Superhero films, TV series, and comics have supposedly become gritty and tough. But only a few deal with one of the central problems of the genre: the fantasy of violence with minimal consequence. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Spiderman learned. Certainly, this is true. But a more important lesson would be that it is impossible to utilize power without making difficult choices. Superhero media avoids the brutal reality that combat involves serious injury, death, and collateral damage. Many comics, movies, and films posit a frictionless way to disarm the opponent. In doing so, they remove basic elements of choice and consequence inherent in any serious endeavor to triumph over a thinking, willful, and dangerous opponent.
Disarming the Enemy
Carl von Clausewitz declared in On War that there are many ways to victory, but the most likely is either the direct disarmament of the opponent by annihilation or the erosion of his will to resist via attrition. Either method involves lethal force or the threat of it. Sometimes there are better, less harmful ways to victory. But in order for such methods to work, the opponent must play by the same rules. Napoleon looms over On War because he, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, refused to play by the approved rules of the game in his era. As a result, he threw Europe into chaos and initially destroyed the armies of the old regimes.
Superheroes rarely win by eroding the opponent’s will to resist. Instead, they often forcibly disarm their foes. The hero (at least in Western comics, TV, and film) ideally defeats and disarms his enemy through nonlethal force and leaves the opponent to face justice and confinement. Sometimes villains die, but in often in a manner that absolves the hero of blame. Death either occurs in heated combat, or more frequently as a result of the villain’s own morally repugnant qualities. Captain America doesn’t kill the Red Skull–he is dissolved by the very artifact he covets. Of course, there are always qualified exceptions such as the Punisher. But heroes that kill are often cast in the mode of morally tainted antiheroes engaging in redemptive violence.
The hero generally defeats opponents in one of two ways: he or she eliminates their weapon or beats the opponent into submission and renders them incapable of further resistance. This is not a strict typology, as minor flunkies–armed and unarmed–are often beaten up or rendered unconscious. Here, however, we begin to encounter problems. Heroes from cowboy radio serials onwards either shoot the gun out of the opponent’s hand or wound in them in some manner without threatening critical areas. But “shooting to wound” is generally impossible and blowing a gun off someone’s hand is exceedingly rare. Police officers generally are taught to employ lethal force as a last resort but shooting at the center of mass to stop a target usually means killing or at the very least inflicting grievous injury.
Within the context of the superhero universe, superheroes without guns generally disarm opponents via melee combat. They are able to do so without inflicting non-recoverable damage on opponents, often knocking them out cold. Yet it is difficult to believe that a superpowered hero fighting, say, an ordinary bankrobber, could overpower his or her adversary without serious injury or death due to the vast disparity in power between them. Peter Parker once gave in to his frustration and engaged in a boxing match with bully Flash Thompson and sent him flying with the slightest touch. Could a superhero always perfectly calibrate the level of force needed to nonlethally disarm an opponent, human or metahuman? More realistic is Hellsing‘s vampire-hero Alucard and his equally enhanced Vatican counterpart Alexander Anderson–both of whom tear through normal humans like rag dolls. Granted, Alucard has a lust for battle but even if he did not it is difficult to see how he could avoid killing his human adversaries with his powerful guns, fangs, or superhuman strength.
At the very minimum, disarming an opponent through melee combat holds the possibility of inflicting lasting injuries. Even under highly controlled conditions, boxers and footballers still suffer the long-term effects of being repeatedly bashed and beaten. But the duel between foes, unlike sport, is far less structured because both fighters are struggling over life and death. Clausewitz analogized war to a duel on a nation-wide scale, generating high degrees of complexity and lethality. War in its absolute state tends toward escalation of force, but in practice political and material constraints limit the level of violence. Violence still, however, is the basic currency of the duel.
Other heroes use nonlethal weapons (NLW) that remove the opponent’s ability to resist. But NLWs are perhaps better regarded as “less lethal” solutions given their latent capability for harm. Moreover, the purpose of NLWs is not to disarm opponents intent on killing. The Active Denial System (ADS) is used for crowd control and stopping suspicious vehicles, not the disarmament of armed enemy troops. Superheroes cheat by using NLWs as a substitute for violence against other combatants, whereas the police and military mostly employ NLWs to avoid lethally harming noncombatants. This does not mean that NLWs are not used against armed opponents, but their effects are often transitory and intended to enable lethal violence. The Russian use of gas during the Moscow theater hostage crisis is a case in point.
The absence of collateral damage is perhaps one of the most pernicious elements of the superhero genre. In a world where precision-guided munitions and drones can still kill many by mistake, it is ridiculous to believe that immensely destructive battles between heroes and villains would not result in widespread and lethal collateral damage. Collateral damage is not entirely absent from the superhero mythos, but it is not as omnipresent as it should be. Even if collateral damage did not result in death, the lasting injuries and fiscal damages alone resulting from destructive battles would be daunting. It would be a challenge to feel heroic if defeating a villain meant accidentally injuring a small child and ensuring that she could never again walk on her own two legs. Military and law enforcement must constantly weigh the tradeoffs between personal safety, the mission, and noncombatant immunity. There are often steep consequences for failure. Superheroes, on the other hand, largely do not consider noncombatant immunity and are largely unaccountable to those harmed by their battles.
“Tell Me How This Ends”
Finally, the status of superpowered opponents poses a moral quandry for the hero’s desire to not target the enemy after he is rendered hors de combat. When an enemy lays down his gun he is usually (suicide bombers and fake surrenders excepted) incapable of resisting any further and thus no longer a threat. When an enemy general is captured, he cannot physically command his army. If his army is defeated, he cannot pose a threat even if he still desires to resist. But if the enemy’s weapons cannot be separated from his person, how can the hero guarantee that the danger can be removed?
Even when locked up in the most secure of prisons, villains frequently return either through their own power or the aid of others. Even killing them does not guarantee safety as villains are often resurrected. Despite the hero’s desire to not strike a fallen opponent, he and the ones he cares for sometimes suffer because of his mercy. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman sparing Bane would have resulted in his death had Selina Kyle not shot the masked brawler. Kyle mocks Batman’s desire to avoid killing his foes but Christopher Nolan doesn’t really reflect too much on the significance of Batman nearly being killed by his greatest adversary after refusing to finish him off.
The problem is that, as in war, the battle is only over when the opponent judges it to be so. As long as the enemy has the ability and the will to resist he will continue to do so. Capturing Napoleon III and defeating his main forces didn’t end the French resistance in the Franco-Prussian War. Hitler gambled for resurrection in the Battle of the Bulge despite the sheer weight of Allied material superiority. Mao did not give up despite the fact that the early years of the Chinese Civil War saw him and his compatriots fleeing encirclement after encirclement.
If the enemy’s ability to resist is completely tied to their innate physical qualities, the hero faces a danger as long as the villain returns the will to harm others and the possibility of escape. Can supervillains be meaningfully prevented from harming society? Can their will to destruction be curbed and thus reformed into society at large? Or is the hero forced to do what he has always refused: lower himself to his opponent’s level and kill them? Some comic book heroes have attempted to answer this question, but rarely from a threat-centric perspective. The hero’s classic moral dilemma is whether he will give in to revenge or his feelings of repulsion. But what if the problem is not creating justice for past wrongs but the question of preventing future harm? We are often shielded from such considerations.
The Hero’s Choice
Being a hero and remaining true to one’s moral code is tough but not impossible. But as dark as superhero films are, they run away from the reality that combat involves serious injury and death. They give the hero the option of saving innocents with precise and discriminate (and mostly nonlethal) force. They avoid the collateral damage that destructive battle inevitably creates. They avoid uncomfortable questions about what happens to super-powered villains after they have been defeated. Granted, these considerations take the fun out of watching a battle that destroys a city block and removes the element of escapism that makes superheroes popular. But it’s not impossible to create heroes who can face the consequences of their actions. Some heroes, despite their imperfections, exercise choice and responsibility.
In fighting Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s demonic Angels, Shinji Ikari accidentally injures a classmate’s sister. Shinji is made to own up to the fact that his massive biomechanical weapon is a blunt instrument of war and sometimes can be as much a threat to the people he wants to save as the enemy. Shinji’s battles are not clean. He beats, batters, and often tears Angels apart limb from limb with his giant robot’s bare hands. There is no easy or considerate way to defeat the Angels. Shinji does not coolly contemplate which kung fu move he is going to use to take out his opponent. Instead, he desperately fights for his own life and the lives of his friends. Every battle is a challenge to marshal the will to endure. He does not face the challenge alone–he has comrades in arms and the soul of his mother often protects him by manipulating his robot. Still, it is Shinji’s battle to win.
In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card contrives to create a “innocent killer” whom the reader is always forced to forgive. Ender is always forced to fight. He kills another boy in a bathroom in self-defense and destroys an entire race because he was tricked into doing so. Ender does not own his violence because he is always forced into battle. Shinji is initially forced to fight in a similar manner, but he often refuses to accept it. He breaks down and runs away. When Shinji eventually returns to the battlefield, it is because he fights of his own volition in order to protect the people he cares about. At the climax of End of Evangelion, Shinji makes a crucial choice and decides that a world of pain and genuine humanity is superior to one without it. Ender’s destiny is largely determined by others and basks in the reader’s sympathy because of his victimhood even as he commits horrific acts of violence. Shinji, as frustrating and unlikeable as he is to most viewers, struggles to take ownership of his actions and avoid solipsism and his own (understandable, given his personal history) intense desire to flee from pain and struggle.
Shinji, despite being weak, indecisive, and frankly psychologically disturbed, is stronger than most heroes because he (barely) finds the strength within himself to make difficult choices in ambiguous circumstances. He does not shy away from the harsh reality involved in fighting for his own survival and the greater good. Unlike Frank “Punisher” Castle, Shinji is not perpetually haunted by an perfect past he can never return to or obsessed with exacting vengeance. His struggle to preserve life–his own and that of his friends–is what makes him such a formidable adversary to the Angels. Nolan’s Batman also chooses life and the future over wallowing in the past. Bruce Wayne, in the end, fulfills Alfred’s desire to see him happily dining with a woman at an outdoor cafe. He could only do so, however, by choosing to survive despite all odds. The morose, vengeance-obsessed Batman could not do so this, and it is the new Batman who inspires even the jaded Selina Kyle to throw away her opportunity to escape in order to assist him defeat Bane’s plans. Batman only acquires real power when he gives his own life value and meaning.
The desire to survive and thrive is ultimately what gives heroes the strength to face impossible decisions and triumph nonetheless. But without the opportunity to demonstrate this will, the hero’s struggle simply becomes a matter of physical courage alone. As Abraham Erskine noted at the beginning of Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers had the raw material to be a hero long before he was physically transformed into a super-soldier.
Basil Liddell-Hart once wrote that the true object of war was to create a “better peace.” But without overcoming the will or capability of a thinking adversary such a peace is impossible to create. Duels are always fraught with complexity and involve conscious choice. Confronting choice involves making and owning up to decisions, not simply making an elaborate show of moral conflict like Steven Spielberg’s Mossad agents in Munich. Strategic choice is not entirely absent from the superhero world, but it is often subdued. This is a shame, as the worth of a hero cannot simply be reduced to physical courage or tactical genius. Rather, heroes do not shy away from the choices, compromises, and consequences inherent in violent conflict.