That I have trouble with superhero as a genre is no secret. And I do not think less of you if you like it. Really. If you like it and read the rest of this you’re going to get the feeling that I think less of you. I don’t. There is an escapist element and an element of hope that people need, perhaps, and that’s enough.
But not what I want to talk about.
Recently I was tangentially exposed to a discussion of The Punisher and gun control. That discussion felt to me like a specific discussion of a more general problem with supers, and one that is existential for the whole genre. That is, the question was about whether the Punisher should have a position on gun control and whether it should be anti- and all the good stuff that goes with that (like demonizing those who want gun control or making them seem effeminate or obtuse). But the big question here is, who gives a fuck what the Punisher thinks? He’s a murderous vigilante. He’s off the rails. He already has no ethical ground to stand on so why listen to him at all on topics like that? And why would you, a reader/viewer, imagine that the writing was ever going to be nuanced when at its core it must somehow support vigilantism and therefore profoundly unethical behaviour? The most nuanced it can get still can only be about peripheral issues. The elephant in the room is undisturbed. And even when you poke it (Civil War) you still have to do it in a useless fashion.
Supers are about vigilantism and that’s not okay.
There might be supers who are not vigilantes. I’m not aware of them and not talking about them. But even those that work against cosmic threats (Silver Surfer might be the purest) ultimately have to engage with the mundane for context (otherwise it’s not so much supers as science fantasy) and when they ignore or override existing organizations of security and defense, they too are vigilantes.
In order to support their vigilantism it is essential that writers paint the relevant organizations being superseded as inept. This is strictly an ethical dodge, framing the scenario as “vigilantism is fine if the organizations can’t or won’t do the work”. But in reality, however flawed they often are, these organizations do in fact do the work. And in a credibly (or at least charitably) story they would do whatever they need to do in order to keep up with the fast paced world of super-villains and galactic threats. They would hire the best skills. And those would be super-heroes. Even in administrative roles, they would certainly have supers with that (sadly underexamined) skill set.
They also have legitimacy of a sort. Certainly moreso than a superhero saying “trust me”. That’s harder to swallow today I know. But no matter how bad our institutions are, they are better than trusting a powerful stranger.
Let’s pause here and exempt the X-Men, at least in principle. Since the subtext there is about an oppressed group with special skills using those skills to protect themselves from a hostile world, it’s not necessarily about vigilantism. But it often is. And the institutions that would mostly reasonably respond to threats are painted with a black and white hostility and ineptitude. I don’t find these so much ethically vacant as simplistically defined. And then plenty of the stories are about them acting as vigilantes anyway, whether or not it’s because the rest of the world “just doesn’t understand”.
I cannot get onside with vigilantism just because however flawed the appropriate organizations are, they were at least designed with some semblance of checks and balances. Elected positions, oversight, public exposure. Of course they work against those checks and balances to protect themselves, especially when they act evilly. And of course the couch those efforts as necessary for efficiency and safety. They are imperfect and in many cases deeply imperfect. But they rely on a mutable and exposable institution to function. They aren’t a person. They are an organization, and the inner workings of an organization can be examined.
Not so for the vigilante. They operate according to their own motives, they select their targets based on their own calculations, and they are not beholden to anyone for their choices nor actions. There may be better ways to operate than existing institutions of security and defence, but trusting to a vigilante (no matter how super) is just a benevolent dictator in disguise and has the same problem: reproducibility. Even given a perfect vigilante, how do you guarantee that they are “good” in the future and how do you pick a new one when this one goes away? Vigilantes lack structure for reproduction. The very best are only good enough right now and in the past. Next week is up for grabs.
So supers are a no-go for me right out of the gate. They all operate unethically as an axiom of the existence of their stories and so within those stories their ethics are already undermined either within the text (they are vigilantes) or without the text (the writers must craft a universe in which vigilantism is somehow necessary because of implausible defects in the existing systems).
This is not okay for me. I would love a supers story that genuinely confronts this (Civil War was definitely not it — that was fundamentally about supers who wanted to retain their autonomy, firm in their belief that they knew best: paternalistic horse shit). Maybe a story about an organization, complete with checks and balances, that represents what we might actually build if there were citizens with these extraordinary skills. Organizations that didn’t raise plot-necessary doubts and skepticism in a universe that has already demonstrated plenty of zany problems to solve. Organizations that function as organizations with behaviours that allow both mutability and reproduction of function. But maybe that would suck because maybe it’s actually the vigilantism that’s desirable. Maybe that’s the bit people love and since I don’t get it, the genre is forever beyond me. The individual hero who operates without oversight, the saviour, the prophet. That’s the super and that’s who I cannot come to terms with at all.
So why must any interesting stories about this problem of vigilantism ultimately be useless, underexplored, and ethically trite? Because it’s an existential question for the genre: without vigilantism the genre does not exist.
Postscript: as I went out for a smoke to think about this I realized that there is a supers show I like. The 60s live action Batman series. So why does it work for me? Superficially it might just be that it’s comic and does not demand much scrutiny. It’s just goofy and hilarious and never tries too hard to be taken seriously. But more deeply, look at the relationship between Batman and the police department: sure, the police are (comically) inept but they know it. And when they are over their head the first thing they do is call Batman. And Batman’s efforts are always to put the villain (back) in jail. Batman, in this incarnation is weirdly only barely a vigilante (I say weirdly because he’s sort of the canonical super vigilante) — he actually works largely within the institution however informally. He’s invoked by them and he delivers to them. He’s the most lawful vigilante we’ve got!