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Under Superhero Hoods

In a conversation about his 2018 book Superhero Ethics, author Travis Smith guides Convivium’s Peter Stockland past the classical, Biblical and liberal-democratic sources of comic book characters, ending up at the existential chasm in the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen: “Hey, what else can we do now?”

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Under Superhero Hoods December 28, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland with Travis D. Smith
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Peter Stockland: I wanted to start by asking you about the epigraph from Bruce Springsteen: “Well now I’m no hero that’s understood.” You start Superhero Ethics with that Springsteen quote, but one of the early premises in the book is that, in fact, we do have heroic powers—or at least far greater powers than we usually give ourselves credit for. You say on page seven, “We are meant to find these fantastic figures relatable in some way, even if their bodies are too perfect, their costumes garish, and their adventures inherently unrealistic.” Then, on page 83, “It is probably easier to see just how powerful we all are by considering how easily any one of us could cause immense harm to others. In truth, we all have more power than we recognize to be a positive force in the lives of those around us, even if only in ordinary ways in everyday affairs.” Right from the beginning there seems to be a tension between treating heroic characters as if they hold elevated stations well above the rest of us and saying that they call to something in all of us. Does something like this tension frame the book?

Travis Smith: Superheroes are modern, liberal-democratic literary creations. I approach them not as demigods to be worshiped, nobility to be revered, or saviours on whom to wholly depend. I regard them as models of excellence intended to inspire any and all people, encouraging us to develop our natural abilities and acquire new talents so as to live admirably and responsibly as members of communities in which people are recognized as free and equal. What inequalities we do possess or cultivate contribute to our individual happiness while allowing us to be of some good to our neighbours. Superheroes try to help others but not rule over them, just as nobody should presume to take full responsibility for the lives of others, commanding their submission even for their own good. Anyone who does that and isn’t a god has got to be some kind of monster or supervillain.

In Superhero Ethics I look at superheroes with a critical eye, though, wondering if they serve as good role models for us. Modern society has a complicated relationship with the concept of the hero. We tend to find the recognition of significant inequalities among people off-putting or offensive. Extraordinary people who recommend living courageously and honourably are particularly problematic for us given that modern commercial, technological society deliberately downplays and suppresses those qualities. As human beings, we cannot help finding heroic types appealing, but we would rather not want or need heroes, and we’re fairly suspicious of those who are hungry to earn a reputation for heroism.

The desire to look and feel like a hero depends on having threats to avert and villains to vanquish. It engenders a temptation to vilify others so as to prove oneself by confronting them. I don’t think that impulse is in need of much encouragement in public life at present. Indeed, in a society that pooh-poohs considerations of honour and integrity and values only results, many who seek to be hailed as heroes will endeavour to win in unethical ways.  So, my book isn’t about inspiring heroism. It is, however, about inquiring into the ways that stories about heroes might inspire ethical behaviour in all of us—like learning responsibility, using our gifts to benefit others, and treating each other with respect. That’s already a big enough challenge for most of us. 

You’re right that there is a tension between regarding heroes as rare but also as sources of inspiration for us all. Christians in particular should appreciate the paradox inherent to a model of heroism whom everyone is invited to imitate even though nobody really can. And while all Christians are technically saints, only some few are Saints. With respect to that Springsteen line from “Thunder Road,” that’s partly modesty on my part. In order to recognize true heroism, one would have to be a true hero oneself—which I am not. The tension you identify is, I think, acknowledged by me up front by my pairing Springsteen’s lyric with Mariah Carey’s in my second epigraph. In her song on the subject, she preconceives heroism in an exceedingly democratic fashion.

As an aside: The next line in “Thunder Road” goes “all the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood.” I like to think that, as a lapsed Catholic, when he’s not listening to the police band, Batman has E Street Radio on. Although, he’s Batman; I’m sure he can listen to several stations at once. Anyway, in his case, that dirty hood could refer to his cowl, the Batmobile, or Gotham City.

PS: You’re concerned with the moral qualities of these characters. In the contests you set up between them to determine “which superhero is most praiseworthy,” you attempt to identify which moral quality constitutes each character’s ethical core. You’re not as interested in their superpowers and gadgets. Most of us would not attribute so much moral significance to line drawings and fanciful stories. How do you conceptualize a moral dimension to characters that most of us read as two-dimensional?

TS: These characters’ stories focus on themes like justice, duty, and sacrifice. Obviously, the old Saturday morning cartoon versions are fairly unsophisticated. But simple stories written principally for children often have hidden depths, and one should not regard popular tales regarding right and wrong as unimportant or unworthy of examination.

There are certain traits that most superheroes tend to share, such as bravery and selflessness. Their motivations and efforts tend to conform to a secularized, universalistic, modern enlightenment morality. By inspecting them more closely, however, I found opportunities to explain how different characters address specific aspects of the human condition, attend to particular struggles, and represent distinctive attitudes toward life or perspectives on the nature of being. I focus on more well-known characters not only to make my book accessible to a general readership, but because the ones that have passed the test of time have done so precisely because they represent archetypal responses to fundamental human problems. 

Superhero stories present us with opportunities to engage in self-criticism, and not only because they accuse us of failing to live up to our ideals. They can help us see what’s objectionable about our ideals by showing us what they look like when taken to extremes. They expose the partialities inherent to, but obscured by, our society’s ideological commitments. 

PS: Maybe for historical reasons, superhero stories come out of an era where the demands of morality and the obligations of ethical conduct were clearer than most of us think of them being today. How much of your book is Travis Smith bringing a lens to the material and discovering his own understanding of ethical theory and behaviour represented there, and how much of it was consciously imbued by the creators of the comic books themselves?

TS: I tried to approach the source material, whether comics or the movies based on them, in a Socratic spirit of wonder—starting from the consideration of apparently simple stories and hoping to learn something by thinking them through—and not with a determination to force them to say what I’d like to hear. Even if these storytellers did not intend everything I discover in their creations, they are capable of leading us well beyond their intentions. I am a partisan of generous reading, assuming that authors know more than they let on and are aware of what their texts contain. That principle runs the risk of being overly generous, but you never learn anything if you only look to validate your current opinions and disapprove of anything else.

A cynical person might say that the creators of superhero stories exploit our natural appetite for stories where good triumphs over evil and flatter us by convincing us to imagine ourselves like characters more virtuous than we are. I think the popularization of the anti-hero in the 1980s and 90s was more cynical, taking advantage of the era’s emerging disdain for traditional models of virtue and distrust of moral authority.

PS: My sense in the book is that comics are not that funny. They’re not the funny pages. Batman is positively depressing. Your presentation of his war on crime in Gotham City is—

TS: It’s bleak. 

PS: It is bleak. You point out that Spider-Man is the only one who cracks jokes, and his jokes are so lame that his teammates get annoyed. But in general, comics aren’t funny.

TS: Ryan North’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is laugh-out-loud silly. The recent Mister Miracle miniseries by Tom King and Mitch Gerads contained some great visual gags as well as some pretty dark bits. But, in general, you’re right; they’re not funny. I have recently published an article titled “Comedy and Comic Books” on this subject, where I argue that superhero comics are comical or tragicomic in the classical sense even when they’re not humorous. Even in the world of professional comedy there is a difference between humourists, like Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres, and comedians like Maria Bamford and Norm Macdonald. Comedy is parasitical on tragedy; they’re two sides of the same cosmic worldview. They both maintain that the world is not right, and it cannot be made right by human effort. Tragedy in particular says, “this is wrong but it’s the truth.” Comedy camouflages that truth, offering consolation or reconciliation, but it still discloses that truth thereby. It says, “this is wrong, too, but it’s not true—except as an occasional, ridiculously unlikely outcome (and even then, it’s still wrong).”   Christianity overturns the classical outlook by saying, “comedy is actually both true and right. Surprise! And all you’ve got to do is believe.” From an inherently inegalitarian classical pagan perspective, the poor in spirit inheriting the earth, wolves and lambs just hanging out like best buddies, that all sounds crazy and very wrong. But that’s why hope and faith are virtues. Virtues are hard.

Superhero comics confusingly combine a tragicomic premise—the good guys always win, and innocent bystanders get saved, but human beings and the world never get any better—with a modern romantic-rationalistic confidence in progress. If only people said and did the right things, we would in time fix the world, end suffering, and achieve justice. This doctrine of progress is not grounded in the New Testament, although many churches confess it currently. Adherents of the doctrine of progress tend toward humourlessness because comedy seems to them not only as complicity in the perpetuation of suffering and injustice but also a kind of cruel revelry in their infliction. Comedy becomes unacceptable if you’re sure justice would finally prevail if only ignorant and malevolent people didn’t keep countenancing tragedy. It’s not surprising that the late night shows nowadays have been reduced to either delivering only inane entertainment like lip-synching competitions or making tiresome wisecracks with “look how right we are and how stupid they are” as their only punchline.

Batman, too, is almost humourless, deploying his wit only rarely in ways designed to remind you how smart he is. It makes sense that his archenemy is the Joker. The classical view assures us that any effort to establish and secure a rational moral order will bring tragic results. Comedy rightly laughs at technological reason’s righteous pride, even if Joker takes that response much too far. Aristotle understood that wit is a virtue. Making and taking jokes well is part of what we owe to each other not only in spite of the absence of systemic justice but because of that. A fixation on the realization of systemic justice leads us to justify staying miserable and spreading misery.

PS: Your argument or assertion seems to be that all the superheroes are afflicted with classical tragic flaws. Even Superman’s very perfectibility is tragic. On page 127 you quote his realization that everything that happens is “kind of always his fault” because he “can do anything.”

TS: That’s the sort of attitude that blames God for men’s evil, isn’t it? I argue that Superman is the one who most represents the secular enlightenment hope that right makes might—the insistence that it’s rational to expect a comical outcome. Voice-overs from Jor-El in the Superman movies both new and old alike resoundingly affirm this progressivist promise.

PS: On page 22, you say that Wolverine would be more at home in some romanticized Japan-like society where “nostalgic fantasies of a premodern society governed by traditions of honour remain vibrant. Logan can imagine that in such a place he might fit in, even if he will never be made to feel welcome.” That seems to be a summary of so many of the characters as you describe them: the best that they can hope for is to fit in even if they’re not welcome.

TS: I feel like you might be getting at something about us being pilgrims in this world? Wolverine reminds us that considerations of honour remain essential to human well-being. These days, we have attempted to fold standards of honour into our egalitarian morality. We mainly shame people for shaming people. Wolverine’s excessive concern for honour is an extreme reaction to modernity’s efforts to neutralize honour as an independent and rival standard of right and wrong. But we’re naturally and inevitably torn by these competing claims. I’m reminded of the Springsteen song “Highway Patrolman.” It tells us that if a “man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good”—even when that means a law-enforcement officer might allow his brother to get away with murder.

PS: As in let him get across the border.

TS: That’s right—literally, in that case. Unlike the song “Across the Border,” which is about death. Like “If I Should Fall Behind.” That song is about weddings only metaphorically. As you know, comedies end in weddings.

PS: It’s your contrast between Spider-Man and Batman, which Convivium originally published in 2013, that most raises objections to the romantic rationalistic hope you’ve identified. I’m reminded that in “Thunder Road” the next lines go on to say, “with a chance to make it good somehow, hey what else can we do now?” and the stanza ends with “heaven’s waiting on down the track.”

TS: You know when they’ll reach that heaven? “Born to Run” tells us it’ll be “Someday, girl, I don’t know when.” I mean, we can “keep pushin’ till it’s understood,” but those Badlands aren’t ever treating us good. The City of Man is not like that. Mary is going to take that long walk to his front seat and end up like the wife in “Racing in the Street” or perhaps the one in “Atlantic City.” The Boss has two kinds of songs, doesn’t he? He has sad songs that sound sad, and sad songs that don’t. Like “Rosalita.” She should come out tonight and head down San Diego way, but she isn’t going to. Or “Out in the Street.” At least that one reminds us to find some joy here where we can in the meanwhile.

PS: Most superheroes can’t afford personal love, right? 

TS: Spider-Man’s supporting cast in particular is always at risk of dire danger, but Peter Parker never really stops looking for love. Superman marries Lois Lane and they have a son and it all works out for them, but Batman cannot love and still be Batman. This has been affirmed in Mask of the Phantasm, in his recent abortive nuptials with Catwoman, and on Earth-Two, where those two did get married and Batman died ignominiously. The best exception to the rule is Mister Fantastic. He knows love.

PS: In your book, you argue that Spider-Man is the most biblical of the superheroes?

TS: Of the ones I examine at length. Arguably, Silver Surfer is more biblical than him. But Superhero Ethics mainly focuses on how superhero stories relate to modern society’s secular values and technological orientation. They reflect the tension between our egalitarian commitments and the opportunities that free society opens up for us to develop our gifts in extraordinary ways, as well as our obligation to help each other out without presuming to tell each other who to be. We can nevertheless make an effort to show each other how to be.

Travis D. Smith is associate professor of political science at Concordia University. Superhero Ethics was published by Templeton Press in 2018. “Comedy and Comic Books” is found in Flattering the Demos, published by Lexington Books in 2018.


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