My Curiosity with the Cape: What Makes Superheroes So “Super”?
“…superhero-genre stories are not cultural directives to be imitated, but instead tools for thinking about society.” – Weston (2013, p. 229)
I’m not sure if this is true in general, but as an academic I can sometimes be a difficult person to watch a movie or tv show with. It’s hard for me to set aside my academic inclinations when enjoying media, thus I’m always analyzing various events and asking what implications they may have for human life more generally. For example, take some of the superhero media I have enjoyed this summer and the kinds of questions I ponder while watching them. What does the isolationist vs. interventionist debate in Black Panther (2018) say about our understandings of harm/welfare considerations as they pertain to those within and outside of our families, ‘groups’, and/or nations? What are the implications of the outcome of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) for our understandings of pride, purpose, and cooperation? Finally, how do the depictions of Harlem and Luke Cage’s relationship with Harlem in Luke Cage (2016–) relate to our everyday notions of criminality and civilian life? You see…”difficult”.
In the past two decades, superhero-related media have become staples in mainstream entertainment. Their success is partly attributed to two broad questions superhero narratives raise directly or indirectly about social life. These questions are derived from an approach to the development of socio-moral judgments known as Social Domain Theory (SDT; Turiel, 1983, 2002). After briefly introducing SDT, I will briefly discuss each question, highlighting scholarship from two disparate areas (superheroes and socio-moral development) where relevant.
SDT and the Diversity of Social Life
Although the range of interactions we experience can be quite varied, according to Turiel (1983, 2002) they tend to cluster within one of three domains. As each domain pertains to a specific class of interactions, each domain also contains its own set of concepts that individuals form, apply, and in some cases modify as their interactions diversify and their development progresses. Interactions in the moral domain are tied to generalizable principles and deals with concepts related to harm/welfare, justice/fairness, and rights/civil liberties. The conventional domain pertains to interactions of a regulatory nature and deals with concepts related to laws, rules/policies, and norms. Finally, interactions in the personal (or psychological) domain pertains to the understanding of individuals as distinct entities and deals with concepts related to autonomy, personal jurisdiction and psychological characteristics.
To briefly illustrate these domains, consider the range of social interactions a child, adolescent, and/or adult may observe or engage in during primary school, secondary school, and/or post-secondary school respectively. Interactions classified as moral could include those that involve breaking up a fight(harm), being a victim or perpetrator of bullying (harm), demanding that every study group member contributes relatively equally towards helping the members prepare for an upcoming test (justice/fairness), and/or convincing someone not to engage in academic dishonesty (justice/fairness). Interactions in the conventional domain could involve matters related to following (or not following) assignment guidelines (rules/policies), working with the teacher/instructor/professor as a class to (re)negotiate certain behavioral norms in the class, or receiving detention for violating the instructor’s acceptable in-class tech use policy. Lastly, some interactions may only or primarily be the result of a student exercising personal autonomy and jurisdiction, such as who to befriend, how to spend one’s free time, how to take notes/study, and what clubs or extracurricular activities to join.
Insofar as individuals aim to live together, then, SDT asserts that an (at least fairly) adequate understanding of people and their relationships (with others, societies, etc.) is to be sought in accounting for the ways in which these domains manifest themselves in social life and inform people’s social judgments. The two questions below stem from the moral and conventional domains respectively, as I believe that currently these domains are more prominently featured in superhero narratives. In general, the concepts from these domains that tend to be emphasized in superhero narratives are those related to harm, justice, legitimacy, and authority.
What does it mean for us to interact with and conceive of one another as moral persons?
Given the structure of most superhero narratives (e.g., risking one’s life to save others) and people’s perceptions of their heroic characteristics (see Allison & Goethals, 2011), one could argue that superhero media primarily address matters pertaining to morality. Often, the moral questions superheroes grapple with center around justice and harm (e.g., what it means to protect, save, achieve justice for, or avenge others). It is not debatable whether a villain should be stopped. What’s debatable is the means by which the villain should be stopped. Are Batman’s vigilante methods more appropriate or are Superman’s more “by the book” methods preferred? Should the acceptability of a method be primarily understood in terms of a general approach or is the choice of method best determined by the unique features of the given situation (e.g., the proximal threat posed by the villain, the number of lives at stake, the nature of the villain’s past actions, etc.)?
Given superheroes’ use of violence, the answers to these questions bind together justice and harm considerations. It may be fair to assume that superheroes whose notions of justice are primarily based on retribution (fairness as understood through punishment) may tend to inflict more harm on perpetrators than those whose sense of retribution is also (more) balanced with concerns about procedural justice(fairness as understood through due process). This is one of the reasons why superhero team ups are common, as they provide opportunities for superheroes with differing perspectives on the relationship between justice and harm to interact and debate strategy (either implicitly or explicitly).These clashes of perspectives are often explored in the gritty and grounded superhero narratives like the Dark Knight trilogy and TV series such as Daredevil (2015-), Jessica Jones (2015-), and Luke Cage (2016-).
As suggested by both superhero scholarship (e.g., Bainbridge, 2007; Kort-Butler, 2013; Reyns & Henson, 2010; Sharp, 2012; Stoddart, 2006; Weston, 2013; Vollum & Adkinson, 2003) and socio-moral development scholarship on children, adolescents, and/or adults (e.g., Arsenio & Kramer, 1992; Elenbaas& Killen, 2017; Helwig, Arnold, Tan, & Boyd, 2007; Helwig, Hildebrandt, & Turiel, 1995; Mulvey & Killen, 2016; Nucci & Turiel, 2009; Reechia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2015; Smetana, 1981; Smith & Warneken, 2016), how we treat others with regards to fairness (justice) and welfare (harm) is foundational to our understandings of social life (fictional or real). Second, our understandings of fairness are diverse, entailing interactions related to punishment (retributive; e.g., Kenward & Östh, 2012, 2016), processes (procedural; e.g., Grocke, Rossano, & Tomasello, 2015, 2018; Fondacaro et al., 2006), and resource allocation (distributive; e.g., Elenbaas & Killen, 2016, 2017). Lastly, there is evidence that certain moral understandings related to harm (Helwig, Zelazo, & Wilson, 2001; Mulvey & Killen, 2016; Nucci & Turiel, 2009; Recchia et al., 2015) and justice (e.g., Cooley & Killen, 2015; Cushman, Sheketoff, Wharton, & Carey, 2013; Jordan, McAuliffe, & Warneken, 2014; Rizzo, Elenbaas, Cooley, & Killen, 2016; Rochat et al., 2009; Smith & Warneken, 2016) increase in abstraction and/or complexity with age. It begs the question whether a family watching a superhero film, live-action tv series, or animated tv series are together construing the moral dilemmas presented as similar to or different from one another, and in the case of the latter, whether those differences are at least partly a function of age (e.g., parents vs. children or parents vs. oldest child vs. youngest child).
What does it mean for us to interact with and conceive of one another as persons whose behavior is in many ways regulated?
Societies contain many examples of regulated behavior. Some are instituted and modified formally (e.g., laws, policies governing institutions and workplaces) while others are done so informally (e.g., socially or culturally-accepted ways of interacting with each other). I believe that concepts in the conventional realm are also common in superhero narratives, often via their relationship to the above mentioned moral concepts (e.g., superheroes’ notions of justice often have implications for how they interact with legal and governmental institutions). One may argue that one of the ways to distinguish between different kinds of superheroes is with regards to how they balance moral and conventional considerations; namely the extent to which their activities should be done alongside or in spite of law enforcement. For instance, although in their respective TV series Daredevil and Luke Cage generally agree on the importance of the legal system for a functioning society, they often differ in how they relate the legal system to their superhero work. Daredevil is a lawyer by day and a masked vigilante by night, whereas Luke Cage does not conceal his identity and often works closely with detectives to solve cases.
Through the lens of Social Domain Theory, one could argue that the balance between moral and conventional considerations was at the heart of Captain America: Civil War (2016), where the collateral damage from Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) prompted the United Nations to propose regulatory sanctions on superheroes. Can superheroes truly be superheroes if they submit to a regulatory authority? What role—if any—should the government play in determining (through the deployment of registered superheroes) which conflicts get resolved and whose lives get saved/protected? Albeit on a smaller scale, we too often wrestle with questions of a conventional nature, whether or not they have implications for morality. How should a group of children structure the rules of a newly-created game in a way that balances their concerns for fairness, fun, and competitiveness? What does it mean to belong to a family unit (loosely defined) and how are norms related to authority, group functioning, and communication negotiated amongst its members? When is it acceptable to break, resist, and/or modify an existing law, policy, norm, or widely-held practice? What role should the government play in regulating activities of individuals and families? What is the role of the government in situations when considerations related to civil liberties and harm/welfare are intertwined?
Indeed, one does not have to squint to see the implications of the last three questions in the preceding paragraph for our current political climate and philosophies. For instance, I would argue that on a general level, individuals across a variety of political orientations (e.g., independent, conservative, liberal, moderate) agree on the importance of regulatory behavior (e.g., some system of law and some form of government) for a well-functioning society. Once we move past this general agreement—and particularly when we consider the implications of various regulatory entities and practices for other domains of social life (e.g., harm/welfare, fairness, rights/civil liberties, autonomy)—we encounter many areas of disagreement. Present day examples of these disagreements include debates about immigration policy, gun rights, and criminal justice reform to name a few.
Similarly, scholarship in the areas of superheroes (Bainbridge, 2007, 2015; Bosch, 2016; Curtis, 2013; Peterson & Gerstein, 2005; Sharp, 2012) and children’s adolescents’ and/or adults’ socio-moral development (Helwig, 1995, 1997, 1998; McNeil & Helwig, 2015; Prencipe & Helwig, 2002; Smetana & Bitz, 1996) suggest that issues related to authority and legitimacy inform our understandings of both superhero media and our own societies. Whether within governmental, teacher/school, or parental/family contexts, social life entails the engagement with (and at times critiquing of) matters related to authority and legitimacy. As with some understandings related to harm and justice, findings suggest that some understandings related to matters of legitimacy and authority increase in sophistication with age (Helwig, 1995, 1997, 1998; McNeil & Helwig, 2015; Prencipe & Helwig, 2002; Smetana & Bitz, 1996).
Are Superheroes Relevant to Our Understandings of Social Life?
“You are a good man…with a good heart. And it is hard for a good man to be a king.” – T’Chaka (spoken to T’Challa in the Ancestral Plane)
Social life—with its nuances, complexities, and diversity—at times can be hard. Regardless of the form it takes (e.g., a family, peer group, community, city, nation, etc.), whenever individuals who are bonded to each other (e.g., by blood, experiences, culture, geography, interests, religion, ideology, etc.)”do life” together, there will inevitably be bumps along the way. Although the exact meaning behind T’Chaka’s words to T’Challa is not clear in Black Panther (2018), I contend that at least part of T’Chaka’s motivation to share these words to his son is rooted in his understanding that Wakandan social life—and by extension being responsible for its protection and thriving as king—places a heavy burden on whoever occupies the position. In addition to protecting people from supervillains like his ‘Avengers’ counterparts, T’Challa is also responsible for Wakandan education, healthcare, the legal system, cultural heritage, and economics (among other things). In essence, T’Challa’s leadership is tied to many of the principles (moral understandings) and policies (conventional understandings) that characterize Wakandansociety. This is one of the main reasons why I love the character and the film, and why I believe Wakanda is the most important character in both the Black Panther comics and the film. Similarly, I think a significant portion of the box office success and cultural significance of the Dark Knight film trilogy can be attributed to the films essentially being more about the city of Gotham than about either Batman or any of the villains. To this end, in July I wrote a piece elaborating on the importance of Gotham in The Dark Knight (2012) to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of its release.
Despite not having superpowers to wield or supervillains to contend with, we are often faced with challenges in our attempts to live together. As the scholarship summarized above suggests, many of these challenges may stem from questions surrounding what it means to live together as moral and conventionally-regulated persons. In many ways, how we choose to navigate our social worlds with regards to harm, justice, legitimacy, and authority has implications for many aspects of society—including but not limited to—community relations, civil discourse, and problem-solving at the local, state, and national levels. Given that 1) superhero narratives are enjoyed by children and their parents alike and 2) neither the prevalence of superhero media nor the necessities and complexities of social life appear to be going anywhere soon, it may be worthwhile to ask ourselves if there are any potential social benefits to taking superhero narratives a little more seriously.
As I briefly mentioned above and have suggested elsewhere, some of the complexities of social life depicted in superhero narratives are similar to those of contemporary social life, particularly with regards to our differing perspectives on various socio-political issues. After all, is the current immigration debate that different from the portrayal of human-mutant relations in X-Men narratives with regards to considerations of morality, legality, and personhood? Moreover, are the current issues surrounding concerns over individual rights/civil liberties (e.g., gun rights, citizen and consumer privacy) that different from the rights/civil liberties considerations at the heart of the Civil War film or the comic book crossover from which it is based? If your answer to one of these questions is something other than “Yes they are and it is not even close”, then maybe these narratives are super after all.