Superheroes Don't Need Personal Stakes To Fight Evil
From Captain America to Wolverine, heroes could stand to be less selfish.
If Logan hadn’t discovered that the young mutant girl Laura was his daughter, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have helped save her life. And while Logan is a an excellent self-contained adult comic book movie, it does reinforce an alarming trend among superheroes. In shading contemporary iterations of these characters with more complex layers, many heroes have lost their altruistic ways. In other words, today’s superheroes are incredibly selfish.
Being an egomaniac didn’t used to be a requirement for badass fictional protagonists but since superheroes have gone mainstream, heroic deeds have shifted to favor personal motivations above pretty much anything else. Ostensibly, people like Superman and Batman fight for truth and justice, and not just for personal gain. From a narrative perspective, it makes sense that more realistic heroes would hew more self-centered. But in a real world full of self-centered people wielding untold amounts of power, superheroes who are selfless do-gooders would be a refreshing breath of air.
In the book in of essays — Last Night a Superhero Saved My Life — critic Anthony Breznican analyzes Iron Man/Tony Stark’s personal angst in an essay called “Dented Hearts” and determines that the pain is “what makes the hero.” Simply having cool powers or technological capabilities doesn’t mean Iron Man or similarly equipped heroes will do right by people. “Stark built the metal suit,” Breznican writes, “but that weak, vulnerable heart? That built the hero.” But if a dented heart takes precedence over heroism, the moral valence of the story gets confusing. At their basic core, superhero stories are morality plays. If the audience is invited to tackle big ethical questions, the films are generally supposed to provide answers, or at least suggest that basic altruism does exist.
In the 2006-2007 Mark Millar-penned Civil War Marvel comic arc, Iron Man favors superhero government registration as a matter of principle alone: he’s worried that unchecked power makes the Avengers and others morally unaccountable. Meanwhile Captain America opposes it for opposite ideological reasons, registration violates their basic human right of privacy. This story tackles a cool ethical quandary because in a sense, Iron Man and Captain America are both right. Neither hero loses their selflessness in this storyline, even as their opposing ethics are explored.
However, that was all thrown out the window in the 2016 film version of the same story, Captain America: Civil War. In the movie version, Iron Man and Captain America are motivated almost exclusively by personal reasons for their actions. Tony Stark feels personally guilty because a woman corners him about the death of her son, while Steve Rogers really only wants to protect his BFF, Bucky.
In the end, the faux-ideological battle between them is trivialized, when it is revealed Bucky killed Tony’s parents. Tony’s fight against Captain America is reduced to a vendetta, without any veneer of higher morals. Tony Stark/Iron Man even admits this, saying the only reason he wants to take down Bucky is because Bucky killed his mother.
The interesting ethical dilemma of the Millar comic is gone, and Cap and Iron Man become the most selfish they’ve ever been, throwing around huge bolts of energy and super-strength over what is basically a petty personal beef.
A previous Marvel movie had a similar showdown. In Iron Man 2, Tony and Roadie fight in super-suits while Tony is drunk at a party. The difference is, in Iron Man 2, the audience was supposed to feel that Tony was a jerk and out of line. The narrative of that film had him re-discovering his inner-heroism. In the movie version of Civil War it’s unclear how we’re supposed to feel. Sad because they guys fought? Or happy because the fight was awesome to watch?
Believe it or not, Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice was almost a refreshing critique of this kind of self-centered superhero story. It started off more realistically, by presenting, both Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne as pig-headed, arrogant and out of control. The only reason Batman decides not to kill Superman is because he discovers both he and Supes have a mom named “Martha.” Without this deeply personal revelation, Batman would not have found his objectivity. Later, he only really seems to want to form the Justice League because of his personal guilt about Superman’s subsequent death.
Unlike Civil War, this movie seems to hold Batman accountable for his selfishness, partially because of the foil of Wonder Woman. When Bruce Wayne starts getting harassed by Wonder Woman midway through the movie, she isn’t trying to enlist his help for personal gain. Wonder Woman is the only character who needs no personal stakes to perform heroic acts, she’s motivated by a deep commitment to righting wrongs, and a sense of selflessness that doesn’t involve revenge.
With her backstory being explored in this summer’s prequel Wonder Woman film, audiences are likely to get more personal motivations, but unlike human counterparts, her altruism will most likely remain intact. The ancient Amazon is old and wise enough to recognize evil in all its forms.Being nearly immortal has given her some perspective, but since Wolverine is similarly long-lived, what’s his excuse?
To be fair, heroic characters who operate outside of recognized authority are in fact cool. From Sherlock Holmes — a self professed “amuater” — to the law-breaking inherent in all the costumed variety, the badass who lives by their own moral code is inherently appealing for obvious wish-fulfillment reasons. We love it when James Bond defies his orders from M, or when Indiana Jones skips out on teaching his colleges classes to throw a whip around. And yet, in reality, if there were heroes running around like that, who were only motivated by their own aims, no one would like them. Self-interested people who lived by their own biases are scary in real life when they have a lot of power.
When private citizens decide is okay to own military grade weapons, regular citizens get nervous. Meaning, if Captain America, Batman, and Logan existed , we’d all be scared shitless. The body counts and collateral damage they leave behind just drive the point home. How bad did Logan feel about that murdered farmer and his family? As bad as he did about Professor X? Probably not.
It might be tragic when the evil special forces shadow government comes to take down Logan at the end of the movie. But in reality, he’s a drunk guy who is a one-man weapon-of-mass destruction. The only thing that makes him different than a monster, is in theory, his conscience. But if the use of his superpowers only extend to protecting people he knows, then even a charming hero like Logan feels corrupt. In a world in desperate need of dependable people, clear-cut heroes .
The “super” part of superheroes shouldn’t just be about their abilities, but their good intentions. In 1978, the promotion for the original Superman movie said “You will believe a man can fly.” These days, with awesome special effects, we can believe just about anything. Except, for some reason, that heroes can be good just because they are.