Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now?
by Travis Smith.
Templeton Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 190 pages, $25.

Reviewed by Ryan Shinkel

Classical art imitated life to cultivate it. In Greek sculpture, great souls stirred lovely figures. Likewise, in civics, graceful moral characters in story encouraged excellent political actors in reality. Past heroes role modelled for future statesmen. “Beautiful men made beautiful statues,” Gotthold Lessing writes, “and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” In such aesthetic education, we emulate persons whose tried and true deeds prove worthy to reproduce. Famously, having kept the Iliad with a knife underneath his pillow, Alexander honored Achilles at Ilium, then conquered Persia. In Achilles, Homer tutored this imperial lawgiver. As art showcases heroes and heroines, political order imitates their praiseworthy telling. In our stories of gods and men, saints and angels, dragon slayers from Beowulf to Batman, artistic soulcraft aids fine statecraft. Yet heroism seems antiquated in modern society. Are heroes mainly historical facts, or moral symbols?

Consider historicist heroism. Before, the few justified their power over the many through battlefield deeds and created institutions, later recounted in tales of conquest and innovation. This hero championing the common good is “desired by afflicted peoples, conceived by philosophers, and imagined by poets,” Vico writes, but is not “accorded by civil nature.” Modern politics ended “stationary bandits” like Achilles and Arthur. “Once the state has been founded,” Hegel explains, “there can no longer be any heroes.” Birthed in uncivilized conditions, they pursued goals “rightful, necessary, and political” as “their own affair,” absent governed consent. Heroes “founded states, introduced marriage and agriculture” not “by acknowledged right” but “particular will.” Their “heroic coercion” was “rightful coercion.” Equal men needed better apparatuses: “Mere goodness can achieve little against the might of nature.” By General Will, modern states replaced heroes.

How so? Heroism entailed particular loyalty between benefited rulers and ruled. Hobbes says gratitude to benefactors is a natural law: “Ingratitude” breaches “Grace” as “Injustice” breaks “Obligation by Covenant.” Shifting gratitude from nobles to Leviathans, Hobbes severs friendship from governance. Ingratitude defies grace from apotheotic sovereigns. Gone is civic friendship among men or between God and men. Hobbes plans “religious toleration” sans great learning or refined virtue, Travis Smith writes. Rather, “sentiments” of “tamed pride and relative indifference” disguise “as respect.” This “enlightened supposition of mutual impotence” is “an easy faith in easygoing divinities.” Hobbesian Society is ubiquitously victorious: we forget “how relatively novel and unusual,” given historical diversity, “that we modern Westerners have established a political society where impartial justice and impersonal bureaucrats are expected.” Neutral courts, faceless bureaucrats, transparent processes, even unbiased media: all sever friendship from creating justice.

Yet procedures have preconditions. Inherited moral capital finances our liberal democracy. Citizens need premodern principles to uphold modern republics. Consider symbolic heroism. Stories explore the human good to inspire praiseworthy lives. Beginnings are supreme in any work, Plato reasons, so supremely important in forming persons is children learn good fables. This moral education exercises mimetic desire. “Diversities of human character,” Aristotle says, are revealed by “the line between virtue and vice.” Good storytellers depict action to teach. Stories originate in our nature and natural loves. “The most imitative creature,” man first learns through imitation and delights in its works. Knowledge is garnered in depictions: “learning something is the greatest of pleasures” for all “mankind” since “the delight in seeing the picture is that one” is also “learning—gathering the meaning of things.” Understanding what things mean is at the heart of art.

Stories have universals and particulars. “The hero symbolizes a man’s unconscious self,” Jung says. Like divinity, heroism encapsulates all genetically inherited archetypes. Myths are invented. Odysseus instantiates The Hero With a Thousand Faces; The Odyssey transmits particular Maps of Meaning. Jungian universals show basics in worldviews and institutions. Storied particulars evince variety in cosmic analogies of regimes and souls. Narratives form communal roles with metaphysical horizons. They teach familial and social roles, even ways of the world, Macintyre writes, otherwise children become “unscripted, anxious stutterers” in deeds and words. “No society” is intelligible without “the stock of stories,” its “initial dramatic resources.” Mythology, as the study of story, “is at the heart of things.” So too is “that moral tradition from heroic society to its medieval heirs” where the “telling of stories” was “educating us into the virtues.” Stories educate peoples in lasting truths.

Hollywood superheroics, not Aristotlian poetics, are our stories. Cinema shows unexpected possibilities, Scorsese says, unlike superhero “theme parks.” Risky artistic vision made great studio films. Now “perfect products” are “manufactured for immediate consumption.” These philistines jail classics and collapse heterogeneous mediums into homogenous digital content. Franchises define the movie business. When, one asks, shall comic-book culture triumph enough? When film snobs surrender, Ross Douthat jokes, and Scorsese makes Batman sequels. But we still need stories worthier than endless delayed adolescent franchises ruining medium and genre variety. The “Crisis of the Middlebrow Movie” ended when middlebrow died. Lost is genre and gone is originality. As television eclipses film, theaters show few marvels. Like its indistinct score, “Marvel’s patented brand of familiar originality,” Sonny Bunch notes, tricks viewers by creative glosses on stylistically identical movies to rewatch recycled plots. It’s a thousand movies with the same face.

Can this mediocre time be redeemed? Popular stories, Travis Smith notes, of sacrificial saints, idealistic revolutionaries, or holy warriors show shared values in admired lives. To appreciate or critique a society, one should examine its heroic models. Our Hobbesian modern society produces superheroes who reveal things both commendable in liberal democracy and exaggerated or missing due to our deeper spiritual longings. Youth read these stories about justice and responsibility. So take superheroics seriously, argues Smith. His recent book is a Plutarchan analysis of ten superheroes embodying competing moralities in tournament for the praiseworthiest character. The ethical core or persistent storyline of each superhero is read philosophically, not as messiahs but symbols, since “we tend to reject divinities and demigods as role models.” Virtues, not superpowers, are ethical prisms. Superheroes represent exaggerated qualities we cultivate to confront ordinary quandaries.

His format is delightful, especially his discursive analyses of modernity. Each chapter ascends various levels of being. First, the Hulk versus Wolverine showcases our animality, then the Green Lantern versus Iron Man examines the imagination, while Batman versus Spiderman discusses polity, as Captain America versus Mister Fantastic explores action versus contemplation, and Thor versus Superman considers divinity. Finally, Smith crowns the superhero who should be most imitated. This contest of champions contests worldviews.

Superheroes save cities and worlds. What is the best way to save our world? Which hero best fits our circumstances today? Hobbesian society substitutes interest, hedonism, sentimentality, and sophistry for true moral virtues, but superhero stories can be correctives. Despite reputations as “puerile amusements, superheroes” manifest “aristocratic ideals within a liberal democratic culture.” They are inherited symbols. The dichotomy deciding Smith’s contests is superheroes who exacerbate or who moderate modern souls.

Animality debases or ennobles man by his response. The Hulk exalts his visceral appetites in instinctual isolation to vent anger; Wolverine uses his claws to spiritedly remain human. Biotechnology ruins scientific genius Bruce Banner and warrior Logan. Experimental volunteer Banner hates his Smash impulses, but alter ego Hulk is best left alone in the wild. Each typifies modernity: scientific enhancement, repressed thumos, and angry loneliness. Logan, however, gets his hirsute powers unwillingly, yet aids fellow sufferers. This ronin seeks small communities to exercise his manly honor. Reconciled to his inner beast, he strives against brutish behavior. This animal proving his humanity also proves victor. The Hulk is a zoic creature with democratic impulses for angry biopower, while Logan exercises noble honor in an egalitarian society that pacifies those longings it needs to live well. Logan aristocratically moderates his modern appetites.

Beastly man also has angelic reason, which modernity uses to acquire power free from standards of the possible, permissible, or praiseworthy. Green Lantern and Iron Man manifest such liberal and scientific principles: never compromise with injustice or death. Cosmic Guardians give cocky pilot Hal Jordan his Green Lantern ring, which wills temporary substance to imagined objects. Only they restrain virtuous Jordan from utopian attempts to save the world completely. Jordan dreams his creations. Stark engineers his. Iron Man takes great risks to eliminate risk. He loves glorious fame above refined goods, while Jordan loves company with brave souls. Both imagine things so as to master, not contemplate, nature. Stark is indistinguishable from his armor. Jordan lacks transcendent limits. Each worldly savior is technologically oriented to life, since being “ever more durable becomes our telos in a nonteleological universe.” Both get doubly disqualified.

Men without cities are beasts or gods. Mediating appetite and reason, the heart longs to belong as a civil being. Batman and Spiderman exhibit this public spiritedness. A disciplined perfectionist like Sir Lancelot, dark knight Bruce Wayne inherits his family empire as “proxy for nobility within modern industrial society.” This ninja detective subdues fearful criminals to endlessly seek justice. Peter Parker, however, cracks jokes with villains and keeps a (messy) personal life. Acknowledging limits to responsible power, he helps New Yorkers retain personal responsibility. Gotham citizens are victims, but New Yorkers remain neighbors. Wayne wants total control, but Parker is a mensch struggling daily to act decently. Typifying Enlightenment ethics, Wayne gives felicitous outcomes to righteous action. Parker is an Augustinian showing premodern elements fortify modern goods. Friendly webslingers are better neighbors than caped crusaders. Admire Batman, but be a mensch.

If Mister Fantastic has book smarts, Captain America has street smarts. Reed Richards and Steve Rogers lead distinct lives. Richards defines brilliance before leading the Fantastic Four. Rogers grows character before becoming the Cap. Each has incomplete virtues. Cosmic explorer and scientific adventurer, Richards cares for others and loves his family and friends, yet, like his elasticity, is mentally protean. Neither technical magician nor singularity fanatic, his loves root his scientific abstracting. Reason cannot account for love yet recommends it. With love of country, Rogers never rests from action. He still affirms American ideals, from equal justice to free virtue under God. Richards inspires the few to imitate his scientific curiosity. Rogers inspires all to imitate his sacred honor. Men like Rogers act outstandingly so men like Richards can think outstandingly. The Cap defends a politics dedicated to a way of life outside politics.

Practice and theory unite in divinity. Superman is divine in his effortless excellence at virtuous power. This Kantian savior of humanity needs no habituation. Meanwhile, pagan Thor strives to be worthy. With learned humility, Elizabethan dialect, and Baconian weather-control, he still needs a city. Moral conduct means acting rightly despite failure. Kal-El knows no failure. Thor does. This Asgardian prince experiences temptation and paternal judgment. This god makes no pretense to perfection. He is a relatable royal. Since democrats share political rights once belonging to aristocrats, we share similar responsibilities to be worthy of our power. Thor is an aristocratic model for democratic inheritors of principality. Every citizen is a little prince. Liberal democracy asks for little nobility from citizens, yet its success must worthily earned. Thor role models for republicans. Here, incomparable Superman voluntarily withdraws, with Thor rightly humbled.

Public affairs must consider honor because the process of asking if one is worthy can make one so. Logan and Spiderman model for leagues of honor and friendly neighborhoods, while Captain America and Thor model better for citizens. Ultimately, Thor is a hero for bourgeois Americans. The Cap often chooses exile when America fails her ideals. He earned that right. We civilians have not. We must prove worthy of our political inheritance, just like Thor, representing free citizens seeking the common good, and unlike Loki, representing ones seeking only private interest. Loki is lovable Thrasymachus, but Thor is converted Glaucon. Honorable citizens pay for freedom with proliferation in Lokis. Odin is to the American Founders what Thor is to us. Like Thor, we need to moderate the Loki element within our souls in order to imperfectly strive to live praiseworthily.

With winsome fashion and enjoyable prose, Smith assumes that praiseworthy means relatable. But does worthiness equal likeness? Perhaps we need some distance from admired heroes. “We are all very relieved to have put an end to the time of magnetic great men and all its terrible, costly inequalities,” James Poulos writes; “we are not so eager to confront the costs of what comes next”: not great heroes and villains but vile cowards; not patriotic pride but revolting resentment. Without heroes, we go mad. But they are historical superiors of soul. Here symbolic heroism is incomplete. Liberal democracy needs biblical decency and classical honor. Reconsider Batman, a superhero who can be emulated but not imitated. As an aristocratic soul in technological times whose inheritance is spent in service to democracy, Wayne is a prince who became a knight. Equal heirs to highborn forebearers, we also should act knightly.

Stories help. Plutarch uses “history as a mirror” to “fashion and adorn” life in virtues. As moral mirrors for imperial subjects, his Parallel Lives have appendixes arguing “aggressively for the superiority” of the Roman with “a similarly spirited case for” the Greek. Readers choose the praiseworthier. Are superheroes Plutarchan enough for Hobbesian society? Made for teenage imaginations, “franchised übermenschen,” Alan Moore says, let adults keep grips upon reassuring childhoods and centuries. “Cultural stasis” across media numbs this “emotional arrest” from “cowardice compensators” too like us. Smith concurs: “Superhero comics” mostly “support liberal democratic morality” of free equals living unrestrainedly, with helpful technology and minimal religion. Still, they espouse a “tragicomic worldview.” Good needs great efforts to temporarily win. This “Sisyphean quality to superheroics” sequences endless unjust sufferings. Everybody needs help from heroes without “rest or final redemption.” This illusory change degrades superheroics.

Complete victories are rare: heroes die. “The poet of Beowulf saw clearly,” Tolkien remarks, that “the wages of heroism is death.” Geats at Beowulf’s funeral sense impending doom in “sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things than with any transcendental promise,” Heaney argues. Tragic sensibility in heroic death ranges from Gilgamesh to Achilles and Camelot, but to comics? “I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’,” Tolkien concludes, “though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” Heroic wages entail finitude, though honorable deaths may foreshadow. “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers,” as Thorin says, “until the world is renewed.” Superheroic tragicomedy seeks mythos. It evinces a permanent need for moral nobility.

Historicism and symbolism are two halves to a whole split by Hobbesian society. Heroism is historically retold to inspire heroes now: what C. S. Lewis calls “the necessity of chivalry” in shields harmless as doves with swords cunning as serpents. Good stories help train our hearts. “The knightly character is art not nature,” one to be achieved, not presumed. Its cultivation grows “specially necessary as we grow more democratic.” Before, elites sustained chivalry, “spread to other classes” by “imitation” and “coercion.” Now, we are “either chivalrous” on our “own resources,” or must choose “between brutality and softness.” This tradition is fragile in democracy, yet “practical and vital.” Stories provide “the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable.” Can superheroes teach Hobbesian society? Tragically comic, we are burdened to try.  

Ryan Shinkel is a historical researcher for American Bible Society and a graduate student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.