Lately I’ve found myself stewing on the difference between good and evil in our comic book and cinematic superhero universes, and how this difference often comes across as forced. Without question we accept it as kids. In our upbringing we’re taught that family is good, but strangers are bad. God is good, but the devil is bad. Light (symbolically) is good, whereas darkness is bad. Look no further than the overarching themes of Star Wars, or even the post-death phenomenon of walking towards the light. A cowboy in HBO’s Westworld with a black hat is innately acting out a nefarious role, and when Spider-Man embraces his darker emotions in the symbiote suit, it is naturally a black costume. It only makes sense that the broader worlds of our fictional mythos, especially those consumed by traditionally younger audiences, explicitly follow this pattern.
The outliers to these roles are those that we don’t fully understand as kids, but still enjoy for their bombastic nature. Take The Punisher, who kills and maims for a perceived good. Even Deadpool and Spawn could be included. The anti-heroes. They are the thin grey line between vast oceans of good and evil. They represent, I would argue, a more realistic figure that wields inhuman powers—or motivation and natural abilities in Frank Castle’s case. And I don’t just mean a character that has struggles, like when Tony Stark often wrestled with alcoholism—I’m pushing for something bigger picture.
One of the greatest failings in our binary thinking is that we don’t take into account human nature itself. Albeit, I’ll admit, super-powered characters are no longer fully human, and the counter-point could run that they wouldn’t think or act like regular people anymore. But from what we know (aside from those classified as super-geniuses), whether endowed with super strength, speed, or some other ability, the brain always seems to function the same.
Humans are often (not always) vapid, fallible, selfish creatures, tumbling from want to desire like a leaf in the wind. We’re defined as a species by our self interests and how we act on them. I don’t think this is an outlandish belief, and it’s amplified when given anonymity. Look no further than the savage cathedral of vice that is the internet, where anonymity drives people to expose and unleash their baser selves—if they’re not simply trolling for pleasure’s sake, which is another depravity in itself. If we were forced to publish a photo and home address below each opinion, we might check ourselves before hurling insults. The ultimate key to bypassing the need for cooperative, civilized behaviour relies on not being known.
Facebook is sometimes different because we do (most of us) identify, but we’re still, in a sense, existing within isolated and often safe communities of like-minded individuals. Rifts in this homogeneity can be mended with a simple unfriending.
Now, I would argue, how different is a mask or costume from an online avatar or username? If you could hide behind a mask, what would stop you from acting out similar behaviours as the good chunk of people barfing their viewpoints onto comment forums? Take people wearing masks at a riot, for example, who are far more likely to smash windows and overturn cars than someone with an exposed identity—especially in our age of heavy video surveillance. Super-powered individuals (with veiled identities), in that sense, would be more free to exist in the aforementioned grey-zone, appointed to the growing spectrum between good and evil.
This would more often apply to characters with alter egos and personal needs. The grey-zone for them might be that they save you, but then also want a payment for the rescue—or to pump an advertisement (Booster Gold). I can imagine a hero like Spider-Man (forget that he is a borderline super genius and focus on his very human side), struggling as a photographer and eking out life in a crappy one bedroom apartment, helping himself to some of what he saves from a bank robbery. Aside from the existing outcry, which froths from the justice system already for the sheer fact that super-powered individuals thrive on vigilantism, who would be shocked? Most of Spider-Man’s fights involve wanton destruction of property that he already doesn’t compensate anyone for. It can’t be cheap whenever he flings a car at a villain. What’s the difference between that net loss to society, and if he helps himself to a bag of cash at the end of a halted heist? Synthetic webbing isn’t free, right? Subject to human nature, stripped of identity, super-powered characters would act selfishly, or even lash out.
Let’s imagine, to further this grey-zone figure, a hero that flies about with a backpack. In the backpack is a small printer, and when he saves someone from a fatal accident or attack, he prints out an invoice for the rescue. What if the rescued individual can’t pay? Problem solved: The hero also sells insurance, just in case you might ever need his help but wouldn’t want to fork out on the spot each time. The scenario would then play out like this: He swoops in, performs his daring rescue, sneaks a peek at your insurance card, and rockets away to another appointment.
Entire insurance corporations could be built around a Superman type figure. Instead of a post-incident payout, he would stop incidents from occurring in the first place. If you want a guaranteed rescue, you pay extra for Superman’s brand insurance. Want a lesser chance that the hero shows up in time but cheaper premiums, you might spring for Daredevil’s Health and Life Benefits. Groups of heroes working in concert could form even more powerful insurance organizations, like the X-Men Personal Protection Association.
This doesn’t take into account a multitude of other financial opportunities, like licensing and merchandising, which heroes aren’t often taking advantage of. It’s a serious rabbit-hole once you look at the numbers. The real-life sales of rubbery “hulk hands” alone is estimated to be worth $100 million US. I can imagine each hero taking the time to build and grow multiple revenue streams based off their deeds or appearances—from animated shows to children’s toys. The business might be so lucrative that those perceived as villains could give up their dark ways to join in. How many banks would you have to fight, and heroes would you have to surpass, in order to steal $100 million dollars? Probably more than the effort’s worth. But selling containers of pliable Venom Goo (basically Play-Doh) would surely earn an easier buck.
Ultimately it all boils down to this: In a society founded on the principles of capitalism, knowing human nature for what it is, why would heroes, especially cloaked in anonymity, not put self-interest and profit ahead of all else? Why would they risk life and limb without seeking quality of life and a fare wage for work performed? Why would they strictly side with the elements of “good,” when there is so much lucrative middle-ground with which to reap rewards? Assign to each superhero a question often asked by actors: What’s my motivation? And really wonder why the hero isn’t continuously struggling with that very thing. There might be Mother Theresa types out there among them, who exist solely for the benefit of humanity, but I would argue that those straddling the fence would far outnumber what the Dungeons & Dragons alignment chart calls Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil. More often than not, individuals granted super-human abilities would fall into the neutral field, helping where required, but also seeking something—beyond applause and cheer—in return.
Header image credit: CinemaBlend