Thursday, September 15, 2011

Marvel Comics Civil War: Why Superhero Vigilantism is Wrong

So I found out recently that two of my best friends who are engaged fall on different sides of the old Marvel Civil War debate. I have a personal history with this subject; I used to debate with those philosophy major buddies of mine for hours during college. I also own the collection in graphic novel format. So I responded to them in length my side of the argument via facebook message, and I just realized I could very easily copy and paste it as a fun blog post. Lazy-ness! Awesome.
For those of you not familiar with the Marvel Comics Civil War event, some background. It was a crossover event from July 2006 to January 2007. In the superhero comic book world, Marvel and DC often have huge blockbuster summer stories that effect their entire universe, with a main comic in several parts and lots of tie-in shout outs to it in the regular comic lines. They're really gimmicky by nature, and a clear money grab, but sometimes really fun. This event explored a oft-treaded on topic in things like Watchmen and "The Incredibles": people are sick of vigilante super humans running around, and the government takes action. The catalyst for Marvel universe outcry is a when a team of C-list untrained teenage superheros try to fight some supervillians for their reality show and end of accidentally blowing up an entire school in suburban CT. The government passes a bill making superheroes register with the government. The government will learn their identity and train them to make them paid governmental employees, essentially becoming superhuman police or FBI agents. Anyone who doesn't register is an outlaw. The superhero community picks sides, with Iron Man leading Pro-Registration and Captain America leading the rebels, and battles wage.

So while my friends would always argue for Anti-Registration, and I would argue for Pro-Reg. I find it hard to believe myself, because politically I'm usually closest to being a libertarian (I'm actually moderate) and more government and infringing on superhuman civil liberties seems naturally wrong to me. Plus, while government training, government pay, and a happy America are naturally a more pragmatic response, I usually favor ideals to practically. But looking at the situation in depth reveals that it's not so simple.

As Alan Moore's Watchmen pointed out, superheroes are just WRONG to begin with. It's fine if the post-human individual is a perfect, inherently morally good person, but that kind individual existing is entirely fictitious (oops, all superheroes are fictitious, but still). So a regular, flawed human being is given superpowers, and it makes them morally better than us and responsible for us? My favorite argument for Pro-Reg was something Iron Man said in a private monologue he made to Captain America's fake corpse, cause it shows how his opinions come not from fascism like some accuse him of, but from personal experience. I'm paraphrasing, but he mentioned a time during the Demon in a Bottle arc when he was alcoholic and drunk off his ass, and tried fighting a minor supervillian in crowded public street. He was swinging around a telephone pole and almost killed some bystanders. THE SUPERVILLIAN he was fighting had to knock him out to protect the innocent civilians. If you can't even trust an A-Lister like Iron Man completely, what about the hundreds of C and D list superheroes, all the New Warriors morons out there? And don't even get me STARTED on whether or not vigilantism is moral to begin with. Sure stopping someone from mugging an old lady might seem objectively good, but I think morally is inherently subjective, since we have no way of scientifically pinning down what "right" and "wrong" are, or even if those concepts have any metaphysical weight to begin with.

Obviously then, the only form of humans physically protecting and policing other humans with any sort of legitimacy is a government that people willingly enter via social contract. And while a democracy/republic certainly isn't a perfect means of respecting the rights of individuals while protecting them from themselves, it's the best we got so far. So if a individual suddenly finds themself with super powers and they want to help others, they should do it legitimately. Regular humans often want to protect others, and what do they do? Join the police force. GET TRAINED, which many would-be heroes need, not only to teach them how to save lives but to teach them respect for strength of their powers (policemen in training get maced and tazed before being allowed out in the field, shouldn't 15 yr old Spidey have been spun upside down to a lamppost for a few hours too?). Thus, they'll have a somewhat legitimate authority over others, as opposed to none whatsoever. Also, in a democratic society we should listen to the will of others, and while allowing the civilian majority of the Marvel U to vote on superhero segregation or god-forbid disposing on them infringes on the rights of the post-humans, letting the majority decide whether or not the post-humans can save them is completely fair, and is the very nature of a social contract. Superheroes need accountability, because if you don't like something the police do you can get involved politically, but as it stood if you don't like something a superhero does you can go fuck yourself. I don't feel like that's right. And really thinking about it, an individual has NO right to vigilantism in the first place. The very nature of it is infringing on everyone in their society's personal freedom.

And if a superhero doesn't want to register? Then stop being a superhero. Disappear into your alter ego. I'm pretty sure the Super Human Registration Act didn't even make post-humans make their identities public, it would be S.H.E.I.L.D. classified information if I'm not mistaken.

The only argument left that gives me any pause is the one my friends would stick to, and the one Cap gives for going rogue:
"Don't play politics with me, Hill. Super Heroes need to stay above that stuff or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are."
Very true. The US government is certainly no saint, and could start telling Thor to take down Colombian dictators or Wolverine to assassinate Julian Assange. It certainly is vexing. My only practical response is the individual post-human could just quit at that point. Idealistically however, this doesn't change anything I've said. As Maria Hill, then-Commander of S.H.E.I.L.D.responded to Captain America after he said that:
"I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law."


  1. Whoa, good post. I see both sides and I'm unsure where I would come down.

    On one hand: there is evil in the world and it must be dealt with. evil does not play by the rules and often is quite subtle in it's actions until suddenly there are planes bringing down buildings. despite our laws, the people enforcing them, and our social contract with those people, evil finds ways in, around, and through those processes and systems until all we have is the illusion of security.

    take Harry Potter: technically he's an unregistered super-hero who goes rogue to defeat Voldemort. He does this not because he wants to, but because the system set up is in a state of denial about the fact that the evil has returned and is not contained and in fact has found it's way in the system.

    On the other hand: Had Harry trusted and gone to his superiors sooner the story might have been 5 books instead of 7. And in terms of registration of super-heroes, there are dangers and instances like the Iron Man and a few X-Men places where they were definitely in the wrong.

    The original Spiderman story-arch had this dynamic of the newspaper distrusting a secretive vigilante who operated outside the bounds of the law. I wish that was more developed instead of the highly cartoonish Janis going after the morally superior Spidy, there is a deep philosophical story that could be explored there. Plus would you trust the philosophical leanings and problem solving skills of a teenager in a spider-suit? I wouldn't regardless of the powers granted.

    Yet on the other hand: Batman is a good example of the registration vs. non-reg debate. He's in a system where the social contract has completely failed and it manages crime (poorly) versus totally fighting it. The whole system is shot through with corruption and evil.

    Reality is that we're a mix of Batman's world (Afghanistan needs a Batman character for example) and Marvel Civil War. There's a mix of corruption and evil in all things. That's the doctrine of sin in theological terms.

    So where I would fall it seems to me would be nonreg. One because I lean towards Chaos and not Law and two I note that evil/sin is in each and every person and being registered won't change that just as going to church doesn't change it. It helps you think about it, but it doesn't change the fact. So as presented in the comics, I would be a non-reg simply for the fact that it isn't proactive, there's no training or philosophical view put on crime fighting, it's only a list of names and that's it. That can be used in evil ways by the government or easily fall into the wrong hands.

    That's my two cents... great post! Made me think too much.

  2. I was reading old blogposts right now and reread your comment Luke. Your mention of Batman reminds of the finale of the Avatar, the Last Airbender series, where the main character Aang is the current reincarnated Avatar who is supposed to stop the imperialistic Fire Nation from taking over the world. Being born in a pacifistic Air monk nomad tribe, he mediates right before the final battle and asks his past lives for advice since he is morally opposed to killing the Fire Nation ruler. When he finally reaches back to the previous Air Monk Avatar, she tells him that while all the great Air monks have been able to live detached lives of peace and refrain from hurting others, as the Avatar, HE DOES NOT HAVE THAT LUXURY. Since he was born as the only one able to keep the world in balance, he MUST sacrifice his own morals and soul for the good of the world. That always made me think of Batman being Gotham's Dark Knight, and how even though his morals stop him from killing criminals, maybe he should kill the Joker and others since he's the only one outside the system and is capable of doing it. Sure, Batman might go to the hell I don't believe in, but that's a sacrifice he needs to make for the people. Interestingly enough for Avatar , Aang then speaks with an ancient lion turtle who tells him: "The true mind can weather all lies and illusions without being lost. The true heart can touch the poison of hatred without being harmed. From beginningless time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light." And teaches him a way to stop the Fire Nation without killing (Aang learns how to take away the Fire King's powers by bending his chakra). While these are all fictional worlds, obviously I find them to be great allegories and examples of how we can view our own morality and our role in this world.