one man to whom he will entrust this tremendous power. Rogers is a rarity among men precisely because he is weak and does not pursue power. He only ever looks for the opportunity to give what he has in the service of others.