Batman is the most evil superhero

Batman is the most evil of all superheroes followed by Iron Man. Green Arrow, perhaps, has some redeemable qualities.

At first glance, the title might seem self-contradictory since a superhero is good, by definition. But it is my thesis here that while superheroes do serve some social good by preventing petty crime such as bag-snatchers and burglars, by and large they don’t do much to change inequalities inherent to the system. And, if there be any validity to Spider-Man’s oft repeated quote, “with great power comes great responsibility”, it follows that the efforts of these superheroes are, to put it mildly, less than super.

A quick note on the comic references in this post: I rely primarily on the movies. In rare occasions, I cite from works that discuss these characters. I used Wikipedia somewhat but not primarily.

Also, I do not discuss the X-Men because, strictly speaking, they were, as Lady Gaga might put it, “Born This Way”. A large part of any hero’s story is their origin story. Since this doesn’t apply to the X-Men they are not considered here. I will add that I share the views of Sen. Kelly from the first X-Men movie (2000). He asks, reasonably, “[w]hat’s to stop [a mutant who can walk through walls] from walking into a bank vault?” and “of mutants so powerful that they can enter our minds and control our thoughts, taking away our… free will”. Throughout the movie Prof. Xavier repeatedly does exactly this and yet we are expected to side with him rather than the senator. It’s inconceivable that we must allow beings who share our foibles but vastly exceed us in their abilities and could, if they so chose, bring down buildings.

There are many ills in our society today and increasing income inequality and falling social mobility are, quite objectively, the biggest ills we now face. (Note that in terms of threats undoubtedly, the greatest threats we now face are Global Warming and nuclear war. That none of the superheroes fight them speaks volumes about their culpability. But I shall grant that perhaps these are not issues in the comic book world.)

Superheroes do nothing to change the systemic problems we face as a society. The most they do is fight petty crime. Occasionally they engage with the mafia to little or no avail. With the vast powers they have at their disposal there’s nothing stopping them. Superman, with his super-hearing, could easily overhear any conversation involving corrupt backroom deals. With his super-vision, finding out where such dealings occur would be also trivial. Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, is a journalist so reporting leaks without revealing sources would be straightforward. He could leak secret trade deals (as happened with the Trans-Pacific-Partnership [1]). Superman’s love interest, Lois Lane, is always portrayed as an ambitious reporter keen on winning her next Pulitzer. She’s another choice to leak to.

Batman, often called the world’s greatest detective, is frequently seen using advanced spying tools, but only against entities such as the mob or small time crooks.

Spider-Man, the great web-slinger, depending on your source, is either a school teacher (comic books) or a free-lance photographer selling pictures to newspapers (Spider-man 2002). He’s sometimes shown going after the mob but he predominantly fights petty criminals. Never does he go after the centers of power.

But by what standards can I judge one superhero to be more evil than the other? Consider the hypothetical cases of two people, Alice and Bae. Both are on trial because they each stole a car and crashed it into a tree. For simplicity, let’s assume that nobody was hurt. Blood tests showed Alice and Bae were had large amounts of drugs in their system.

It is without a doubt that a jury will find one more culpable than the other if they were told that Alice had been kidnapped, forcibly drugged, and that she had stolen the car trying to escape; while Bae had consumed the drugs recreationally and then stolen the car as a prank.

I judge superheroes by the same standards. Running through the list of superheroes we find that most of them were, in some way, forced into their circumstances. I treat aliens such as Superman, Thor and non-human superheroes such as Wonder Woman separately.

Most superheroes

Here’s a quick rundown of some superheroes and how they came to be. In all cases these are ordinary people who have been changed by some event.

Spider-Man

Depending on where you start, Peter Parker was bitten either by an irradiated spider or a genetically modified spider. As a consequence, in addition to his super strength, ability to climb walls, hang upside down for extended periods of time, he even has a psychic spider-sense.

Captain America

Steve Rogers was injected with a serum whose composition is still unknown. According to the serum’s inventor, it was expected to have strong psychological effects that were particular to the person into whom it was injected. Captain America’s arch nemesis, the Red Skull, is an example of how things could have gone much worse. The Red Skull was the first recipient of the formula which made Steve Rogers Captain America. He received all of Rogers’s physical strengths and world domineering ambitions too.

Hulk

Bruce Banner, in a tragic accident, walks into a gamma ray blast and becomes the uncontrollable monster named the Hulk. The Hulk does cause much death and destruction everywhere he goes and, if ever on trial, would be treated as someone with limited mental faculties.

Flash

In some strange mix of chemicals and lightning, various men have become the Flash. One only needs to compare them with their arch nemesis, Zoom, who, unsurprisingly, wants to take over the world. From what I can tell, Flash doesn’t take his work too seriously and is pretty chummy even with the villains he fights.

Daredevil

When a boy, Matthew Murdock was blinded by a radioactive ooze spill. The ooze blinded him of his sight but enhanced his hearing and sense of smell – to superhuman capabilities.

The Fantastic Four

These people are the true exemplars of a traumatic event drastically changing their entire being. If Reed Richards can literally stretch himself to great distances, obviously his brain is no longer the same either. It’s a wonder that he can even function. It’s even better that he’s predominantly on the side of the law because as with the case of his friend, Victor von Doom, who was in the same accident, also experienced physiological changes but became a super-villain.


I could go through other heroes but these are sufficiently illustrative, I hope.

The common thread between these heroes is some freak event caused them to undergo large phenotypic changes. (A phenotype is a scientific term to describe the entire set of an organism’s characteristics. For instance, all humans share the phenotype of having an opposing thumb and of lacking feathers.) In many cases, the same event affected different people differently, for instance both Steve Rogers and Johann Schmidt were injected with the same “super formula” but one of them became the Nazi punching Captain America while the other a super villain with world-domineering ambitions, Red Skull; or consider the Fantastic Four for whom the same catastrophe caused significantly different phenotypic changes on each of them (and Victor von Doom). There’s no predicting the consequences of these events because the phenomena are not sufficiently understood.

(Ideally, these events should be wake up calls to scientists and policy makers to introduce better safety regulations in all experiments. And abolish initial experiments on humans. Strong bioethicist committees should be established similar to what was done in the case of cloning and stem-cell research. [2])

Alien superheroes

In the cases of alien beings like Superman, John “Martian the Manhunter” Jones, and Thor etc., all calls to monitor them must be strictly enforced. Their movements tracked, their conversations monitored, and so on.

Morality is a strictly human species specific trait. What we consider moral and amoral do not necessarily apply to even other species. Examples from nature include sexual cannibalism in praying mantises — often the female mantis eats the male after their mating — or as in anglerfish the males bite and fuse into females, atrophying their eyes, fins and other organs which take no part in the fulfillment of their biological imperative. Consider the case of eusocial insects — ants, termites, and bees — in which an individual worker has given up her autonomy for the larger hive. Anyone who suggests teaching (say) praying mantises morality, the sanctity of life, or reasons to keep a spouse alive, would correctly be met with derision. It’s no more possible to educate an octopus on art than it is for a man to fly by flapping his arms.

One might argue about different cultural mores as an indication of our different morality but even that is debatable. The level at which we can study morality in humans, it seems to be a species level property. The various experiments done with the trolley problems, for instance, appear to give the same results across cultures. [3]

To put it more starkly, if a man killed another we’d hold him to trial for murder; a gorilla killing a man would not be held to trial. Our laws as they stand apply only to humans and — crucially — to humans deemed to be of sound body and mind. Following this through, I see neither how our laws apply to aliens nor why we must. (Side note: I’m often surprised that aliens can speak our language as well as us given the efforts we undertake to reverse engineer and experiment to understand the bee communication language. [4])

We do not know much about Superman’s home planet, Krypton, or its people, the Kryptonians. The Kryptonian, General Zod wanted to rule over our planet. Superman’s cousin, Supergirl, perhaps under his tutelage, is like him. We do know that Doomsday—the creature that eventually killed Superman — was created by the greatest scientific minds of Krypton [5]. From the small sample we’ve seen of Kryptonians, it’s easy to see that things could have gone differently, that General Zod got here first and ruled over our planet.

Non-human superheroes

Wonder Woman is a superhero who’s from earth but is not human. She’s half-human half-goddess and thus only partially human. Just as we forgive Spock of Star Trek his oddities as a consequence of his Vulcan heritage, we must forgive Wonder Woman her oddities. This applies equally to nonhuman superheroes like Aquaman. None of them are strictly human and the same constraints that apply to aliens apply to them.


To be clear, I differentiate between superheroes that have undergone phenotypic changes and those that haven’t. I also do not differentiate between events that are of a “physical” as opposed to a “mental” nature. Both fall equally under the rubric of a human phenotype. Just as the loss of limbs can lead to feelings of “phantom limbs” [6]; the loss of a loved one (a “mental” event) can lead to a change in lifestyle (a “physical” change).

The changes that most superheroes undergo are of a significantly more drastic form. They are permanent and drastically change the organism under question. Phenotypic changes are not trivial and when they occur in nature, they always involve a whole swathe of changes. As the philosopher, Jerry Fodor, points out:

To add wings to a pig, you’d also have to tinker with lots of other things. In fact, you’d have to rebuild the pig whole hog: less weight, appropriate musculature, an appropriate metabolism, an apparatus for navigating in three dimensions, a streamlined silhouette and god only knows what else…. The moral is that if you want them to have wings, you will have to redesign pigs radically.” [7]

Now imagine a man obtaining the traits of a spider but remaining otherwise unchanged. I shall grant that this is possible in the comic book world. But I cannot grant that it does not also change who he is. This simple truth holds for most superheroes. (And, incidentally, for X-Men mutants too.)

It should be clear from this, that all originally-human-but-since-irrevocably-altered superheroes, are not, strictly speaking, homo sapiens anymore and cannot be judged as such.

Minor human superheroes

It’s unclear to me how to treat characters such as War Machine, Falcon, Black Widow etc. From the little I know of them, it appears they are not vigilante superheroes but work for the government and are, ostensibly, under some regulatory body. I see them as falling under the same legal umbrella as soldiers (War Machine, Falcon) or spies (Black Widow). Since they have neither the scope nor impact of Batman, Iron Man, or Green Lantern, I discuss them no further.

Batman

Batman’s origins are often traced to his childhood. As a child, Bruce Wayne, witnesses the murder of his parents at the hands of a petty robber. He carries this grudge until adulthood when he dons a campy costume and carries out revenge against the people from whose class his parents’ murderer arose.

Those that justify Batman’s actions as a full grown adult on the basis of events that he experienced as a child must answer whether they also find Omar Khadr’s actions justifiable. Omar Khadr, at age fifteen, picked up a rifle and shot at American troops who had earlier attacked his village in Afghanistan. He served 12 years in prisons at Bagram, Iraq and later Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At this time he’s in Canada, out on bail. For war-crimes he’s alleged to have committed as a child.

Batman has no interest in Justice for its own sake. He’s a billionaire and shares the biases and preferences of his class. Why we venerate him and describe him as a superhero of Good is beyond me. I agree with Jerry Bowyer’s characterization of Bruce Wayne as a Conservative hero. Bowyer convincingly argues that movie’s villain, Bane, represents the Occupy Wall Street movement and that the movie’s directors intended for viewers to “hate the revolution you’ve been wishing for”. [8]

Iron Man

Iron Man is much less culpable than Batman. For starters, he reveals his identity early on as the billionaire industrialist, Tony Stark. Presumably, one could bring either civil or criminal charges against him for any damages and crimes he commits in the course of his activities. Another consequence of his true identity being known is that it does not encourage copycat vigilantes — unlike the ones inspired by Batman. Furthermore, when the government proposes a means to regulate these superheroes, Iron Man acquiesces. He also correctly holds to the view that “[i]f [superheroes] can’t accept limitations, [they]’re no better than the bad guys.” Being regulated by the United Nations is perhaps the best way to go about it. That the government’s implementation of said regulations is poor is by no means Iron Man’s fault — it’s just classic Hollywood plot device. (Captain America: Civil War 2016)

Green Arrow — the least evil

Oliver Queen in many ways is the same as Bruce Wayne. He’s a billionaire who “fight[s] for justice both on the streets [as the Green Arrow] and within the political system” as the Mayor of Star City. Of course, billionaires becoming political leaders isn’t necessarily a good thing and Queen too is “forced to resign from his position as mayor” after a corruption scandal showed he had been “secretly funding” a non-human vigilante organization named The Outsiders. As I said, he’s the least evil, not Good by any means. [9]

References

[1] The full TPP agreement drafts were leaked to Wikileaks https://wikileaks.org/tpp/
[2] The bioethics discussions can be found at https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcbe/topics/stemcells_index.html
[3] See “Moral Minds” (2006) by Marc Hauser for extensive discussion of ethics being general across humans.
[4] A good start for discussing bee communication is “The Honey Bee”, 1988, by James L. Gould and Carol G. Gould.
[5] from the essay “A History of Violence” by David Hopkins in “The Man From Krypton (2005)” pg 15 Glen Yeffet, editor.
[6] See “Phantoms in the Brain” by V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, 1998.
[7] From Jerry Fodor’s Oct 2007 essay in the London Review of Books, Vol. 29 №18. Accessed at https://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n20/jerry-fodor/why-pigs-dont-have-wings
[8] Jerry Bowyer, 2012, Forbes. Accessed at https://www.forbes.com/sites/jerrybowyer/2012/07/26/why-batmans-the-dark-knight-rises-is-an-instant-conservative-classic/#5b675abb2bd0
[9] Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Arrow#Judd_Winick.2C_2004.E2.80.932008