This year will deliver major superhero ensemble films that provide alternative views of the limitations and proper exercise of power. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered this spring to uneven reviews, and Captain America: Civil War debuts this weekend.
As Charlie Jane Anders has observed, the films offer a noteworthy message to our contemporary situation. “These films are all about a man with superpowers and colorful clothes,” she writes, “and the question of whether he (and his friends, in Civil War) have too much power and too little accountability.”
The differences that promise to be on offer between the DC and Marvel explorations of power and its limits have something to teach us about the vigilance required of those in power. In the DC universe, Batman worries about the corruption of Superman and the dangers represented abuse of superpowers. If there is even the slightest chance that Superman might be corrupted and turn evil, opines the Dark Knight, then we have to assume that as an absolute certainty and take steps, however harsh, to mitigate the threat and neutralize the risk.
And make no mistake, this is a significant risk. In his battle with Zod at the conclusion of Man of Steel, large swaths of Metropolis are leveled as the two beings with god-like powers engage in a brutal death match. Superman’s dispatching of Zod represents another concern for someone like Batman, as at least in this case it becomes clear that Superman has taken it upon himself to combine the powers and functions of police, judge, and executioner. (In a significant departure from tradition, however, it is Batman in the latest film who has little compunction about killing.) Combine that with the propensity of the masses to deify such a being and pledge allegiance to such a god, and you have an explosive mix of power, ideology, and self-righteousness.
There’s an old Latin proverb that roughly translates as “the corruption of the best is the worst.” A corrupted and tyrannical Superman is a fat tail risk, and Batman is the only person in his world, perhaps, who is capable of both recognizing the danger and taking steps to ameliorate it. He has to have a plan to neutralize Superman if he ends up proving to be morally bankrupt. And attempts by someone like Superman to deliver a utopia would instead almost certainly lead to a hell on earth.
Batman thus recognizes the truth in Lord Acton’s axiom, invoked in Batman v. Superman, that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Or as Lex Luthor puts it, Americans still believe in the fantasy that the exercise of power can be “innocent.” Acton likewise observes that “great men are almost always bad men,” in part because history tends to valorize their deeds and also because they operate out of a heightened sense of moral entitlement.
Superman represents the pinnacle of superpower, and his corruption would threaten the entire world. In Injustice: Gods Among Us, an alternative story line that feeds into some of the dynamics of Batman v. Superman, a Superman in an alternate universe has finally had enough with the evil, chaos, and disorder on Earth and goes about implementing a new world order. This break is occasioned by the death of Lois, and in BvS, Lois is hinted at as being key to Superman’s turn toward tyranny. In Injustice, Superman rules with an iron fist and uses other superheroes as his agents of domination. When Batman worries about Superman’s corruption, it is episodes like Superman’s cold-blooded murder of a child that he has in mind. One of the dream sequences from BvS underscores this. In Injustice just as in BvS, is Batman who has contingency plans in place for Superman’s fall, and who puts things in motion to eventually defeat the tyrannical Superman.
The DC universe has always had such mutual limitation of power by superheroes as the basic model for how to best limit the abuse of superpowers. The Justice League is a kind of aristocracy made up of superheroes, who hold each other accountable and can join together to oppose anyone or any other group that seeks to impose tyranny.
In the Marvel universe, by contrast, it is typically some government entity, whether a nation-state or some other intergovernmental agency, that seeks to control superheroes. Whether it takes the form of the mutant registration act in the X-Men storylines or the superhero registration activities that form the background of Civil War, some governmental regime is the actor through which superheroes must be governed and conform. As we see in a trailer for Civil War, this dispute about where the locus of power best resides is at the heart of the dispute between Iron Man and Captain America. Tony Stark sides with the government, whose views are summed up by General Ross: “You’ve operated with unlimited power and no supervision. That’s something the world can no longer tolerate.” Echoing Ross’ sentiments, Tony Stark contends that “if we can’t accept limitations, we’re no better than the bad guys.”
“I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own,” says Steve Rogers, whose moral compass always points due north. Thus the basic conflict that runs throughout these films is whether superheroes can exercise autonomy and implement a responsible form of self-government (such as the Justice League), or whether government “supervision” is required (in the form of SHIELD, governmental registration, or international treaties).
The payoff of all this is that just as there is no uncorruptible exercise of power, there is no uncorruptible form of government, for whatever can be made by man (or Superman) can be unmade by man (or Superman). The aristocratic Justice League could devolve into an oligarchic regime or be taken over by a power-mad Superman. The benign governmental oversight of superheroes could turn into social tyranny, geopolitical machinations, and nationalistic warmongering. And the democratic “conversation” that Senator Finch calls for in BvS can turn into populist demagoguery.
As fantastical as these stories might seem, the perennial popularity of superhero tales indicates that there is something in them that resonates with the human condition. One key lesson of this year’s superhero blockbusters is that we must recognize the truth that vigilance for the corruptions of power in its various forms is an ongoing requirement for the flourishing of a free and virtuous society.