As a kid I loved comic books. Superhero books were my stock and trade. I had the whole nine yards: Iron Man, Spider Man, and a smattering of weird heroes I can barely remember.
Recently, I dug my long boxes out of my parent’s basement. I’ve been out of there for awhile, but I never brought them with me. I was flipping through them and one book in particular caught my eye: a Green Lantern / Green Arrow crossover.
The book begins with some thugs in the middle of assaulting a prostitute. Green Arrow jumps out of the shadows, arrows blazing. At one point, he shoots an earring off one of them. He’s a superhero; he can do things like that.
But even with his fantastic arrow-shooting powers, the thugs are too many. They get the jump on him. Green Lantern comes into the picture, beats up the thugs with his Power Ring, and the day is saved. It’s typical superhero fare. Still, there is a problem here.
The problem is not this throwaway day saving; nobody can argue that superheroes should not save days. That’s what superheroes do. However, the problem with this scene, and our stories in general, is the moral universe they represent.
Everything in a superhero comic is relatively simple. There are villains; there are heroes. We root for the heroes because the heroes do good things. The villains do bad things. Villains go to jail. Heroes may or may not get feted, but they don’t do it for the acclaim. They do it because they’re heroes. It’s simple.
Now a comic book is just a comic book, right? A cigar is a cigar; no one is taking stories like that seriously. Nobody thinks they’re going to be Spider Man, or Iron Man, or Green Lantern. Of course, that’s true, but comic books are just one medium where this type of story takes place. That story is everywhere.
Look at our action movie: Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, even guys I absolutely love like Bruce Lee, all made moves with this moral structure. Sure there are complications, like Frank Miller’s anti-heroes, but even then, the villains they fight are even worse. The moral choice is still black and white, even if the story is a darker shade.
Still, nobody thinks they’re going to be a Stallone. Right?
If you ask second-amendment advocates what the best remedy for mass-shootings in this country would be, many will answer ‘a good guy with a gun.’ Not just anyone with a gun: ‘the good guy,’ the guy we root for, the John McClains or the John Spartans or the John Hartigans of the world. Put guns in their hands and everything will be ok.
The problem is here these guys don’t exist; they never existed. Neither did the villains they fight. Moral choices in the real world are never so clear. Realistically, how often do you see such a clear cut ethical choice, where you’re the hero and there’s a clear villain? How often are you going to see a kid get kidnapped? How often are you going to see a neighbor being threatened by the mob? How often will you see a woman getting murdered?
That link above is to an article about Kitty Genovese, a woman who was murdered in Queens in 1964. There were 38 witnesses to the crime, each standing by and doing nothing. It was reported that none of them called the police, or stepped in to help.
The case was presented to the public as an example of our society’s moral decay. Originally, I had thought of it that way too: the residents of the building saw the crime happening, made a clear moral choice not to help her, and as a result, she was cruelly killed. Of course I would have saved her; after all, I’m the hero in my mind.
Then I read this:
The Kitty Genovese episode became infamous, but later examination found that Gansberg [the original reporter who broke the story] had exaggerated details and presented a misleading perspective of the witnesses’ actions. All but one of the witnesses likely saw or heard only the first attack, after which Genovese walked away, giving the impression that she was all right. The second attack took place out of view of most people. Only one man saw the attack. He told another woman to call the police, but it was too late to save Genovese.
The witnesses, wrote Rasenberger, “reacted as they reportedly did not because they were apathetic or cold-hearted, but because they were confused, uncertain and afraid.
Confused, uncertain, and afraid. That’s how most moral choices happen in the real world. You might never see the woman that Green Arrow saved, but I bet all of you have seen someone get thrown under the bus at work, metaphorically speaking. You’ve see friends treating each other poorly. You’ve seen people you love killing themselves in one way or another. How did you react in those situations? How would you react?
Those questions are far harder, because that’s where things get complicated. That’s where things get important. These are the stories we need to think about most because they are so fraught with uncertainty. Focusing on supervillains, as our stories encourage us to do, leaves a person unprepared for the real moral choices we face. You can be very prepared to fight the rhino ramming your front door, but completely helpless when termites eat through the frame of your house.
The termites are what we need to watch. We must realize that in all likelihood, the rhino isn’t coming, but we have to fight the termites everyday. And they can still knock your house clean down, bite by bite, until there’s nothing left.
Don’t misunderstand me; I still love Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the like.
But it is food for thought.