Aug 6, 2011

The Ethics of Being 'Super'

                “And a lean, silent figure slowly fades slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come – great responsibility!” (Amazing Fantasy #15). These are the immortal words written by Stan Lee in 1962 as a lone figure, Spider-Man, walked down an alley after realizing he had transcended from the responsibilities of humanity into a new realm of ethics. While there are many forms of super heroes, most are grounded in some warped form of current reality to help ground the heroes into a relatable setting. This means that Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man are all grounded in the reality and moral standing of the average American citizen.
                Spider-Man is one of the most popular characters in comics, mostly because his alter ego, Peter Parker, is stuck in a late-teens-to-early-twenty-something appearance (despite being around 50 years old since creation) and his ability to reflect the current ideals of that demographic, all while fighting crime and being a noble example of a family man. What makes Spider-Man unique is that, even after 50 years of foiling super villains, he always goes to great lengths to protect his true identity of Peter Parker. In 2006 Marvel Comics started what they call a ‘cross-over’ event in which all the characters in the Marvel Universe (The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Avenger’s, The X-Men, etc.) face a change so powerful it has an effect on everyone, as opposed to an event which just effects one single hero like Spider-Man. The 2006 cross-over event was entitled Civil War and focused on what was called ‘The Superhero Registration Act’, which was a bill being passed through the fictional United States Senate. This bill required all metahumans – A human with super powers gained through various means– to register their true identity with United States government and become federal employees. Peter Parker was in a unique position right before the tipping point that pushed the bill into law when he appeared before the United States Senate to discuss the ethical implications behind the bill. During his time in front of the Metahuman Investigations Committee on behalf of his employer at the time, Tony Stark, Parker starts talking about the risks of being a Superhero and the ethics of protecting ones family. Parker states “There’s this thing called the doctrine of proportionate response. The bigger the bad guy, the bigger the good guy you need to stop him. The bad guys are bad guys most of the time, but the good guys… are only being the good guys… Part-time. They have lives, and families, and loved ones who would be at terrible risk to these very same bad guys if their identities were revealed. In those personal moments they or their families could be harmed… because the bad guys know that if they wipe out or neutralize enough of the super heroes there won’t be anyone who can stop them the 48th time this country is in jeopardy.” (Amazing Spider-Man #531). While the senator who is overseeing the hearing isn’t aware that Peter Parker is in fact Spider-Man, the reader is in on the secret and understands the personal connection Peter Parker has to the issue. It seems that through this little speech, Parker is just trying to protect his family and loved ones from being brutally murdered by super villains. Even though Peter Parker has abilities that transcend the common man, he never forgets his roots in humanity and still adheres to their ethical code and desire to protect the family unit. Protecting ones loved ones is an ethic that most Americans believe in and uphold, regardless of super powers or not.
                Another super hero who defines the American ideal is Captain America. Even though in the 1940s Captain America was created as a form of propaganda for World War II, he has since evolved into a complex character with stern beliefs and a defined moral center. Captain America was originally created as “A character out of the comic books…” (Captain America Comics #1) to help combat Nazi’s in Germany, even though the original publishing date was March 10th, 1941; a full 21 months before the United States entered World War 2. During that time Captain America and his squad of fellow superheroes, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Bucky Barnes, The (original) Human Torch and Toro, fought against the Axis Powers across all of Europe. During this time Captain America was pretty cut and dry. Here are the Nazis, here is Captain America, have them fight, Captain America wins, see you next issue. During Civil War however Captain America actually goes against the Superhuman Registration Act and actually becomes a symbol for heroes who don’t support registration to rally around. In a collector’s edition compilation of the main Civil War issues and the script book that featured editor commentary, Joe Quesada, the Editor in Chief of Marvel explained that “Cap(tain America) is about the American ideal, not the American way. As a nation, as the greatest nation in the world, we are still a work in progress… He is neither Democrat nor Republican, he’s not a conservative or a liberal, he is the ideal.” (Civil War Hardcover). Quesada was describing a panel in which Steve Rogers, the Captain America at the time, goes against S.H.I.E.L.D. – Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate – and refuses to register, even though it is law. The reason Steve gives against being against the bill is that “… Super heroes need to stay above that stuff (politics) or Washington starts telling us who the Super-Villains are.” (Civil War #1). During the 1940s everyone in America was behind World War 2, women were pitching in at the factories, children were collecting scrap metal and the men were off fighting the war. Move forward to 2006, three years after the Iraqi invasion from the United States, and the ideals of Captain America during the Civil War echo those of many people who didn’t support the war in Middle East. The ending of the argument is quite climatic, with Captain America jumping out of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier (Think a helicopter mixed with a naval aircraft carrier) and landing on jet fighter for a quick escape. In a classic form of a wives tale that gets so ridiculously out of hand, during a senators discussion on the topic of Captain America’s escape an unnamed senator tells how “... then he landed the jet in a football field before taking the pilot for a hamburger and fries.” (Civil War #1). Even in a fictional time of strife, people still look towards the American ideal of consumerism and professional sports.
                In Civil War, the opposition to Captain America’s Anti-registration heroes is lead by Tony Stark, also known and the invincible Iron Man. While Captain America was thrust into the issue during the actual events of Civil War, Tony Stark was lucky enough to see the bill before it went to the senate through unnamed contacts. This allowed him to appeal to the Metahuman Investigations Committee before the tipping point in Stamford Connecticut, in which the super villain Nitro detonated himself and killed over 600 civilians while fighting Speedball, who was recording the battle for a reality TV show. The desire for sensationalism drove the country to the tipping point where the general public no longer believed in superheroes.  Stark initial argument was that “… there are still problems to be solved, the system of anonymous, powered individuals serving their country has worked well for over sixty years. Changing that system now would only create a new and possibly more dangerous series of problems.” (Amazing Spider-Man #531). Of course one of the arguments presented by the committee was that “These individuals, operating in disguise, their identities unknown, frequently engaged in brutal conflicts in which substantial damage was done to life and property… according to our best estimates, from 1946 to the present, such battles have incurred almost two hundred billion dollars in damages…”(Amazing Spider-Man #531). Tony Stark has always thought of himself as a futurist first and a humanitarian second. Tony Stark describes his view point as a futurist as “The way my mind works – the way Reed’s mind works – we can intuit the future. That’s why we’re such successful inventors. We know what people will need before people even know they’re going to need it.” (New Avengers: Illuminati). He has always had the best interest of humanity in his artificial heart, but he has always handled the weight of the world in a way that treats humanity as a number of citizens as opposed to taking individual concerns to heart. Stark puts himself above the moral concerns of humanity and tries to balance out the chaos with the good. In addition to being Iron Man and a futurist, Tony Stark has evolved from a weapons manufacturer during the Vietnam war into a realist. He wants to keep things the way they are, but is realistic in his approach that given the drastic effects the metahuman community has on humanity, that the way that things are need to change. This is why in Civil War, Tony Stark, and in turn Iron Man, becomes a symbol for those heroes who support the Registration Act.
                It all comes to a head in the main story arc of Civil War. Captain America defects from the United States government, but still performs his duties as a super hero, catching super villains while being on the run form S.H.I.E.L.D. (Civil War #2). Steve Rogers knows that even though he isn’t supported by the government he still has to be a hero and prevent not so ordinary villains from tormenting innocent people. The ending to the second issue also presents a very poignant turn for Peter Parker as well, who shows his support of the Registration Act by revealing his identity to the general public in the final pages of the issue. This of course backfires on Peter, who instantly loses his job taking pictures of Spider-Man for the Daily Bugle (His employer claiming ‘conflict of interest’), his wife is brutally murdered and his aunt is put into the hospital (It all eventually gets reverted back to a reality in which none of this happened when Peter Parker makes a deal with the devil). This causes Parker to switch allegiances and defect to the Anti-Registration team of heroes lead by Captain America. Not to be out done by Captain America and his constantly growing team of heroes, Tony Stark teams up with Hank Pymn (Also known as Ant-Man) to create a cyborg clone of Thor, the Asgardian God of Thunder and son of Odin. However, the powers of a god are not for mere humans like Tony Stark to wield, and the cyborg accidently kills another hero named The Goliath (Civil War #4). While all of the heroes in the Marvel Universe were affected by the Superhuman Registration Act, all of them still had the intention of not killing anyone, as death is counter active to the moral code of being a ‘hero’. In a fight between Spider-Man and Iron Man as Spider-Man defects to the Anti-Registration side, Spider-Man calls out Tony Stark stating that “I don’t have a problem with working for S.H.I.E.L.D.! But locking heroes in the Negative Zone? The cyborg killing Bill Foster like that? C’mon, man! You’re in over your head!” (Civil War #5). Tony of course doesn’t listen, but that is just because he is doing what he deems right, taking a very Machiavellian approach where “... he must not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state.” (Machiavelli). Tony Stark firmly believes that the Registration Act is required for Superheroes to continue to function in a capacity that allows them to protect normal humans from superhuman threats. He doesn’t care how many people he has to put in prison to do it and whether or not their former reputation is based on sound morals or not.
                Where the hammer really hits home is the dramatic ending to Civil War. Steve Rogers eventually surrenders and allows himself to be arrested by officials and is ‘killed’ by being gunned down on the steps of the federal courthouse in Manhattan before his hearing, creating a martyr for his beliefs of Anti-Registration (Captain America #25). Tony Stark is appointed the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. and begins enforcing the law of Registration, although he makes many exceptions for heroes that he knows such as Spider-Man (Invincible Iron Man #7). Eventually, Tony Stark is relieved of his position of Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and is forced to run from the government while subsequently deleting his memory. After a forceful reboot, Iron Man comes back to save the day from more villains, but without the knowledge of what he did during the Civil War. Many heroes still hate him for what he did, but despite his gap of knowledge he still stands behind what he did (Invincible Iron Man #25).
Perhaps all Americans can look up to the outstanding morals and values of superheroes such as Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man, who have all shown that while they are unique and powerful, they are still human, and must behave as such. While they started out as forms of entertainment and propaganda, these characters and countless others have evolved into a person, though fictional, that humanity can look up to to help align their moral compasses. Without the power armor and tights though…