How Super Is Superhero Justice?

I like superheroes. I think I always have. Like many kids, I grew up reading the comics, and when I bumped into Alan Moore’s Watchmen as a college freshman in 1989, I thought I had discovered the greatest novel ever written. I’m not entirely sure that it isn’t.

Cover for WatchmenAs a child, I was drawn in by the characters’ superpowers and the imaginative story arcs, but superhero stories are not just entertainment. Like speculative fiction in general, superhero stories are ultimately about ourselves. The fictional universes allow the writers to manipulate the circumstances to better examine the most complex aspects of the human experience, none more so than the issues of morality and justice.

But what is it that the superhero stories actually say about justice?

The answer is hardly surprising. Though they might be physically or intellectually superior to ordinary humans, superheroes generally operate within the same kind of justice systems as those of us living in what we call “the real world.” Thus, looking at superhero justice allows us to better understand our own justice system and consider the various ways in which it does and doesn’t meet both society’s needs and our own.

The X-Men Combat Bigotry

Consider, for example, the case of the X-Men, a group of humans who, as a result of a genetic mutation in the X-gene, developed some form of superhuman ability and, as a result, became something other than human. The X-Men wear costumes and fight “bad guys,” but the franchise has, at its soul, always been less about superpowers and more about the human tendency to fear and hate those who are different and the various ways we try to cope with it. As long-time X-men writer Chris Claremont put it in 1982, “What we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.”

It’s quite possible that prejudice was far from the minds of writer Stan Lee and illustrator Jack Kirby, when they first introduced the X-men in 1963. At the very least, given that the original ensemble of X-men was entirely racially and ethnically homogeneous (as per the comic industry’s standard of the time), the themes of prejudice were most likely not very well thought out at first. Nonetheless, the seeds of these themes were planted in the very first issue of X-Men when Charles Xavier, a mutant telepath responsible for training and organizing the mutants into the X-Men, observed that human beings are not yet ready to accept superpowered individuals in their midst. By 1975, the X-Men were more ethnically and racially diverse, featuring Canadian (Wolverine), Russian (Colossus), German (Nightcrawler), and African (Storm) characters that reflected the comic’s ideology of tolerance and multiculturalism—an ideology that was a good decade ahead of its time.

Before long, the storylines began encouraging readers to see the mutants as an allegory for oppression in general and to generalize Professor Xavier’s philosophy of tolerance and assimilation to other oppressed groups, including racial and ethnic minorities.

A few years after this shift to multiculturalism, writer and artist John Byrne introduced the first gay superhero, Northstar, although Marvel did not allow him to actually come out formally until 1992 (Alpha Flight #106). Despite restrictions imposed by the Comics Code Authority, other gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters followed, including longtime friends and lovers, Mystique and Destiny (Uncanny X-men #265). A list of gay and lesbian comic book characters is available here.

The question of race is especially pertinent to issues of justice because, though our own justice systems are supposed to be unbiased, the data show consistent racial bias in seemingly every aspect of their practice (e.g., police profiling, judicial sentencing), as fully detailed, for example, in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Superheroes don’t generally examine their racial profiling tendencies, and I have seen no published studies examining race-group differences in the incarceration rates of those convicted of a crime in the superhero universe, but while the X-Men did not address racism directly, the franchise did more than merely model an ideology of tolerance and diversity. Rather, it examined the causes of prejudice and intolerance and pitted competing perspectives against each other as different characters tried to come to terms with the ethical and psychological implications brought on by the dawn of a new evolutionary phase in which genetic mutations have endowed a handful of humans with a variety of superpowers.

The racial metaphors in the superhero comics were often flawed and problematic, as for example, when the often villainous Magneto tells Xavier “The [human-mutant] war is coming, and I intend to fight it by any means necessary.” However, unlike news coverage of crime (as well as most other fictional stories about justice), the X-Men franchise placed prejudice front and center, exactly where it needs to be given the racial discrepancies that pervade our police blotters and prisons. To be sure, the X-Men were exceptional in this respect, but at least they serve as an exemplar for both those of us interested in justice and comic fans more broadly.

Superheroes as Punishers

Of course, superhero commentary on how we do justice goes well beyond racism. As in our own justice system, superhero justice is mostly synonymous with punishment. Most superheroes do not literally follow the biblical edict of “an eye for an eye,” but, for the most part, they tend to share our own cultural belief that “the punishment must fit the crime.”

Though different heroes do have somewhat different moral codes, almost all tend to cluster on the punitive end of the restorative-punitive continuum. At the most punitive end are anti-heroes like Rorschach (Watchmen) and the aptly-named Punisher, who first appeared in The Amazing Spiderman #129. Notably, neither Rorschach nor the Punisher has any super-human powers. Rather, they rely on their fighting skills and righteous anger to take vengeance against anyone who violated their own sense of justice and morality, frequently resorting to acts such as kidnapping, extortion, threats of violence, and even torture and murder in their quest for revenge.

Like Lisbeth Salander, the contemporary heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Punisher works outside the formal (and legal) justice system, unrestricted by its bureaucracy, unencumbered by its corruption, unfettered by the safeguards that were designed to protect the innocent but sometimes end up protecting the guilty too. With the Punisher (as with Lisbeth), guilt is never questioned by either the protagonist or the audience/reader. We know beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender is guilty, and neither Lisbeth nor the Punisher is much concerned with the complexity of either the criminal mind or the criminal act. Motivations for the act don’t matter, because the prevailing assumption is that the offender in question is a “bad seed” who cannot be rehabilitated. Indeed, one does not rehabilitate monsters; one kills them. And there is no greater hero than that of the monster slayer who not only protects the rest of us from evil but also takes vengeance against it.

Rooting for the Punisher is relatively easy, especially if one accepts the notion of unredeemable evil. The appeal of Rorschach is more complicated. In The Gospel According to Superheroes, B.J. Oropeza focuses on what may be the character’s defining scene in the novel:

Rorschach is revealed to be an odd-looking fellow with a propensity for beating the snot out of perpetrators. In one flashback scene, he discovers the remains of a kidnapped child whose bones are being devoured by German shepherds. He kills the dogs with an ax, and after immobilizing the kidnapper with a handcuff, he lights the criminal’s place on fire, giving the man a hacksaw with the option to either saw off his wrist with his free hand or be burned alive in the house.

“In short,” Oropeza concludes, “Rorschach is not a well person.”

He wasn’t intended to be. Watchmen was intended as a commentary on a variety of approaches to justice, with the different costumed heroes each representing a specific philosophical perspective. Rorschach, the lone-wolf vigilante, is undeniably appealing on many levels, most notably for his courage, resolve, and creative problem-solving. However, he is also shown to have a limited ability to process complexity. In Rorschach’s eyes (as in the Punisher’s), an act is either right or wrong. There is no in-between. And if the act is wrong, then justice must be done in the form of immediate “eye for an eye” retribution. No other strategy is acceptable. No other response is possible.

The appeal of Rorschach might well lie in how he equates justice with punishment. We might disagree with him about who is right and wrong, perhaps even about who is innocent and who is guilty. But most readers can be sure to agree on one thing: Those who are guilty (heroes included) need to be punished, and we admire Rorschach for his uncompromising willingness to do just that.

Our own justice system is not nearly as rigid as Rorschach’s. It can take into consideration “extenuating circumstances” and, rather than relying on the moral code of a single self-appointed vigilante, it consists of numerous highly trained professionals who are granted authority by the state to apprehend, judge, and, if necessary, punish the identified offender. At the same time, there is little doubt that the real-world criminal justice systems are primarily punitive in nature, as are the school and work justice systems usually in place to deal with rule violations and conflict.

These punitive systems are so widespread that most of us have a hard time even imagining any alternative ways of “doing” justice. The superheroes don’t help. Many of our most recognizable costumed crime-fighters, including DC’s Superman, Batman, and the Flash, and Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Avengers (who include dozens of rotating heroes, most notably Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) are similarly punitive in their approach to justice. They communicate with government representatives and typically turn the criminals over to the proper authorities. The police (and mental health institutions, in the case of Batman) also have good rapport with these superheroes, who  are typically allies in the fight against crime and work within the same system.

When Superheroes Question the Justice System

To be sure, there are times when superheroes question the justice systems they supposedly serve, and it is precisely such exceptions that provide meaningful commentary on our own justice systems. Marvel’s Civil War storyline serves as a good example. This story arc takes place on the heels of the Stamford tragedy, when a group of young superheroes were unable to prevent the supervillain Nitro from killing 612 civilians. Tony Stark (Iron Man)

Cover of Civil War

It’s when superheroes question the justice systems they supposedly serve, the author writes, that the comics generate meaningful commentary on our own justice systems. Marvel’s {title}Civil War{/title} storyline is a good example.

wanted every superhero to register with the government and novice heroes to be properly trained in order to avoid both a repeat of Stamford and the possibility of a harsh government response that might outlaw costumed crime-fighting entirely (this, incidentally, is the backdrop in Watchmen). Stark argues that heroes should be properly trained rather than left to their own devices, and that they should be held accountable to the public and the legal system the same way as police officers and judges are accountable. Captain America, on the other hand, believes that such registration would place family members and friends of superheroes at almost certain risk and so heads the resistance to it. The other superheroes (and villains) line up on one side or the other in a memorable storyline that also doubled as an allegorical commentary on 9/11 and the Patriot Act. As plot lines go, the Civil War was compelling, both for the thrill of seeing Iron Man and Captain America on opposing sides, as well as (for older readers) the ethical undertones of the allegorical commentary.

Yet, even as they disagreed about politics (i.e., the Superhero Registration Act), Iron Man and Captain America never actually disagreed on what justice ought to look like. Both sought to apprehend criminals and turn them over to authority. Indeed, Captain America and his group of secret Avengers (which includes the Punisher, Storm, and Black Panther) continue to fight crime, capturing and tying up criminals for the benefit of authority, even as they themselves try to evade the government’s (and Iron Man’s) efforts to find and capture them.

The Comics Code Outlaws Restorative Justice

The similarities to our own punitive justice system are not coincidental. In fact, they were literally mandated. The 1954 Comics Code which, at the time, had to be followed in order to sell comics, had all of the following statutes:

  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
  • Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
  • In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

In other words, restorative practices were literally outlawed in the superhero universe.

Ironically, the real world was more imaginative and, in some ways, more progressive than the comics. Restorative practices have been around for thousands of years and are part of the traditions of many indigenous people all over the world. Unlike punitive and retributive notions of justice, restorative approaches focus on identifying and “restoring” the harm that was done rather than on punishing the person who is determined to have caused the harm. In restorative practices, the goals are truth-telling (and listening), responsibility taking, and voluntary agreements about how to go forward.

The above is a group process. It relies on a system in which community members hold each other accountable and work together to repair the harm. As such, restorative superheroes are, in a way, a paradox because they, by definition, are superior to others and therefore seek to take care of others. In the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

For Spiderman and other superheroes, Uncle Ben’s words (originally attributed to Voltaire), provide a necessary moral grounding, but what do they imply for those of us who lack great powers? Do they not suggest that we have little or no responsibility?

Our justice systems (including those in schools and workplaces) professionalize the handling of conflict. They identify individuals who are authorized to decide who is right and wrong and what needs to happen next. There are benefits of such an approach, but there are costs too, and one of these is that those directly involved in the conflict and those who are most impacted by it do not typically take the responsibility for working things out. Restorative practices put the responsibility back into the hands of those who are actually part of the conflict, rather than some supposedly objective, well-trained (or super) outsider.

What Would a Restorative Superhero Look Like?

That said, there is still room, I think, for a restorative superhero.

We can see some semblance of restorative principles in several existing superheroes. Aquaman’s most recognizable power, for example, is essentially enhanced communication skills—he is able to communicate with the marine community, which he summons when he needs help—and it is notable that Wonder Woman’s greatest weapon against crime is truth, in the form of her magic lasso. Yet both Aquaman and Wonder Woman also work within the conventional punitive systems, apprehending criminals and turning them over to the authorities as members of the Justice League. The truths Wonder Woman extracts with her lasso are not offered voluntarily, and the marine life that comes to Aquaman’s aid does so in order to overpower his adversaries. Neither is intended to have a restorative effect and neither produces one.

A truly restorative superhero does not yet exist, but that doesn’t mean one could not be created. Perhaps this superhero is the target of racist violence as a child and, like Batman and Spiderman, has a family member who is killed as part of a hate crime. This child is understandably filled with rage and grows up to be an angry young man or woman. After being expelled from high school, the child decides, in desperation, to embark on a journey, not to find and punish the killer but to understand him and what motivated him to do what he did. At first, our would-be hero has no empathy for the killer, only hate and disgust. The quest for understanding is motivated primarily by his or her own need to heal, but as the hero uncovers various circumstances in the killer’s life, the hero begins to feel some compassion for the killer. The feelings of empathy grow over time and eventually seem to cross some invisible threshold. In that moment our hero discovers an inner peace and an increased capacity to recognize the needs of others and embrace everyone (even those who violently lash out against others) with empathy.

But it’s after the origin story that it really gets interesting. How would our hero—let’s call him or her Empathy—walk in the world? How would Empathy try to be restorative? It seems that this very question would be a necessary and ongoing part of Empathy’s internal struggle.

Cover of The Punisher

Are some violent men beyond redemption? Could the Punisher ever shift from punitive to restorative justice? The author speculates whether “empathy and kindness from some unexpected source” might be able to help him rethink.

I can imagine Empathy trying a conventional approach—finding conflict and trying to work through it as some kind of super-mediator before realizing that this was still another way of taking the responsibility for working through conflict out of the hands of those directly involved. An existential crisis might follow, leading Empathy to resign in order to lead circles and other restorative practices as a peer, rather than as an authority.

Eventually, however, Empathy will need to face off against the Punisher. Might Empathy find a way to turn the Punisher into a restorative superhero? That story would be worth telling, because it would show that no one is beyond redemption. The Punisher might come to reevaluate his own childhood and the murder of his wife and kids that initially turned him into a punisher. Perhaps empathy and kindness from some unexpected source might lead him into self-empathy for the child who received the ultimate punishment, which might lead to empathy for violent criminals who are punishing the people who cross them.

The Comics Code underwent significant revision in the 1980s and 1990s and was abandoned entirely in the 2000s, but we’re still waiting for a superhero that really embodies restorative principles. When we see Empathy (or a character like Empathy), it will be a sure sign that restorative practices have fully infiltrated our society. In the meantime, restorative practices demand that we be our own superheroes, not in the sense of seeking vengeance, but in the sense of being willing to walk toward conflict and engage with it ourselves, rather than relying on someone with actual superpowers or an authority that is given superpowers, like a judge. In this sense, there are already many superheroes among us. And room for many more.

(Click here to read more free online articles associated with Tikkun‘s Winter 2012 print issue on restorative justice. Don’t miss the print issue’s twelve inspiring, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking subscriber-only articles on this topic: subscribe now to read them on the web via the Winter 2012 Table of Contents or order a single copy in the mail.)


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