Superheroes: they can be our beacons of justice in a gray world full of compromises. Additionally, they work as the ones with the power to make the choice others can't: the right one. Yet, we seem to be most fascinated with them when they doubt themselves and everything they stand for. Why? Because putting a character in a position to make the right choice highlights just how tricky it often is. In other words, superheroes can be so much more than fever dreams about justice and altruism. #Superheroes also offer us a wonderfully accessible way to explore a variety of complex moral dilemmas we all face in life.
It's clearly something many brilliant filmmakers have woken up to during the recent decade or two, as these larger-than-life heroes have faced some real ethical headscratchers on-screen. So, as a little celebration of the way superhero movies can change the way we see the world, let's take a look at three fascinating examples of moral dilemmas superheroes must face.
3. Should We Give Up Our Dreams For Higher Ideals?
What is the core of the dilemma?
"With great power comes great responsibility."
These iconic words of wisdom from the Spider-Man mythos are echoed through pretty much every superhero story out there. The decision to selflessly use one's abilities for the benefit of society — an ideal as old as civilization itself — truly makes these extraordinary individuals heroes. Therefore, it's easy overlook that within this iconic quote also lays a fascinating question: What if one of these uniquely gifted individuals simply chooses to lead a normal life (go to school, find a job, settle down, etc.)? Are they somehow morally in the wrong by doing so?
How does it translate into our everyday life? It really doesn't matter whether one's special gift is swinging from the rooftops and fighting baddies, or something slightly more conventional like an academic talent. As long as applying one's power can benefit society and others, we face the same dilemma as Peter Parker and countless other superheroes.
For example, what if a person uniquely talented in some revolutionary field of science decides to pursue his or her dreams of becoming a musician instead? Should that person really be swayed from following his or her passion so that society could benefit from this special talent?
What superhero movie has explored it the best? There are a few comic book movies that have tackled this "to be or not to be" dilemma in as balanced and clever a way as Sam Raimi's Spiderman 2. When Peter's powers start to wane and he quits being Spider-Man, his life improves in almost every way, becoming a more content and reliable person all around. In fact, losing his powers is a great metaphor for what can happen when you pursue a special talent out of obligation rather than passion. If your heart is not in it, you're unlikely to do it justice anyway.
However, without Spidey around, the crime rate in NY rises, people lose a role model and Peter loses a part bit of himself by ignoring his talent and sense of responsibility. Therefore, when he decides to stop choosing between his dreams and responsibilities to simply pursue both to the best of his ability, it creates a simple yet profound message.
While we do have a moral obligation to chase a higher ideal when we possess the power to do so, it doesn't mean we must sacrifice our dreams in the process. True, it might get tricky sometimes, but it's only by acknowledging all three (our passions, talents and responsibilities) that we can truly be the best versions of ourselves, both in our own eyes and in society's.
2. How Far Should We Chase Our Ideals?
What is the core of the dilemma? This is a bit more complicated than the dilemma discussed above. Namely, what if chasing a higher ideal looks to be the more responsible thing to do? What if a noble quest demands too great a sacrifice, becomes unobtainable in reality, or creates a horrible counter-reaction. Should one be willing to compromise, change or even let go of it completely?
How does it translate into our everyday life? While rarely to the extent of superheroes, it's safe to say that we've all been tempted to go against our moral compass. It can be for sake of career, societal pressures, or as simply sticking up for a friend out of loyalty even though we think he or she is morally in the wrong.
What superhero movie has explored it the best? To test a superhero's convictions one needs to refer to an expert. The best in the business? The Joker from The Dark Knight. In his busy schedule he managed to bring The Dark Knight close to quitting (by playing on his guilt over all the innocent deaths that his quest for justice has indirectly caused), turn Batman's city into chaos, corrupt its symbol of altruism (Harvey Dent) and generally do everything in his power to push the Caped Crusader closer and closer towards breaking his no-killing code.
Seeing Batman endure everything thrown at him and then — as an ultimate act of altruism — take the fall for Dent's crimes can be certainly viewed as an inspiring message about staying true to one's ideals no matter the adversity. When pursuing a noble ideal in such an uncompromising manner, we're bound to face an equally relentless counter-reaction and must be prepared to tackle it to the best of our ability.
However, Batman's uncompromising chase of these ideals can also be viewed as a cautionary tale about getting lost in them. By relying solely on Dent, Batman essentially ended up prioritizing a perfect but unrealistic version of his ideals (Dent, the "White Knight" of Gotham) over a flawed but realistic one (the Batman). This is also why neither Batman nor Joker managed to achieve a conclusive moral victory over the other, since neither was willing to admit that the other had a point about humanity.
Pursuing a higher ideal in a realistic and flexible manner is not the same as compromising or letting go of it. In fact, it's that openness to adapt one's ideals that allows them to reach their truest form. Whether you think that taking a fall for Dent's crimes is Batman realizing this or remaining oblivious to it is very much open for interpretation, and probably one of the biggest factors behind the endless replay value of this modern masterpiece.
1. How Above The Law Should Superheroes Be?
What is the core of the dilemma? When it comes to the relationship between superheroes and the law, it's complicated. On the one hand, both should strive for the same goal: ensuring justice and fairness in society while upholding the principles behind it. Yet, if these extraordinary individuals felt that the legal system alone was good enough, they would never be driven into action in the first place. So, it would seem that superheroes have to be simultaneously on the side of the law while also hovering above it; a notion that leads us down an interesting path.
How does it translate into our everyday life? Now, what makes it such a fascinating subject is that our reaction to seeing superheroes face this dilemma essentially maps out how we view law, society and our role in it. Furthermore, it also helps us to understand the stance others have on the matter.
What superhero movie has explored it the best? It probably comes as no surprise that this is where we talk about that time when some iconic superheroes had a bit of a falling out over a legal document called the Sokovian accords — a brilliant plot device that essentially made the Avengers surrender most of their decision making power to UN.
On the one side, we have "Team Stark," who believe that superheroes should be held more accountable for their actions and accept limitations to show that everyone must abide the law regardless of their power. The ones on "Team Cap" however feel that surrendering their decision-making ability to such an extent would essentially remove the human element from the Avengers, as everything would hinge on what politicians with many different agendas eventually decide.
Emotionally, it's certainly easier to agree with Cap's way of putting one's faith in individuals rather than institutions. Law should first and foremost serve the people (and timeless ideals that come along with it). However, one shouldn't forget that in a democratic society law doesn't just exist to create limitations and establish order; it is also essential to ensure freedoms and basic human rights. Therefore, by going rogue and undermining what he felt was a flawed legal system, Captain America also undermined many important aspects inherent to the rule of law.
So, where does it all leave us? Well, seemingly without a clear answer — and perhaps this is the point. Cap was not so much against the rule of law, but an element of it that goes against his deepest convictions and sense of morality. Much like Stark was not over the moon about pushing for tighter legal control over superheroes, as he simply considered it a necessary sacrifice. Still, you could argue that both took their respective viewpoints a tad bit too far. This, however, is where Ms. Romanov a.k.a. the Black Widow comes into play.
While she made a pragmatic decision the abide the laws and go with the Sokovian accords, she didn't even blink when it came to helping Captain America out of a tight spot (during the airport fight). True, she might have been obliged by the law to capture him, but she also acknowledged that Cap is her friend and a good person with noble goals. So, she decided act against her better judgement. To put this in perspective, while there's obviously a need for structure and order in society, it should never come at the price of removing humanity from the decision-making process; it's a constant balancing act and a compromise — always in motion and ever-changing.
To Sum Up
Upon rewatching Nolan's iconic Batman trilogy, I noticed that pretty much every villain was defeated in a rather unceremonious way. Now, while I initially viewed it as a rare weak point in an otherwise excellent trilogy of films, I now realize that it's actually a perfect representation on how far superhero movies have come. What were once simple tales of saving the day and defeating the baddie have now become these fascinating character journeys that make us think while entertaining us — our modern mythology wrapped in capes and leather.
What is the greatest lesson a superhero movie has taught you? Let me know in the comments below!