Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Comparative Superhero Philosophy

After a long day on my feet, it's nice to sit back, relax with a cup of tea, and think about superheroes.

Superheroes have always fascinated me. I've never been particularly into comics, though I have read one or two in my time (Watchmen is a must even if you're not into the medium, considered by TIME to be one of the 100 greatest novels of all time). But the idea of a superhero has always been an interesting one. It does away with every notion of the social contract, placing one unelected, unrepresentative individual above his peers by virtue only of his ability and willingness to fight crime. Such a system in real life would surely collapse; vigilantism presumes too much authority on behalf of the superhero. What sort of ego could justify taking the law into one's own hands, using incredible powers to do away with due process and simply enact the law as YOU see fit?

Still, superheroes are an interesting bunch. Many exist simply to entertain, to BAM and POW the bad guy in uncompromising shades of grey. Some, particularly in the hands of skilled writers like Alan Moore, do a little more than this. They personify some of the great moral and political issues of the last century, even entire philosophy perspectives. And so, with no structure or argument, I present to you a very self-indulgent analysis of the philosophies behind five of my favourite superheroes.

Many spoilers follow.

In my opinion, the definitive superhero. The name says it all; Super-man, above other men. Superman, especially in the Silver Age of superhero comics, was essentially God in tights. He was omniscient, flying above the earth, able to see and hear any crime that happened anywhere in the world (particularly in Metropolis). He was omnipotent, with writers inventing whatever new powers for him they felt necessary until he was able to shift entire planets without breaking a sweat. And he was omnibenevolent, as Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?" illustrates most poignantly. Superman is forced out of desperation to break his vow to never kill, and so in penance renounces all his powers and fakes his own death to live as a human; Superman cannot be Superman if he kills.

Rorschach is an interesting anti-hero. He has no superpowers but obsessive insanity, and exemplifies (much as Batman does) the concept of absolutism. He sees the world in black and white, sin and no sin, and unfortunately for the world he doesn't see much white. He is perfectly happy with killing those he knows to be criminals, and is so devoted to delivering justice that he doesn't fear dying in pursuit of it. In the climax of Watchmen, the heroes collectively agree to keep the horrific truth secret because doing so would prevent the sudden outbreak of peace and unity that has spread across the world, a lovely example of consequentialist morality. Rorschach disagrees, telling the others that he will tell the world what has happened even though it may tear nations apart once more, and steadfastly begins to walk towards the exit even as Dr. Manhatten sadly informs him that he will be killed to protect the truth. Rorschach is a brilliant example of a man who holds his values as absolutes, and nothing, not world peace or his own life, can compromise that.

Alucard (Hellsing)

Alucard is pretty damn cool. He was a vampire before Twilight made them mainstream, and is essentially the living embodiment of evil. In fact, he is a biologically re-engineered Dracula, the quintessential supervillian in half a million comic books.
But Alucard rejects his evil nature. He usually drinks blood from hospital supply bag things and hunts down other, parasitic vampires; not because of what they are, but because of how they act. Its arguable that this is because of his conditioning, as he was brainwashed to obey the Hellsing family. But put him in contrast to Iscariot, the Catholic secret service. Iscariot agents kill vampires on sight, seeing them as inherently evil creatures who must be killed before they can kill others. Alucard does not see his vampirism as inherently evil, merely inconvenient. He has no hesitation in turning Seras into another vampire to save her life. Alucard represents the idea of actions defining morality, not nature.

Charles Xavier and Magneto
Prof X and Magneto basically want the same thing; and end to human oppression of mutants. They both adhere to the basic tenets of Liberalism, freedom from oppression. But where they differ is their solution and their methods. Prof X is the egalatarian, Martin Luther King jr., desiring a society where mutants and human are equals, working together with no stigma. As such, he emplys force only when necessary to protect others, which he does regardless of their race.
Magneto is a radical, Malcolm X, similar in attitude to a difference feminist. He does not see mutants and humans as equals; mutants are superior, and so should be in charge. While this justifies his use of violence in some areas, he does not envision a future where humans are slaves to mutants. In Magneto's utopia, mutants rule a benevolent dictatorship, a meritocracy for the benefit of all.
I really like the contrast in their ideas and the parallels to real life. X-men has always been compared to the Gay rights movement (or obviously the civil rights of Dr. King and Malcolm X), but I see alot of parallels to feminism. Equality or difference? The basic philosophy here is righting the wrongs of society and preventing oppression.

V is an anarchist, and answers the question "when has the government gone too far?" He rather demonstratively believes that an individual can fight against an oppressive government, and is nicely validated in his belief when he is joined by the majority of the population in an uprising. He is the symbol of anonymity, the individual against the machine, fighting for freedom.
But where do we draw the line? In NZ society today, could someone put on a Guy Fawkes mask, go around blowing up public buildings and assassinating officials because he didn't like National's policies, and still expect to be the hero? V walks a rather fine line, between liberation and terrorism, and while he is thankfully correct in his stance towards the Northfire government, his story could have turned out very differently. What right did he have to judge his government deserving of violent revolution?
One man acting as judge, jury and executioner. Assuming the right to decide when a government oversteps its boundaries, and when terrorism becomes liberation. It goes wrong more often than not (hello, military coups across the world!), but Moore writes V and his world so well that we are convinced of the justice of his actions. When the Law does not Rule, V takes it upon himself to correct this. This is not the vigilantism of Batman, this is revolutionary anarchism

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