What Does a Superhero Owe Us?

The new Black Panther movie raises a variant of the central question of the superhero genre. [No significant spoilers]

Jamelle Bouie reviews the new Black Panther movie, which I haven’t yet seen*, and there are minor spoilers. But this premise is worth discussing apart from the film itself:

 If there were a Wakanda—a powerful African nation that never experienced colonization and white supremacy—wouldn’t it have an obligation to those African peoples, and their descendants, who lacked the resources to defend themselves? And if it took revolutionary action to liberate them, wouldn’t that revolution be justified, just desserts after centuries of theft and bloodshed? Killmonger, a man who has experienced racism intimately, says yes. T’Challa, privileged to have never experienced the sting of color caste, says no. And Nakia, who has traveled the continent and believes Wakanda has a humanitarian duty to the world, plots a middle course. With great power, what exactly is the responsibility?

This is, as Jim Henley wrote more than a decade ago, the central question of the comic book genre.

If science fiction is the literature of ideas, the superhero story is the literature of ethics. Or say, rather, it should be. As “literature” need not mean “sober-sided drudgery,” I would even say the formulation holds for kids’ superhero tales.

Fantasy provides external analogs of internal conflicts, and the subtype of fantasy about superheroes is a way of externalizing questions of duty, community, and self. How should the powerful behave? (Most Americans are, in global-historical terms, “the powerful” in one aspect or another.) These questions are salient whether you wear tights or not. They apply to you. Because most of us, certainly most of us in the developed world, have more power, wealth, or wherewithal than somebody. Certainly almost everybody reading this essay could, in principle, quit his or her present job and work pro bono for an African AIDS clinic while subsisting on donated food, or maintain a couple of homeless people instead of taking vacation, or — join the volunteer fire department. Depending on your politics, you may believe that people like yourself or people like Bill Gates really do owe some non-trivial portion of time, wealth, influence, or attention to something or someone. The poor, the ill, the frightened, alienated, the “doomed, damned, and despised” as Jesse Jackson once put it.

And having had the thought, you’ve got more problems. Which will it be, first of all — the poor, the ill, or the frightened? Just how should you help them? Do you decide, or do they? And when, if ever, do you get off-duty? There is a global political dimension to this. Because the question of what responsibilities impinge on the powerful has everything to do with the position of “hyperpower America” in the present world situation.

[…]

The core question of the superhero story might be phrased as What do we owe other people? One problem is that superhero stories have typically answered the question before they’ve barely asked it: “With great power must come great responsibility!” Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben tells us. Are you sure about that? And how much is “great,” anyway? What part of my life can I keep back for myself?

If you’re Superman, equipped with godlike powers with little need for rest, do you get to have a personal life? While you’re making time with Lois Lane, people are dying. Do you owe your services primarily to the people of Metropolis or should you be off saving the people ravaged by the war in Syria?

Like Lazlo Bane, I’m no Superman. But I make a decent living. I could raise my kids comfortably in a smaller house, drive a more inexpensive car, take fewer vacations, eat more of our meals at home, and take the savings to donate to those less well off. But I don’t. I give some money to charity and help people I know when I can—but I could do a whole lot more were I willing to make rather small sacrifices.

Were I king of Wakanda, I’d almost certainly spend most of my time and efforts taking care of my people. Were I also imbued with superpowers, I’m sure I’d answer the phone if the Avengers called and the planet—or at least a major metropolitan area—needed saving. But I wouldn’t make that my life’s work.

__________
*I almost never see a movie opening weekend; I find the crowds too aggravating. I’ll likely take the girls next Saturday.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Comic Books, Entertainment, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:
  2. michael reynolds says:

    As it happens I’m finishing the last book of a superhero trilogy. (Monster, Villain and Hero) which is a sort of spin-off of the Gone series (6 books), which is a different take on people with powers. (Also did the 63 Animorphs books and some other superpower stuff.) It’s true that superhero stories tend to explore ethics, though I try to expand beyond that. Gone uses a dome, a total absence of anyone over the age of 15, and randomly-assigned superpowers to explore just these kinds of issues.

    One of the premises of Gone was that those without ‘powers’ are sometimes as great or greater than those with. For example, one character never acquires powers but becomes the capitalist of the group, creates a currency out of a stash of McDonald’s game tokens, slowly takes charge of food and water, and while generally disliked by other characters and the readers, ends up keeping people alive. Another character who never acquires power becomes the moral center on the basis of simple human virtues: decency, loyalty, an adherence to principle.

    Power corrupts but it also enables. It magnifies pre-existing vices and virtues. In general I’m with Uncle Ben, although in Gone I created a character who was my own subversion of the Uncle Ben rule: a kid with nearly god-like power, but so young and so severely autistic, he has no responsibility at all. But on the central question, what does a superhuman owe to humanity, I’ve always taken the position that they owe what any of us owe: concern, compassion, a degree of involvement and obligation, but a right to decide how much to do. With all power comes some responsibility, but power alone does not make a person some sort of public utility. If you see a child crushed under a fallen beam you have an obligation to act to the limits of your abilities. If all you can do is call 911, call 911. If you can lift the beam, lift the beam. But you don’t have to spend your nights and days searching out kids under beams.

    In the spin-off trilogy I’m going more overtly superhero, but running into the practical fact that there really isn’t much for a superhero to do in the absence of supervillains. Not that many burning orphanages or heroines dangling from ledges. In a story striving for some realism the superhero has maybe an hour in a week to be super, and the rest of his time free. Unless, again, there are supervillains. Which goes to the obvious moral issue of symbiosis, mutual dependency. That can be a metaphor about military might, or a religious metaphor, you can spin it a half dozen ways.

    So, yeah, ethical issues, but a good writer can use it as a premise for talking philosophy, morality, religion, government, history, sexual dynamics, economics. . . There’s a reason for the genre: it’s fun to write and heavy at the same time.




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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    On the other hand, there’s the “Watchmen” take on superheroes being essentially an expression of our fascistic impulses: all our problems could be solved if we just had that one Big Man who wasn’t constrained by the moral and legal norms of society.




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  4. JohnMcC says:

    Enjoy your kids as they enjoy the movie. I’d say you’re over-thinking the film for yourself but I bet they’ll help you get over that and quit being such a damn adult for a while.




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  5. MBunge says:

    Super-heroes were created to entertain children and, as such, the concept starts to come apart if you think too much about it. I mean, a technologically advanced society still ruled by an absolute hereditary monarch where dominion is determined by a one-time instance of personal combat? It’s beyond silly.

    Which isn’t to say you can’t explore more sophisticated subject matter with the genre, but it either stops being anything like a super-hero story or you wind up (like too many modern super-hero comics) haphazardly smooshing together juvenile and adult themes and concepts in a way that makes absolutely no frickin’ sense at all.

    And there would be plenty to do if you had super-powers. You just wouldn’t put on a mask to do any of it. A telepath would make a great spy or therapist. A super-speedster could be a courier. A pyrokinetic would be a firefighter. You would just use those abilities like any other. And at the upper end of the scale, beings like Superman would either be living weapons of mass destruction extremely well taken care of by a government or they’d set themselves up as kings/warlords of varying benevolence and malevolence.

    Mike




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  6. Tyrell says:

    I’m down with Thor on this one. Wonder Woman gets approval too. AntMan is also great.
    See “Thor Ragnorak” – just the right mix of story, action, humor.




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  7. Console says:

    @MBunge:

    It isn’t any less silly than the electoral college…




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  8. michael reynolds says:

    Superheroes cannot be seamlessly integrated into a normal world, doing normal jobs. Let’s take the theoretical super who can put out fires. How much does he get paid? Would a super who was as effective as, say, 20 regular firemen be content with one single salary? Why? In the event of a 911, what’s to stop him from extorting millions to use his powers to stop the towers burning?

    You invariably create a position of privilege for one which is resented by many. The guy who was the shining star of the FD is suddenly a supernumerary. Will that guy then be open to spreading nasty stories about the super? Will he then be vulnerable to the blandishments of anyone with a grudge against the super? Won’t taxpayers be anxious to cut the FD since they have a super to do the work?

    As for secret identities, in most cases it would be useful for the simple reason that no one is ever stronger than their greatest vulnerability. So, let’s say we have a 911, a fire department that has become dependent on a super to carry the load turns to the super, but, uh oh, Al Qaeda has his daughter with a gun to her head.

    Look at a superpower as the equivalent of a new military technology. The origin secret is soon discovered and the opposition begins to counter-program. That can be at the mundane level or at the clash-of-universes level, but no advantage is ever permanent, and people do not willingly accept second class status. You can’t expect to wield power just ’cause some spider bit you. Insect bites and barrels of radioactive waste are no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical encounter with mutant insects or nuclear waste.




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  9. michael reynolds says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Testing avatar and sign-in.




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  10. James Pearce says:

    With Killmonger, Coogler and Jordan give us the single most compelling villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

    Oh, thank god. I don’t care at all about Mother Boxes or Infinity Stones.




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  11. michael reynolds says:

    @James Pearce:
    Finally, we agree. I started watching Justice League last night and bailed after 20 minutes. (How the hell does Zack Snyder keep getting work?) All those magical objects are really just McGuffins. I would never knowingly write a McGuffin, and my single biggest beef with the awful TV adaptation of Animorphs was that the writers inserted a McGuffin.




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  12. Andy says:

    I saw the movie last night and thought it was excellent – one of the best in the Marvel universe. I have a few nitpicky complaints (plot holes, a bit of overacting by the villian, a few one-liners that weren’t as funny as we’re used to) but overall it was great.

    It’s also a subtle movie in terms of its themes, which is a refreshing change from most movies which feel the need send completely obvious messages and wear the moral message as a chip on the shoulder. This movie does something pretty incredible – it gets people thinking about race without being preachy or divisive. It also features female characters that are completely believable – I think the movie did this even better than Wonder Woman. I had no sense that the females characters were simply women cast in roles originally written for men – a common flaw I see in a lot of movies. You see skilled women, including combat, but they aren’t, like a lot of movies, taking full on punches to the face by huge body-builders. For comic book fights, the scenes were credible and mostly believable.

    The story is as much about Wakanda as the characters. This is a closed society with highly advanced technology yet rooted in ancient traditional values which provide its social stability. The plot centers around the question of Wakanda’s role and obligations to the rest of the world and how change should manifest – That is a question that should be immediately recognizable to Americans, especially those interesting in our role in the world or foreign policy generally. Wakanda itself was as believable – it paid homage to African culture writ large without being patronizing.

    The villian, despite some overacting, really made this movie because you could sympathize with his motivation and goals, even as you recoiled against his methods. You could understand his anger and what he was trying to achieve even as you knew he had to be stopped. At the end, rather than the usual triumphant victory by the hero, the villain’s defeat causes the hero to grow in an important and healing direction.

    Finally, the plot, despite some obvious holes, flowed smoothly, the movie looked good, the acting was good, the action sequences were well done. Big thumbs up from me.




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  13. Gustopher says:

    If you’re Superman, equipped with godlike powers with little need for rest, do you get to have a personal life? While you’re making time with Lois Lane, people are dying.

    What’s worse, he has Super-Hearing and can always hear them dying.

    I think Superheroes are partially a metaphor for America’s role in the world — we have more military power than most of the world, and how we use it has consequences.

    They were popular during WW II when we were fighting Nazis, and the morality was very simple. Fight Nazis, win, everyone is happy.

    Now, we are recognizing the limits of our military strength — we aren’t going to solve the Middle East by bombing it, and yet we have to try to contain the terrorism and blunt the worst of it — and the stories we get in the comics are much more muddled.

    What can Superman do? Everything. What should Superman do? Well… that’s more complicated.




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  14. James Pearce says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I started watching Justice League last night and bailed after 20 minutes.

    Smart man. I suffered through the whole thing, wondering why I didn’t have the strength to shut it off.

    I don’t mind a MacGuffin if it’s used properly, as a plot device, but I’m not going to care about it. I don’t watch Raiders of the Lost Ark to find out what happened to the Ark, right?

    Character > Plot.




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  15. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: Zach Snyder’s “Man Of Steel” is one of the very few movies that makes me actually angry.

    I love Superman. I’ve been reading Superman comics for most of my life — good comics, bad comics, terrible comics — and that isn’t Superman. Pa Kent doesn’t say “let the kids on the bus die” and Superman doesn’t stand by and not save his father from a tornado. Superman tries. He represents our idealism.

    “Batman v. Superman” was worse (not least because it wasn’t a courtroom drama as the title promised) with Ma Kent’s “you don’t owe those people anything” speech, but by then I had given up.

    Zach Snyder. Ugh.




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  16. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    Did you ever see Snyder’s ‘Sucker Punch?’ Sweet Jesus. Cool visuals, stupid, stupid story.

    @James Pearce:
    The gospel according to me as passed on to wanna-bes is that you never, ever betray character. There will always be times when you can get a cheap thrill by sacrificing character to plot and you must never do that. The character embodies the contract between writer and reader, and once you break that trust you lose the reader.




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  17. Liberal Capitalist says:

    What Does a Superhero Owe Us?

    … sigh.

    Clearly, we have tired of contemplating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.




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  18. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @James Pearce:

    I don’t watch Raiders of the Lost Ark to find out what happened to the Ark, right?

    Yet, that is the end scene of the movie, and a statement on the American government.

    After all, it’s not Indiana Jones that mattered… Have you seen:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWE6M-rhh2U




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  19. Stormy Dragon says:
  20. James Joyner says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Clearly, we have tired of contemplating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    As both Bouie and Henley note in the quoted text in the OP, superheroes are really an allegory for us. We all face the same issues, just on a smaller scale.




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  21. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    Zach Snyder. Ugh.

    Snyder developed a signature visual style with 300 and since then it has been pretty unrelenting bad.

    Prior to that I quite enjoyed Dawn Of The Dead although that may be because I am a big Sarah Polley fan. I also like Ving Rhames and it is funny to see the dad from Modern Family as the smarmy weasel-boy baddie.

    Just after that I also liked Watchmen although that may be the cast and inherited story rather than anything that Snyder did as director. I mean c’mon! Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Jeffrey Dean Morgan!

    After that it just gets awful. Sucker Punch: what the hell was that? (I actually thought he had directed Suicide Squad, but he was the executive producer.)

    Snyder is like Ed Hardy’s clothing line. He developed one signature visual style. It was an inexplicable popular blip in the in the mid aughts and all downhill since.




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  22. James Pearce says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The gospel according to me as passed on to wanna-bes is that you never, ever betray character.

    I can think of many (basically) plot-less books I’ve read that have been propelled solely by character. That’s the stuff that outlasts the test of time, that gets richer and more rewarding upon a revisit.

    After all, Aeschylus’s big contribution to storytelling wasn’t the plot twist; it was a second character.

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Yet, that is the end scene of the movie, and a statement on the American government.

    Sure, but putting the Ark in cold storage in that cavernous warehouse just reinforces the idea that it’s a MacGuffin. That’s Spielberg understanding the true purpose of a MacGuffin. He’s going, “Story’s over. Don’t need this anymore.”




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  23. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: @James Pearce: The are multiple long-running adventure series–both the Spencer for Hire and Destroyer books come immediately to mind–that were essentially all character and dialog, with the plot merely serving as situations in which to demonstrate character and generate conversation between the characters.




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  24. gVOR08 says:

    My Google Fu has proven inadequate to find it, but years ago an economist did a hilarious mock paper on the economic impact of superheroes on the insurance and construction industries. Think about having to rebuild a chunk of Manhattan every week or two.




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  25. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: I saw Sucker Punch while I was in Korea. WTF????????




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  26. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @James Joyner:

    As both Bouie and Henley note in the quoted text in the OP, superheroes are really an allegory for us. We all face the same issues, just on a smaller scale.

    As is God, the angles and the bible… Same stories, different characters.

    Questions of power, leadership and morality, gains and losses.

    The movies of Saturday night, the evangelical stories Sunday morning. Much the same.

    Knowing that, does it prevent me from enjoying it all? Of course not. The film collection is over 5,500 films. Zombies, superheroes, apocalyptic fare… Sci-Fi, comedy …

    We have become better story tellers, but unsure if the audience pays attention.




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  27. James Pearce says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Just watched that clip. Amy is wrong. The Nazis were, say it with me, “digging in the wrong place.” Indy is the one who found the Well of Souls, thanks to having access to “both sides” of the amulet. Without him the Nazis would have never found the Ark.

    Sheldon’s seen it 36 times? I’ve had it playing on a loop since it came out in 1981.

    @James Joyner:

    The are multiple long-running adventure series–both the Spencer for Hire and Destroyer books come immediately to mind–that were essentially all character and dialog

    I’ve read all of Chandler, couldn’t tell you what any of the plots are, except for maybe The Big Sleep and only in snippets, but Marlowe? That’s one indelible portrait.




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  28. Laurence Bachmann says:

    Jamelle Bouie’s comment and query is idiotic and a throwback to that self-loathing wondering if talented black folk are a credit to their race. These comic book fantasies are pulp adventures intended to provide adventure and aspiration for kids and adults who wish they still were kids. White people don’t blame Superman for the Holocaust, Stalin or The Great Leap Forward, though he could have, with his powers, prevented all. Nobody thinks the murder rate is on Batman.

    Note to Bouie: there is no Wakanda, no Fortress of Solitude complete with crystals containing all the wisdom of the galaxy. There are no heroes to save mankind (or those within a 300 mile radius of Wakanda). There are though myths, adventures and stories that inspire us to be better. A movie can’t do more than that, dude.




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  29. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @James Pearce:

    Just watched that clip. Amy is wrong. The Nazis were, say it with me, “digging in the wrong place.” Indy is the one who found the Well of Souls, thanks to having access to “both sides” of the amulet. Without him the Nazis would have never found the Ark.

    But without Indy, the Germans would have HAD the amulet without the whole hand burning bit.

    To quote a fan site:

    Actually, without Indiana’s intervention, the Nazis wouldn’t have been digging in the wrong place. Had Indiana Jones not gone to Marian’s bar to secure the amulet, Tot and his crew would have been resisted only by Marian… no whip to take the hot poker out of Tot’s hand, no fire starting, just Marian handing over the complete Amulet (and maybe missing an eye for her troubles). Having the entire amulet, rather than the copy of only one side cast from the scar on Tot’s palm, Beloq would have correctly calculated the length of the rod used for positioning the amulet, and been digging in the correct location from the start.

    Amy is still right. Indy as hero is still superfluous to the film.

    Don’t get me wrong, I dig me some Indiana Jones. I was one of the lucky folk pulled out of the audience to participate in the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular in Walt Disney World. I’ve even go the hat.




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  30. James Pearce says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    But without Indy, the Germans would have HAD the amulet without the whole hand burning bit.

    Surely the Germans would have still been looking for the amulet had Indy not led them to Marion in Nepal. Right?

    But then again, this goes back to the primacy of character over plot. Suppose the Nazis would have met the same fate had Indiana Jones not been involved at all. Okay, I can see it. But would Indy have reconnected with Marion? Would he have solidified his bonds with Salah? Would he have been as aware of the differences between his approach to archaeology and Beloq’s?

    There’s that moment when he’s got the RPG aimed right at Beloq and the cadre of Nazis. Beloq eats a fly and invites him to blow it up. Indy can’t do it. He can, in that instant, be very consequential to the plot. But he doesn’t pull the trigger. He can’t.

    It’s not in his character.

    PS. High five for the Indy love. I don’t know how many Indy adventures I re-enacted in my backyard as a kid, my rolled up belt on my hip, the hat I got from a mail-in offer on my head. Harrison Ford is basically my dad.




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