I have been reading a lot of superhero comics lately, in particular Superman. Now the best Superman stories rarely involve him pounding on an enemy because lets face it, he is Superman and rarely outmatched. Rather, it’s some kind of moral conundrum or a chance for Superman to show he has more to him than just brawn. However, the recent sequence of stories I am reading have mostly focused on moral conundrums and they highlight the absurdity of the superhero moral code.
Now for the uninitiated the superhero moral code is that you don’t kill EVER. The reason for this is so that supervillains can keep coming back again and again and the comic book companies can sell more comics. Wait… I mean it’s because superheroes can’t take justice into their own hands. Whenever a superhero kills all the other superheroes get all frowny faced and judgmental. Batman is particularly bad, if you don’t follow his moral code exactly he gets all pouty and wont talk to you. It actually seems a bit out of character for Batman to be so stuck up on these things. The role of righteous indignation seems more suited to Superman than the dark and scary Batman. I guess he is a big softy under that black cape and cowl.
Anyways this code was put front and center when Wonder Woman killed a man that was mind controlling Superman. Now Wonder Woman has this kind of weird incongruity in her character where she is sometimes written as striving for world peace and in others as a warrior princess. This story plays off the latter. However, she has a pretty good reason for what she did. She lassoed said villain, which compels him to speak the truth, and asked him what would stop him from controlling Supes now or in the future. He replied “kill me” so he obviously believed that was the only way he would stop and so she took him at his word and did so.
All of the other superheroes disagree with her decision, but it was probably the right one. The usual cycle is that the superhero manages to subdue supervillain without killing him, a miraculous task given this is often like two nuclear bombs fighting. They put him in minimal security prison. He inevitably escapes incredibly porous prison and goes on his next criminal rampage. Thus 99% of supervillains are recidivists. Every time they don’t kill a supervillain they have essentially consigned innocents to death at a later date since the villain WILL escape and he WILL go back to a life of crime.
Of course the governments in the comic books should step up and take this decision out of of the heroes’ hands. Considering that most supervillains are mass murderers and recidivists with incontrovertible evidence against them, it might be time to instate the death penalty. This is particularly true because they seem incapable of actually holding a supervillain. At that point, to protect society you might have to kill them. I am against the death penalty in real life, but almost none of these conditions hold in our reality. Strangely, the death penalty appears to have been eradicated in the U.S.A. of comic books despite being on the books in over half the states of the real U.S.A.
The other problem with this view is that superheroes are already vigilantes, so it’s bewildering that they draw the line at killing. Marvel’s Civil War grappled with this issue of heroes working outside the law and while its execution was lacking, it is certainly an interesting idea for a comic. Instead of killing they engage in all kinds of morally dubious alternatives. For instance, in Identity Crisis it is revealed that members of the Justice League had taken to wiping and altering the minds of supervillains and even Batman. This was because they had learned the heroes’ secret identities and vowed to kill their friends and families when they inevitably escaped. As you can see, they are also not confident in our ability to incarcerate supervillains and yet they still don’t kill them. What is extremely peculiar is that they lobotomized the villains into merely less vicious villains and not into upstanding citizens. It was like a catch-and-release program for villains so that the superheroes could still get their jollies off on beating them up.
Apart from altering minds, the heroes have also engaged in other ambiguously moral “solutions” other than killing. They will hurtle villains through space, trap them in the Phantom Zone or put them in infinite teleportation loops, just to name a few. I somehow doubt the justice system has condoned these methods of detainment. Furthermore, many of these sound like permanent solitary confinement which many studies have shown is akin to torture psychologically. But hey, at least they didn’t kill them!
Furthermore, most heroes subscribe to a “mean don’t justify the ends” morality or as Superman put it, he would not sacrifice one child to save millions. I have already written about how the ends always justify the means in my post on macromorality; this is in fact the only way to judge the means. If Supes actually made that choice he would unambiguously be in the wrong. Strangely, I have never actually seen a superhero in such a dilemma, they always manage to save everyone. Someone should do this. I would read it.