Acts of Terrorism – Heroism

Acts of Terrorism – Heroism
If you’ve kept an eye on even ten percent of the online conversation as it relates to comic book movies, then you’ve very likely, at one point or another, come across a statement like this:
That’s why the studio who doesn’t want their superheroes doing the things that ya know, make them superheroes, is the one struggling right now and the one that is bringing their comic books to life is the one winning
Or
God forbid a movie about brightly colored superheroes actually try to entertain us. What kind of pleb wants that?
And it goes on. To distill the argument down to its purest form, it’s that Marvel does things right because their heroes are heroic, and that DC does things wrong because its heroes are unheroic. I did a post on this prior, and aimed it exclusively on escapism vs realism, but this article will be tackling the issue for a different perspective—namely, what even is heroism. Sit tight, open your mind and buckle up, buckaroos.

Because of the nature of this discussion, I’ll have to cross examine Marvel’s movies against DC’s movies, so please bear with me. We’ll focus on Marvel’s shining beacon, who many claim is what Superman should be. I want to tackle the issue of Captain America and his decisions throughout the Marvel films.
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  • In The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America, rather than compromise his moral stance for the sake of 7 billion lives, decides the truly heroic thing to do is to do nothing and let Ultron crash the city into the Earth and wipe out all of humanity. Not only does he do this, he also insinuates the other Avengers are insane for even considering blowing up the city to save the world. Had Nick Fury and SHIELD not arrive there, the entire human population would’ve died, and Captain America had no way of knowing that Fury was on his way. Captain America essentially froze because he couldn’t bring himself to do something pragmatic.
  • In Captain America: Civil War, Captain America ignores the arguments presented for the Avengers being under closer governance, because he trusts his intuition and his perspective more than he does any other. This brings him at odds with Iron Man, who believes they should have to answer to someone. In addition to all this, Captain America places the life of Bucky in front of everyone and everything else, and is willing to go to “war” with the people closest to him, for a man who is an assassin for the people Captain America himself considers the worst people alive.

To, again, distill all this down, it’s clear that Captain America is a moral absolutist. Essentially, it’s the belief that some actions are inherently good, and others are inherently wrong. There is no middle ground. For example, sacrificing that one city to save the entirety of the human race is a bad thing, no matter what the context is. To Marvel’s credit, they managed to create a world where a black and white philosophy like that can exist, but that philosophy has no place in the real world, which is comprised of more grays. Let’s take a look at the DCEU’s Superman, to show this.

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  • In Man of Steel, Clark is taught to be careful about how he uses his powers and who he shows them to. A now infamous scene involves him saving a bus-full of kids, and his father saying maybe he should’ve let them drown. Many people have taken this out of context, but within the context, it’s a father telling his son that even though he did the unquestionably right thing, given what he is it may have been the wrong thing to do. This questioning of right and wrong is something that’s ever-present with Clark.
  • In Batman v Superman, Clark turns himself over to the government to have a trial (he also did this in Man of Steel, but for different reasons). He puts himself into the hands of the people to be tried even though he didn’t have to—even though he thought what he was doing was the right thing.
  • In Batman v Superman, Clark spends his time onscreen questioning if he’s doing the right thing, despite the fact that he’s saving lives. He doesn’t shun his critics, rather he embraces and thinks about their perspectives.

Clark’s philosophical box is hard to pin down given just two movies, but the best guess is utilitarianism. The Utilitarian view is often the one leaders take. It’s their duty to protect most of the people all of the time when protecting all of the people isn’t an option. In fact, that’s something we want from those with authority over us. We expect them to serve the majority of the population, and do what’s in the best interest of that majority. If you’ve paid attention to the news, we get very angry when those we elect favor a small percentage of the population over the best interest of the larger percent.

We see this, to a large extent, in him as he always puts the majority above the minority (and even so, he still considers them). In Man of Steel, he puts down Zod, even though it hurt him to do so, in order to save the family before them. In Batman v Superman, he goes to deal with Lex and the Kryptonian scoutship because those presented danger to a much larger number of people, so he left saving his mother to Batman.

The comparisons are obvious. Clark, unlike Steve, isn’t cocksure. He doesn’t shut out criticisms and arguments, instead considering them and adjusting accordingly. Civil War portrayed Steve as right when he shut out all criticism and imposed his will on others, but Batman v Superman  made Clark suffer realistic consequences for barging into a country just to save one person. His vocal critics, and the government, didn’t care that he saved one person; they cared that he incited a massacre in Nairomi and violated their borders. That’s the world Superman lives in: a world of grays and not of black and white—a world like ours. There’s a reason powerful countries don’t just march into smaller ones and impose their will on the population (and when they do, there’s significant push-back from the global community).

Before continuing, I’d like to post a quote from a fairly well-known moral absolutist like Captain America:
Dog carcass in alley this morning. Tire tread on burst stomach. This city’s afraid of me. I’ve seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters, and the gutters are full of blood, and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!” and I’ll whisper “No.”
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Rorschach is Captain America’s beliefs taken to their logical conclusion, but not necessarily to an extreme that Captain American never comes to. Case in point goes back to the scene in Age of Ultron where Captain America is willing to let 7 billion people die because he will never compromise his ideals, not even in the face of Armageddon. Watchmen is a world of grays, so naturally, Rorschach’s ideals come into question and are weighed against Veidt’s utilitarianism in the end. Marvel, again, created a world of black and white—one where there is objective good and objective evil—this is what allows Captain America’s morality, despite being such a dangerous philosophy, to thrive.

Truth, justice and the American Way is a catchy phrase, and on its surface seems to be a wholly good thing. It beckons the mind to a black and white world, where the moral fiber of society isn’t being whittled away by a gnawing lies, where everyone can count on the perfection of the legal system and where the “American way” represents safety and prosperity for all. When you look just beneath the surface though—how things really are—you begin to see that our leaders regularly lie to us (and often times for gray reasons), our justice system is fractured  and the American way is ill-defined and rejected by so many places where we’ve tried to establish it.

Captain America is a shining beacon of American exceptionalism, embodying the “right” version of truth, justice and the American way—the idealized diamond absolute. Superman in the DCEU, despite proudly declaring he’s as American as it gets, is not a paragon of American ideals. No, he’s bigger than that. He puts the world on his shoulders and is ever contemplating his place in it. That is responsible, since he holds the greatest power on Earth. His intervention in any crisis could reshape history, and we see that very thing happen in Nairomi in Batman v Superman. Those men that died at the compound? It’s easy to call them terrorists and leave it at that, giving the audience and Superman a clear conscience when they all die, but the film establishes they’re also freedom fighters since Nairomi is splintered in a civil war at the moment. Those men could have been patriots, not unlike the American patriots during the Civil War. That’s why Superman doesn’t impose his will on others and why he’s pensive: he has to be.

Let’s really look at this “truth, justice and the American Way” thing. The easiest to dispel is truth, so let’s start there. Superman actively lies to the world every single time he puts on his Clark Kent disguise. He does this in most incarnations. In addition, the story of What’s so Funny about Truth, Justice and The American Way, or as the animation connoisseurs among us might know as Superman vs The Elite, is resolved by Superman telling a harrowing lie, and showing why he has the moral limitations he displays—why he isn’t an executioner.
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There is a fairly infamous issue, where Superman uses Kryptonite to kill three Kryptonians who he had deemed to be too much of a threat to be left alive. He executed “justice” as he saw it fit, and here is Dan Jurgens, a prolific Superman writer, on why it was a bad writing decision:
“I always thought that if Superman was going to be put in that position, that it had to be a more immediate threat. It didn’t bother me so much, Superman killing the Kryptonians, as it was him being just a stone-cold executioner. If you think of that cover — there’s a green cover and I think it was Superman itself where he’s actually wearing the hood like an executioner would wear. That was, to me, the problem. If you wanted to have Superman kill the Kryptonians, I think it had to be a situation where innocent life was in immediate peril and the only way to stop them from taking innocent life was to kill them. At that point, Superman makes the same decision, but he’s much more Superman as part of that. And the funny thing is, everybody gets twisted in knots over that scene in the movie [Man of Steel]– yet that’s what Superman did. When Superman kills Zod in the movie, it’s because there are human beings there who are in immediate danger. The problem with the comic book was, I always thought, not that Superman did it as it was the way he did it, because he was judge, jury and executioner right there. And it was a police officer walking right up to an individual who had dropped his gun, dropped his knife, said ‘I surrender,’ waved the white flag…and still [blowing] his head off. That’s basically what it was.”

This is Dan Jurgens, in very explicit terms saying Superman should not be doling out that kind of justice, even though very few would argue he was wrong for killing Zod. It’s, quite simply, just not Superman. “Truth and justice” are matters of perspective, not absolutes. There’s times where truths are lies, and where it’s better to lie than tell the truth, just as there’s times where justice is in the eyes of the beholder. “The American Way” is the aspect of that old Superman credo that gets dissected the most, as it isn’t hard to imagine what Superman could do on a global scale if he didn’t have those pesky limits.

Luckily, thanks to DC’s numerous Elseworlds stories, we don’t need to imagine a Superman that forces his beliefs on the world, since it’s already happened. The recent most popular one is Injustice: Gods Among Us, where Superman establishes a totalitarian regime, but in doing so rids the world of all crime. That is what Superman with the sureness of Captain America results in. It is, however, easy to write that story off as one where Superman “turns evil,” so let’s look at a more nuanced approach.

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Superman: Red Son’s premise is very simple, but also very intriguing. Essentially, “what happens if Superman represented truth, justice and the Soviet way?” It’s a terrifying thought, no? Imagine a Superman who patrols the Earth and spreads an ideology different from our own. We can’t stop him because he’s Superman, and he’s willing to fly into our country and force us to adopt his beliefs because he views what we do as un-Soviet. Imagine if he grew up in the Middle East, and thus decided that everyone should wear hijabs. Again, a scary thought. This is what other countries and cultures feel when the “American way” is imposed upon them. This is why Superman is pensive and thinks about his place in the world. This is why exceptionalism and moral absolutism have no place in Superman, no matter how tempted we are to want that to happen.

Ultimately, I personally prefer my heroes to think about their actions and the perspective of others. Just as I don’t want someone who can’t see grays holding the nuclear missile codes, I don’t want a Superman who doesn’t consider other viewpoints than his own. Superman smiling and being chipper comes secondary to that quality. Indeed, Superman, as far as live-action film is concerned, is a much better person and hero than Captain America because Superman is the one that doesn’t just look inward, but outward as well.

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