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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts

Department of English
and American Studies
English Language and Literature
(Teaching English Language and Literature for
Secondary Schools)

Bc. Miroslav Kohut

Superheroes: The Philosophy

Behind the Modern Myth
Masters Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: doc. PhDr. Tom Pospil, Dr.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,

using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
Authors signature

I want to thank Mr. Pospil for his valuable advice during writing of this thesis.
A big thank you also goes to my friends who were kind enough to read the work,
challenge my claims, and point out flaws in my argumentation.
Last but not least, thanks to all the superheroes for keeping us safe over the years.

Fezzik: Why are you wearing a mask? Were you burned by acid or something like that?
The Man in Black: Oh, no, it's just they're terribly comfortable, I think everyone will be
wearing them in the future.

- The Princess Bride (1987)

Beneath this mask there is more than flesh... beneath this mask there is an idea,
Mr. Creedy... and ideas are bulletproof.

- V for Vendetta (2006)

Table of Contents
1. Introduction ...................................................................................................................................... 6
1.1 It Has Become a Superhero World!...................................................................................... 7
2. The Philosophy Behind the Superhero Narratives ........................................................................... 9
2.1 The Function of Myth. Thinking of Superheroes as Modern Mythology .......................... 12
2.2 Differentiating Between Heroes and Superheroes.............................................................. 16
3. History and Evolution of the Superhero Genre .............................................................................. 18
3.1 The Golden Age: 1938 - 1961 ............................................................................................ 18
3.2 The Silver Age: 1961 - 1986 .............................................................................................. 21
3.3 The Bronze Age: 1986 - Present......................................................................................... 24
4. Behind the Mask: The Secret of Secret Identity ............................................................................ 28
4.1 External Reasons: Literary Tradition of the Mask ............................................................. 29
4.2 Internal Reasons: The Secret Identity................................................................................. 33
4.3 The Peculiar Case of Kal-El ............................................................................................... 37
5. Morality.......................................................................................................................................... 40
5.1 Why Are Superheroes Good? The Practical Explanation .................................................. 40
5.2 Understanding Morality Through the Philosophy of Plato and Kierkegaard ..................... 42
5.3 The Ethics of Dr. Manhattan .............................................................................................. 44
5.4 The Tangled Web of Consequentialism: Reading Spider-Man as Promoter of Civil
Responsibility ........................................................................................................................... 49
5.5 Utilitarian Ozymandias and Deontological Rorschach. The Threat of Authority in
Watchmen ................................................................................................................................. 54
6. The Impact of Superheroes on Society .......................................................................................... 60
6.1 Differentiating Between Hero and Vigilante ...................................................................... 60
6.2 bermensch from Krypton: Reading the Superman Mythology Through Nietzsche ........ 65
6.3 Heroes Turned Villains in the Marvel Civil War ............................................................... 72
7. Conclusion ..................................................................................................................................... 78
8. Works Cited and Consulted ........................................................................................................... 81
9. Czech Abstract ............................................................................................................................... 87
10. English Abstract ........................................................................................................................... 88

1. Introduction
Comic book superheroes have been acknowledged to be among the most significant
fictitious characters,1 those that transcend their literary or mythological origin and become
a permanent part of popular culture. The selected representatives of the genre, Superman, Batman,
and Wonder Woman, are presented as archetypes of various human traits, ideals, hopes and fears;
and their characterisation changes in time along with the development of the genre at large.
Is it surprising to find superheroes, the representatives of the relatively new medium of
comic books, on the list side by side with such literary significant names as Don Quixote, Oliver
Twist, Hamlet or King Arthur? Each of these outlived his time because the book, play or legend of
his origin had a message to tell, a message that repeated generations found interesting enough to not
let the character perish with time. Fictional characters are all around us, the secret sharers of our
hopes and fears, the companions of our childhood, the signposts that mark the waystations in our
lives [] these characters are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (Knauer vi) From
childrens literature to great classical novels, fictitious characters, superheroes included, have one
important feature in general influence. They are our role-models when we are growing up, they
form our first basic understanding of good and bad in their stories, just as much as they make us
later in life contemplate issues that may be much more apparent in their narratives than in the reality
of our everyday lives, yet both are inextricably tied together and one projects into the other. We
must not underestimate the influence these characters have over our lives despite their obvious
handicap the fact they never existed.
What underlying message and philosophy is there present in the superhero narratives that
keeps them popular in over seventy years of their existence? Is there any coherence in this regard

TIME magazine placed three representatives of the superhero genre in its 2013 list of the 100 most influential people
who never lived. (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman)

that can be traced in the thousands of issues that have been published since the first of these figures
of amazing powers in bright tights sprung into the readers imagination in the late 1930s? What
lessons do they teach us and what do their narratives reveal about the values our society
appreciates? Are the narratives consistent in their message or does the message change and evolve
throughout time? Additionally how do superheroes stack up to their other fellow fictitious
characters is this cultural phenomenon really worthy of any deeper philosophical analysis?

1.1 It Has Become a Superhero World!

A strong statement or is it? Think about how often you see someone wearing a T-shirt
with the big red S on it. Superhero movies have become an important focus for Hollywood and this
genre now commands the largest box office revenues in the last decade.2 Comic book stores have
become a permanent part of most of Western European and (naturally) American cities. It would
seem that superheroes have become an integral part of Western culture as well as a part of our
cultural language: no one ever needs to visit a theatre in order to find out what happened to Romeo
and Juliet, just as no one needs to ever pick up a Dickens in the local library to know that Oliver
Twist was an orphan; and similarly everyone knows who Superman is, what he looks like and what
he does, despite the fact that they have possibly never read a single issue of comic books.
Unlike other fiction that dates back so long superhero comics represent a unique collection
of works which have maintained or grown their significance and readership in popular culture over
the last century. Starting as a solely American phenomenon this medium plays a significant part
in contemporary worldwide popular culture. Despite being over seventy years old the original
trinity of superhero characters Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are still being published

Thirteen superhero movies placed in the top 100 worldwide grossing movies of all time with 2012s The Avengers
third on the list, grossing $1,518 (mil.), and topped only by Titanic and Avatar. (Box Office Mojo) Additionally it has
been recently announced that Marvel cinematic universe is now officially the greatest movie franchise of all time,
leaving behind major established movie franchises such as Star Wars, Harry Potter or James Bond. (IGN)

to this day and they represent many of the typical traits for other successive comic book characters
of the superhero genre.
This work will look at how it is not just the intense adversarial situations between
protagonists and antagonists which has become a trademark of the genre but that the equally
significant allure for the readership lies in the internal philosophy, a crucial aspect for fully
appreciating the superhero narratives.

2. The Philosophy Behind the Superhero Narratives

The common assumption for the comics medium would be that it is only slapstick, merely
entertaining readers with hijinks, fantastic and incredible situations, and use of direct speech instead
of prose. The main aim is therefore right there in the mediums name they are comic books.
Comic implies that they are primarily about entertainment through humour. Is it therefore
productive to analyse superhero narratives in order to understand their possible underlying
philosophy? What deeper meaning can there be to discover? Comic books are here chiefly
to entertain and based on their popularity they are apparently doing a good job, so why complicate it
with analysing them from any philosophical point of view? Well, because the entertainment is not
the only value these stories possess. Also, that some titles lack the layer of a philosophical context
does not mean that other titles do as well: this thesis will show that this reductio ad absurdum is not
a concern.
While this work will continue to use the established and generally accepted term comic
books as an adequate term for the traditional means of distribution of the superhero narratives, it is
worthwhile to address this basic distinction between the different forms of graphic storytelling.
Superhero narratives in comic books began as trivial and simplistic but now have evolved into
a sophisticated literary genre of their own, worthy of critical interest. Like Greek and Roman
mythologies those of superheroes offer a similar scope of important issues to reflect. As literary
constructs go, they dont need to be terribly complex; in their primary-colored costumes, fighting
gaudy villains and hyperdramatic menaces that arent terribly subtle, theyre intended to excite
the imagination of children with the same fire and energy as the myths and fairy tales of years past.
(Waid 277)
It is important to address what is referred to in this text as a comic book. For example
although a character in the same medium Garfield comics resist the same philosophical analysis that
reveals greater depths to superhero comics. Comic books represent a broad range of publications

and to place superhero narratives in the same context as Garfield would be shortsighted because:
(1) the three panel format of Garfield limits the narratives complexity; (2) being published
in newspapers Garfield is intended to be easily accessible comedy. Conversely, superhero narratives
are published for a select audience so they have more independence for the story and characters
to develop. Archie and Garfield are comic, the Batman and Spider-Man are comparatively more
serious and are involved in serialized fictional stories, not series of gags. (Tate 4423) This is
enough to assume that analysing Garfield in the same way as this work analyses superhero
narratives is unlikely to reveal any more about the society we live in other than that we are biased
against Mondays.
It needs to be recognised that superhero comic books, in addition to being an enjoyable read,
deal with a wide scope of themes. In the introduction to Superheroes and Philosophy the collective
of authors lists the issues that modern comic books address:
The best superhero comics, in addition to being tremendously entertaining, introduce
and treat in vivid ways some of the most interesting and important questions facing
all human beings questions regarding ethics, personal and social responsibility,
justice, crime and punishment, the mind and human emotions, personal identity,
the soul, the notion of destiny, the meaning of our lives, how we think about science
and nature, the role of faith in the rough and tumble of this world, the importance of
friendship, what love really means, the nature of a family, the classic virtues like
courage, and many other important issues. (Morris 200)
The word vivid needs to be stressed here: unlike classical philosophical writings superhero stories
take full advantage of the visual power of the relatively new medium that is comics. Like movies
they use visual imagery to tell stories that resonate strongly with the audience but at the same time,
like novels they better allow readers to make their own conclusions and interpretations and pace
the stories with accordance to their needs. They take the best from both worlds and combine literary


and visual art into a unique blend that has become defining for comics as a medium. But most
importantly, although resting heavily on the shoulders of the philosophical titans of the past, unlike
Plato, Mill, Bentham or Kant, comic books are being read outside academic soil by children and
adults alike. This fact alone makes them considerably influential works of art.
Superheroes have one more obvious advantage over the classic philosophers they are
contemporary. Although the existential, moral or societal issues remain just as topical as they were
in the days of Socrates, some things did change. An important aspect of superhero stories that
makes them highly relevant for readers is that they depict a fictional world that very closely mirrors
our own:
Unlike their cousins in fantasy and science fiction stories, superheroes live in
a world that is familiar to readers. The same societal institutionspolice
departments, schools and churchesare found in comic books as in real life, along
with the same historical timeline and eventsWorld War II, the Civil Rights
movement, and space exploration. (Peterson 310)
In the context of modern science such as nanotechnologies, genetic research or advanced
weaponry;3 and in the context of the elementary superhero plot finding yourself one day with
amazing powers and facing the decision what to do with them these stories put traditional
philosophical reasonings to new tests and make them topical and more relevant for the modern
The perception of what is humanly possible changes over time. Hypothetically, a nineteenth
century concept of a super-power might be the ability to move at the speed of 100 km/h or cross
the ocean in the matter of hours but now anyone can own a car and travel by trans-oceanic flights.
Even contemporary common ability to read the lines of this text would put a person among
the literary elite only 500 years ago. Our perception of what is common and what is extraordinary

Coincidentally, the U.S. president Barrack Obama recently announced, albeit with open exaggeration, that the military
is working on their own version of the Iron Man suit. (Reuters)


changes in time. Naturally many things are available to us only through science and technology.
This is where the fictional characters of superheroes most deviate from reality they take the latest
scientific concepts and attribute them directly to people as an integral part of their character.
The same amazing abilities, many of which already exist in one form or another in
the contemporary world, gain personal level in superhero narratives and are consequently dealt with
in a spectacularly flashy, yet subtly familiar and alarming way to the reader. This is one noteworthy
factor behind the allure of the whole genre.
Although Batman is unlikely to replace Aristotle as an archetype for a great thinker for
the time being, superhero stories may help us to better understand classical philosophers.
Philosophy is an abstract subject and thinkers learned long ago to use narratives in order to illustrate
their point. Fundamentally, there is no difference between a modern superhero narrative and
the story of the Ring of Gyges used as an exemplification in The Republic by Plato. People tend to
learn better when something unfamiliar, such as philosophy, is explained in terms of something
familiar, such as television, movies, comic books, music, or videogames. (Irwin 273) The starting
point for this work is that superheroes are here and they have a message. The questions that this
thesis attempts to answer is what that message is and what wisdom can be unearthed in their stories.

2.1 The Function of Myth. Thinking of Superheroes as Modern Mythology

The words myth or mythology are usually associated with ancient societies of the past and
have no imminent or obvious impact on the human society at the present. One of the arguments
behind this thesis is that modern-day superhero stories of popular culture serve the same or similar
purpose as the ancient myths, bear similar characteristics, stimulate imagination and arouse interest
in the same areas of human thought.
There are numerous heroic figures throughout literary and mythological history that serve as
paragons of not only physical strength but of moral authority as well. They are particularly


symptomatic for Greco-Roman and Norse mythologies. The individual narratives in a particular
culture, the sum of which forms the basis for that cultures mythology, had been devised not only
for the purpose of entertainment but they had important social functions as well.
In the contemporary modern form story-telling has become fully separated from its religious origin
and attained the status of a social device:
A cultures prominent narratives become that cultures myths, reinforcing cultural
values and disseminating norms of social behaviour. [] modern myths need not be
founded upon religious ideologies; rather, such myths develop from ethical
perspectives as they relate to a political and economical world. (Reynolds 105)
Superhero stories represent the modern-day parallel to ancient mythologies; as a result of their
constant popularity across several decades superhero narratives are an inextricable part of
the popular culture and as such they provide us with an insight into moral values of society and
an image of ideals to which we aspire.
Don LoCicero in Superheroes and Gods: A Comparative Study from Babylonia to Batman
compares the characteristics of mythological heroes from numerous ancient societies with those of
the contemporary superheroes, namely Persian Rustam, Babylonian Gilgamesh, Indian Rama,
Egyptian Osiris, Finnish Vinminen and many more.
Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, James Bond these and other
larger-than-life figures are the counterparts of the classic superheroes of the past.
While they may differ from the latter in that science, rather than the gods,
provided them with their extraordinary gifts [] Indeed, Achilles and Superman,
Rustam and Captain Marvel, the Hulk and the Frankenstein being, Odysseus and
James Bond all are essentially blood brothers [and share the essence from the
same wellspring of motifs.] (LoCicero 70)


As an example we can draw a parallel between two prominent well-known ancient mythological
heroes and two selected representatives of the superhero genre by pointing out their significant
character traits that make them pose as role models.
The first example of the mythological character is Heracles: he is known as both the greatest
and the strongest of the Greek heroes, possessing powers of supernatural origin and having
the status of a demigod by having a divine father and a human mother. As such, Heracles is to be
understood as an epitome for strength, physical prowess but due to his kindness also humility
towards other people. These traits contributed to his fulfilling the twelve labours imposed on him by
king Eurystheus. The Superman character is the analogical role model in the contemporary popular
fiction. As his origin story established, Supermans strength is derived from his alien origin. Like
Heracles, he embodies the unity of human ideals and supernatural power, but also restraint and
humility towards other less-gifted people of this world derived from his simple rural upbringing.
Jerry Siegel, the creator of Superman, openly describes the influence of the mythological characters
behind the original conception of the Man of Steel: I am lying in bed when suddenly it hits me.
[] I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard tell of rolled
into one. Only more so. (Martin)
The second well-known mythological character is Odysseus. Unlike Heracles, the king of
Ithaca and the hero of the Homers epic does not possess any supernatural powers and he is not
known for his physical strength but rather for his intelligence and cunning that help him in his long
journey home to his loving wife Penelope. Odysseus modern counterpart is the second major
superhero to appear in the late 1930s, Batman. Unlike Superman, he possesses no superpowers
whatsoever; he has however trained both his body and mind to the extent of human potential and by
utilising a number of gadgets at his disposal, he embodies the power of determination,
resourcefulness and human wit.


There are many other characters in superhero comic books that make open acknowledgment
to the mythological tradition some borrowing only aspects of it, like the Amazon warrior Wonder
Woman or Captain Marvel who, by uttering the magic word SHAZAM, is granted six archetypal
powers.4 Others are depicted directly as the same mythological characters (e.g. Thor, Ares,
There is a direct relationship between the contemporary superhero genre and the ancient
mythologies that goes beyond simple name-borrowing and extends to employment of the same
functions of the narratives as was the case in the ancient cultures. The mythic hero is also
an amalgamation of a number of archetypal images, and as such is a part of our species psychic
inheritance, a universal constant that transcendents culture and time. (LoCicero 81)
In The Republic Plato acknowledges the importance and role of myth in society. He speaks
in favour of telling children stories that are not necessarily true but possess moral value, views it as
just and advocates a certain level of censorship of stories that children come to contact with:
I said, that we begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of
truth, are in the main fictitious; [] the beginning is the most important part of any
work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which
the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken. []
the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let
the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will
desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorised ones only. (Plato 4589)
Plato was aware of the tremendous impact that story-telling has on children of an early age. It is
also clear that Plato does not concern himself with the truth value of the stories told to children but
rather with their moral value: the stories need not to be true to tell the right message that we want
our children to hear. Considering the fact that the readership of superhero narratives consists for

SHAZAM stands for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the
courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.


a great part of adolescents it seems that these stories in our culture passed the censorship code that
Plato mentions, and there are values and traditions embedded in them that we want our children to
However, not every myth is designed to anchor important ideas in our mind and culture.
Some aim to challenge them as well and the same goes for superhero narratives as the form of
modern mythology. From its conception the genre evolved beyond the traditional binary view of
good and bad and the values have become increasingly more ambiguous. What we may call
a classical superhero narrative, with its clear dichotomy of good and bad, reinforces the basic
cultural values of the society while the later postmodern works offer more insight into and
reflection of the same values and they tend to challenge and criticise their absolute definition.

2.2 Differentiating Between Heroes and Superheroes

A hero is a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding
achievements or noble qualities (Soanes 181487) and in the context of mythology and folklore
a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin, in particular one whose exploits
were the subject of ancient Greek myths (Soanes 181487). We can therefore summarise
the attributes of a hero figure into two categories:
(1) he is admired for both noble character and good deeds
(2) he possesses extraordinary abilities (possibly of supernatural origin)
It needs to be made clear that the concept of hero has a different meaning in the context of ancient
mythology and in the contemporary world. A firefighter who selflessly saves a child is called hero
in accordance with definition (1) but not (2). However in ancient mythology there are characters
who fit both definitions or only one: Odysseus who has no supernatural power is a hero according
to definition (1), Heracles who possesses both supernatural strength and noble character is a hero


according to both definitions (1) and (2), and nearly-immortal Achilles who ruthlessly desecrates
Hectors body is a hero only according to definition (2).
Superhero character must be understood as a subset of the category of heroes. Their unique
characteristic in this regard is that they must necessarily embody both of the above definitions.
The contrastive function to superheroes is represented by supervillains: despite fitting the ancient
definition of hero (2) they fall short of the noble character trait (1) and therefore they traditionally
have the narrative role of antagonists. In some prominent storylines some superheroes also walk
the thin line between being a hero or a villain. Even the most prominent paragons of good
sometimes turn to evil: Supermans heroic identity is damaged when his moral sense is affected by
red Kryptonite.
Two literary categories have been established superheroes and supervillains. However,
the case can be made that the traditional comprehension of a superhero in the popular fiction
contains a contradiction even so: there are numerous existing superhero characters with no
superpowers at all (e.g. Batman, Captain America, Green Arrow, Hawkeye, almost all protagonists
of Watchmen). The defining ability of these characters lies in mastering a particular skill to
the extent of human possibilities: Captain America and Batman are expert martial artists, Green
Arrow and Hawkeye are expert marksmen, etc. Nonetheless, this means that they fit only one half
(1) of the above definition of a superhero but not the other (2). In order to deal with this problem we
must consider the level of their mastery to be superhuman. This conjecture feels acceptable since
Captain America never loses a fist fight with villains, Green Arrow never misses his target, etc.
The issues listed above reveal that the term superhero should not be considered a mere
extension of the Greek word heros in terms of its meaning but rather as a standalone cultural
category that needs to be defined beyond the original meaning of the stem of the word.


3. History and Evolution of the Superhero Genre

In order to introduce an established periodization of the history of the superhero genre, this
work turns to the dissertation of David Reynolds and uses his simplified division into three major
periods as the point of reference. Each of these has specific characteristics and was set off by
a distinct change of paradigm in the narrative:
the Golden Age: 1938 - 1961
the Silver Age: 1961 - 1986
the Bronze Age: 1986 - Present

3.1 The Golden Age: 1938 - 1961

The genre begins in 1938 with the publication of Action Comics #1 which introduced
the figure who went on to become the paragon for the whole superhero genre Superman. His
defining characteristics are his amazing powers, ranging from the ability to fly, bulletproof skin and
amazing strength to x-ray vision. As an alien on Earth raised by human foster parents in accordance
with the American way of life, from the very beginning he stood for everything that was viewed as
valuable in American society. This stance was famously abbreviated to the poetic saying that he
fights for truth, justice and the American way. In order to get a better idea of the time that gave birth
to the original superhero figure, we must consider the social context of pre-WWII America:
1938 was a dark time for America, crime and economic collapse spread over the land
as war loomed in the distance. Men sought diligently for work to support their
families, the Mob seized their claws on whatever they could, and in Washington;
the President worked long hours repairing the critical state our fractured country was
in. Yet, Americans managed to hold firm to hope, setting aside the worries of the day
- we found peace of mind and joy at the movies, on the radio, and in the printed page.
Then, two men from Cleveland introduced us to a legend. America would find

a renewed hope and strength in their caped icon. The common man didn't feel so
small and helpless anymore. (Grayson)
One can see the appeal that such a protective superpowered figure would have in a difficult time for
common men. However Superman did not remain alone in his fight for long. As the new comics
genre proved immensely popular with the readership he was soon followed by a myriad of similar
The second superhero figure that remains very popular to this day, Batman, appeared just
one year later in 1939. He was conceived as a tone-down alternative to the action-filled stories of
brightly dressed extraterrestrial Superman. This was reflected on his dark costume and detective
basis of his stories as well as his origin story: as a child Bruce Wayne witnessed the brutal murder
of his parents. In the light of this experience he swore to dedicate his life to the fight against evil.
By the sheer power of will he trained his body and mind in order to fight the crime in his home city
of Gotham as the masked Batman, both skilled fighter and brilliant detective.
The third figure of importance in the Golden Age is called Wonder Woman. She was the
first major superheroine, introduced to the scene in 1941. An Amazon from the Themiscyra Island
and the champion of the goddess Aphrodite who granted her superior strength, magical weapons
and the ability to fly, Wonder Womans origin story makes a direct reference to ancient Greek
The final important superhero figure of this era, Captain America, the embodiment of
the patriotic idealism, appeared in 1941 as well. Steve Rogers started out as an ordinary frail kid
from Brooklyn who wants to join the war effort abroad above anything else but is repeatedly seen
as unfit for duty because of his poor health. Steve is eventually selected for an experiment which
transforms him into Captain America, a super soldier in the peak physical condition. Equipped with
a shield and costume in national colours, he aids the United States of America in their fight against
the powers of the Axis on the European front.


The emerging pattern for the new kind of literary character can be clearly defined on these
four examples. The newly established trope of the genre defines superheroes as costumed crimefighters with secret identities; some, like Superman and Wonder Woman possessing strengths of
supernatural origin; others, like Batman and Captain America having no superpower whatsoever
and embodying the ideals of both perfect physical condition and the power of the human wit.
David Reynolds makes a convincing argument in pointing out how each of these characters
helped to support political interests of the country and advertise the American democratic values
in their own way in the face of the World War II. Some of the narratives were very direct in this
endeavour: Captain Americas patriotism is apparent on his costume made in the colours of
the American flag as well as by being depicted as punching Hitler in the face on the cover of
the first issue. With others, one must dig a little deeper in order to uncover the underlying message
of the story. The change of paradigm in the face of WWII is very apparent especially
in the interpretation of Superman tales. The initial stories of the Man of Steel of 1938 had him pose
as a sort of spokesman for the common man who was oppressed by unscrupulous businessmen
during economically difficult times. With the upcoming war overseas, his role changes and he was
quickly promoted from street to state level of fighting the bigger evil abroad. However Supermans
fight against the enemy of the state was not as straightforward as was the case with Captain
America. Much like most of the other superheroes of this period he remained confined to American
soil and he joined the propaganda monologue in his stories by consolidating the responsible
approach to consumerism. This change in the reading of his stories is most apparent in his shift
from challenging the commercial institutions in favour of the poor ordinary citizen to the service to
the country and promoting its economical system:
To his Depression-weary readership in 1938, Superman was the hero of
the underprivileged working class, a decidedly Marxist hero for the proletariat.
However, this form of Marxist heroism would not last long as part of the Superman


mythos, and when America enters World War II Supermans ideology takes a swift
turn to consumerism. (Reynolds 565)
It was particularly their never-ending effort in the fight against criminals that elevated superheroes
to the supporters of the countrys ideology: by fighting the individuals who in their actions were
following only their own selfish benefit with no regard for the public interest, their stories can be
interpreted as the support of American ideology and war propaganda.
Superheroes fighting petty thieves and greedy criminals on the home front were
also promoting hegemonic ideals of responsible consumerism [] responsible
consumption was seen as a significant means of supporting the war abroad.
(Reynolds 609)
The notion that the war context was crucial for the initial success of the superhero genre is
supported by the fact that the readers lost interest in the superheroes shortly after the war and
the main interest of comic book readers turned to crime and horror stories. It later took a significant
revision of the basic scheme to rekindle the interest among the readership again.

3.2 The Silver Age: 1961 - 1986

In the 1960s, a new wave of superhero characters was introduced to the readers, along with
a substantial paradigm shift in their conception. The shift was twofold, both in the fundamental
construction of the characters as well as the format of the storytelling: (1) Generally, these stories
could be characterised as more down-to-earth, with less patriotic-driven narratives and more focus
on the reality of the everyday life of the characters outside their costumed identities. Gone was also
largely the supernatural origin of their powers the new popular explanation for spawning
superheroes was science. The concept of a superhero as a beacon for the sum of hopes and ideals
proved to be an outdated concept. The readers could better identify with the new array of characters
dealing with much more human problems like relationship trouble or financial issues.


(2) Additionally, the stories were no longer entirely separate and not necessarily concluded within
a single issue. Instead, they took the form of serials with continuity. Each character now had his
own series and it was not uncommon for one character to make appearance in another characters
series, which eventually lead to forming superhero teams. This substantial change from the former
isolated one issueone story paradigm helped to create a vast and coherent world inhabited by
a pantheon of fictional characters and it therefore helped to deepen and reinforce the notion of
overall consistent mythology behind the individual storylines.
The Silver Age of superheroes was ushered in by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961 by
creating the first superhero team that largely deviated from the previously established norm
the Fantastic Four. The change was obvious at first glance not only was the solitary saviour figure
replaced by a team with family bonds, these new characters were far from the paradigm of perfect
heroes of the Golden Age. The Fantastic Four were depicted as normal people with failings, fears
and insecurities; just like any other family they regularly quarrel with each other. This contrast
between the image of normal people and the great amount of responsibility that comes with
the accidental possession of amazing powers is generally what makes the characters of this period
appealing to this day.
The success of the Fantastic Four led Lee to repeating and extending the similar formula
in the introduction of many new titles. Primarily with the artist Jack Kirby he created a cavalcade of
entirely new characters in the few years to follow. The popularity of the Fantastic Four was quickly
matched in 1962 by the introduction of the character that remains the most popular creation of
the Marvel publishing house to this day, Spider-Man. Similarly to the Fantastic Four, the allure
behind Spider-Man is that he was not conceived as an untouchable heroic icon but as an ordinary
teenage high school student Peter Parker who accidentally comes into possession of amazing
powers. The focus of the stories was equally distributed between the fights with villains as well as
Peters struggles in his personal life that felt familiar to any adolescent.


Lees distinct handwriting is recognisable in the conception of other characters that followed
as well, e.g. Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (first appearance 1963), a billionaire industrialist who uses
his resources and intellect to construct an armoured suit; Thor (f.a. 1962), the reimagining of
the Norse myth about the god of thunder (another direct homage to the ancient mythology after
Wonder Woman); the Hulk (f.a. 1962), a unique blend of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde; Daredevil (f.a. 1964), the blind lawyer Matt Murdock by day and the superhero with all other
senses heightened to superhuman level at night; and the X-Men (f.a. 1963), the team of mutants
with various amazing abilities.
Whereas the norm for a superhero in the Golden Age was largely unified, this array of
characters display a considerable diversity. Instead of a paragon of perfection in every regard
conceivable, the superheroes of the 1960s were common men, teenagers, alcoholics, handicapped,
misfits, and monsters. The main interest shifts from their costumed endeavours to the reality of their
private lives. The driving force of the narrative is no longer only in punishing evil but rather
in dealing with the new power and responsibility from the perspective of ordinary people:
the stories of the Fantastic Four are largely based on the complicated relationships within the team
itself; Bruce Banner has personal problems because of his uncontrollable alter ego the Incredible
Hulk; the X-Men must deal with xenophobia from the mainstream society; and Spider-Mans main
appeal for the young readership lies in the fact that he is constantly out of job, money or without
a girlfriend.
What all of these new characters have in common is their distance from the tradition of
the superheroes of the Golden Age. Where Superman represented the ideal flawless moral example
for common men, these new characters are presented to the reader as common men. With all their
faults and insecurities of troubled persons they represent a very different heroic image. This shift
from unnaturally perfect to humanly flawed gets even more vivid as we move to the final stage of
the superhero genre.


3.3 The Bronze Age: 1986 - Present

The final period in the development of the superhero genre that in many respects lasts to this
day is called the Bronze Age. The final radical reworking of the superhero paradigm is inextricably
tied to two works Watchmen by Alan Moore (published 1986-7) and The Dark Knight Returns by
Frank Miller (published 1986). These are two of the three texts which are generally regarded to
have brought a sense of maturity to the medium, garnering academic and literary attention.
(Reynolds 462) The overall tone of these works along with the depth of the themes they explore
helped to raise the superhero comic books to a new level. Both introduce a radically different view
of the concept of a superhero with several new features to the genre that forced the readers to
reevaluate the basic principles that were previously considered granted.
These two graphic novels have been enormously influential in terms of how
superheroes have been presented and thought of since the mid-to-late 1980s.
Many sophisticated elements of comics today that we now take as givens the way they raise questions of justice and vengeance, their exploration of
the ethics of vigilantism, and their depiction of ambivalent and even hostile
reactions towards superheroes from the general public as well as from
the government - are largely traceable to these works. (Skoble 688)
The transition from the flawless ideal to the flawed human that already started in the 1960s
is finished here. The new approach to the genre can be generally summarised into the following
features: (1) The supernatural elements in the conception of a superhero character are kept to
a minimum. It is by no coincidence that Frank Miller chose Batman for his story, one of the most
human superheroes conceived with no superpowers at all, to usher in his new view of the world
with superheroes. Similarly, Alan Moore conceived an entirely new alternate-reality world that


works with the idea of completely superpowerless heroes.5 (2) The new approach to characters both
old and new alike also rarely depicts them as paragons of virtue. Where the 1960s usually displayed
superheroes as normal erring people of good will, the stories of the 1980s turn them into criminals,
psychopaths and murderers. (3) Whereas in the beginnings of the genre the public was always seen
as the supporter of superheroes and they were in turn seen as their champions, the public in
the stories of 1980s is largely opposed to the idea of vigilantism.
In some prominent comic-book stories, ordinary people first welcome superheroes
as needed saviors, then come to take them for granted, and finally begin to resent
them for their heroically never-ending efforts to do what the rest of the population
ought to be doing, too. (Loeb 426)
Superheroes are thus no longer viewed as welcomed saviours but they become rather outcasts of
the society. The similar attitude may have been partially present in the Silver Age as well since
the efforts of several characters were consistently depicted as unappreciated by the general public
(e.g. Spider-Man, the X-Men) but only at this point this position gains wide-spread agreement in
society, often in the form of a law banning costumed crime-fighters altogether. (4) The postmodern
influence on the genre also brings a shift in values from clarity to ambiguity. Where the readers
were once confronted with the clearly separated dichotomy of good and bad, the superhero stories
of the Bronze Age commonly introduce narrative with no obvious villain, but rather an array of
characters with different perspectives of good and bad. The new approach challenges the reader to
think ethically about the nature of superheroism, vigilante crime-fighting, and the relationship
between what is just and what is legal. (Reynolds 453)
In 1986s The Dark Knight Returns, the first work of the superhero genre to truly take
the leap into the postmodern age Frank Miller introduces a grim media-controlled dystopian world
where superheroes are banned by law and aged Bruce Wayne quit his vigilante persona years ago.

The only obvious exception is the character of Dr. Manhattan.


With crime levels rapidly rising and police forces powerless to deal with the situation, Wayne
makes a decision to return as Batman to help to bring the situation under control. Unlike
the previous stories where Batman enjoyed a close relationship with Gothams officials, his help is
now not appreciated and he is viewed as even a bigger threat to society than organised gangs.
The significant portion of the novel takes place on TV screens, showing the television as the main
mediator of public opinion. The anchormen and their guests overanalyse the situation in endless
debates, eventually stripping all the blame from the Joker and Two-Face, the two former foes of
Batman, and reaching the conclusion that Batman is the one to really blame for their current mental
state as well as their past deeds. The shift of Batmans position in the eyes of public from a hero to
a criminal is further emphasised in the story by the role of Superman, who has become
an unthinking tool in the hands of the American government under the new social order, and
essentially lost the moral perception of what is good and what is bad. Millers story thus explicitly
examines the morality behind the idea of superhero vigilantism from entirely new angle.
The basic premise of Alan Moores Watchmen, the second example novel of the Bronze
Age, deals with the question of what would happen if some people were inspired by the first
superhero stories of the 1930s and actually pursued the same course of action in real life.
Superheroes in Watchmen are therefore not supernatural at all, they are masked people with no
special powers whatsoever. The story stands independent of any other previous superhero
continuity and introduces a detailed world of alternate reality with an array of several generations of
its own costumed crime-fighters. Moore examines the matters of morality, responsibility,
psychology and politics in a world very closely mirroring our own through their diverse
worldviews. On the span of several decades, a contrafactual reality of the U.S. history is depicted,
with a number of pivotal events occurring differently due to the main protagonists involvement,
including the conflict in Vietnam, the assassination of Kennedy and the re-election of Nixon. The
main storyline takes place in 1985, seven years after the real-life superheroes were banned by law,


and it follows along the same line of the alternate yet familiar history, largely dealing with the
exacerbating of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear conflict, with the only real superhero of the
story, nearly omnipotent Dr. Manhattan, being held as nuclear deterrent by the United States of
Where the Golden Ages established the defining tropes of the superhero genre and the Silver
Age helped to draw a closer parallel between superhero characters and real human beings,
the Bronze Age brings the fictional world further to the reality, making comments and exploring
issues that are relevant for the modern reader. This evolution required substantial revision of
the superhero paradigm, challenging the reader to contemplate the fundamental issues surrounding
ethics of vigilantism, thus bringing a notion of maturity to the genre which has become much less
about fanciful escapism; instead, the new superhero paradigm allows the reader to examine issues
which bear significance on the real world. (Reynolds 476) This transition was formally signalled
by the introduction of the new term the graphic novel.6 Since both The Dark Knight Returns,
Watchmen and many other following superhero novels now contained an elaborate and consistent
story, it made more sense that they would be printed as a whole in one collection.

The term was both invented in 1978 and later popularised by Will Eisner. (Gravett)


4. Behind the Mask: The Secret of Secret Identity

Why do superheroes wear masks? Why bother with designing your own brightly-coloured
garb and coming up with an original name for your own superhero persona? Not to mention having
to put up with those absurdly large capes that simply must be in the way all the time or having to
stitch up your damaged attire after every night out. Although there are some examples of characters
who are able to do without the mask and the costume altogether, the golden rule of the genre is
clear if you want to make yourself a name in the superhero business, you need to come up with
a fancy costume and a catchy name.
If we look at the trope of mask-wearing in the history of the literature, there is scarcely
anything that resembles this concept as it was introduced in the 20th century in the superhero genre.
Some names do pop up the Phantom of the Opera, the Man in the Iron Mask or a myriad of
forgettable romantic characters that conceal their identity on purpose during the narrative in order to
reveal it with shocking effect during the climax scene. However, none of these truly comes close to
the trope of superhero mask or even costume: the superhero genre creates a novel use for masks.
In literary fiction, especially in adventure stories, masks are traditionally associated with negative
criminal characters, often stereotyped as carrying a big bag of money conspicuously marked with
the dollar sign. The purpose of the mask in this context is straightforward the character is
committing a felony and he does not want to be recognised by the authorities. However,
superheroes clearly have the urge to conceal their identity in similar manner, despite the fact that
they are not antagonists.
The reasons for superheroes wearing masks are twofold: external, derived from
the environment in which the character operates; and internal, rooted in the psychology and
motivation of each particular character.


4.1 External Reasons: Literary Tradition of the Mask

The most frequent reason for wearing a mask cited within the diegetic world of superhero
narratives is the concern for the heros loved ones. If one decides to embark on a path of a crimefighter he certainly does not want his significant other to pay the ultimate price for it. In a world
where criminals wield power equal to superheroes the idea of retaliation seems very real and it
certainly feels like a good argument for concealing your civil identity from such people. This is part
of why members of contemporary special forces within police and army are masked when they go
on raids against dangerous criminals. However, this explanation doesnt fully appreciate the literary
significance of the mask. In order to examine the external reasons for wearing a mask more closely
we must first take a brief tour through history to observe the formula of costumed vigilantes that
actually predate the modern concept of superheroes.
Prior to the introduction of Superman in 1938 a similar kind of heroic characters can be
traced to inexpensive fiction magazines, often referred to as Pulp magazines, that were popular in
the first half of the twentieth century in America. These stories featured a great number of vigilante
characters also commonly dressing up in costumes, although compared to later superheroes
the costumes of pulp characters were very civil, commonly consisting of only a period trench coat
and a snap-brim fedora, and some means of covering face like a large scarf or an eye mask.
These characters of the 1930s like The Shadow, Green Hornet, The Avenger, The Spider,
and The Lone Ranger were generally resourceful men and skilled fighters, some even possessing
some kind of supernatural ability like psychic powers, and they were all dedicated crime-fighters.
Out of their masks, in their civil identities, some posed as careless millionaire playboys, e.g.
The Shadow and The Spider. Posing irresponsibly outside of their morally concerned role is another
characteristic feature of some later superheroes and their corresponding civil identities, such as
Batman (Bruce Wayne), Green Arrow (Oliver Queen), and Iron Man (Tony Stark).


Just like superheroes have their roots in Pulp publications, the Pulp characters themselves
have their roots in two characters that are their direct literary predecessors: the masked crusader
Zorro and his own inspiration, The Scarlet Pimpernel, both popular heroic outlaws fighting against
the Establishment.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a character from a 1905 novel of the same name by Baroness
Emma Orczy, set in the Reign of Terror, a period of violence following the onset of the French
Revolution in 1793-4. The Scarlet Pimpernel is an alter ego of a wealthy English nobleman who
rescues men sentenced to death by guillotine and becomes a celebrated hero of the people. As
a skilled swordsman, master of disguise and imaginative planner, the Pimpernel is always able to
outsmart the authorities that are hunting him.
As a hero of the people, Zorro, first introduced in 1919, also possesses many distinctive
traits that would be later attributed to superheroes. His story is set in the middle of the 19th century
in California during the era of the Spanish rule. Zorro is a secret identity of the wealthy nobleman
Don Diego de la Vega who, as the masked outlaw, helps to defend people against various villains as
well as the local tyrannical Spanish authorities. His traits are that he is in peak physical condition, is
an expert swordsman, and wears a cape and eye-mask as his costume. It is worth pointing out
Zorros resemblance with the character of Batman: his colour of choice is black, the only confidant
in his mansion is his butler, and he has a secret cave as his hideout.
The inspiration for Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel and consequently all masked vigilantes and
superhero characters can be generally traced as far back as to Robin Hood as the archetype for
a heroic outlaw. What is notable about the evolution of this concept is the triangular relation
between the people, the ruling power, and the masked hero. Ever since Robin Hood there has been
a dichotomy with those in power going against the people. The hero fits into this scheme as
the champion of the people, the only one who dares to fight back against the unjust oppression (as


seen in the examples of Robin Hood fighting against the English aristocracy, The Scarlet Pimpernel
fighting against the French authorities or Zorro fighting against the Spanish rule).
In the eyes of the authorities the hero is synonymous with a criminal, thus the hero must
conceal their identity from the law enforcers. In this traditional comprehension of the trope of maskwearing we can conclude that the governance makes no distinction between a vigilante and
a criminal and the difference is apparent only to the people. From another perspective in this
threefold relationship the people generally see the government as villainous and oppressive and
the vigilante as the only one taking their side against it.
The concept of a masked person opposing the ruling force saw substantial revision since it
was applied to pulp characters of the 1930s and continued to evolve with the new genre of
superheroes: superheroes began to work with the government, not against it. The hero figure was no
longer synonymous with romantic mystery, heroism became a job like any other. That the vigilante
traditionally needs a mask raises the question of why the government-employed or authorised
superheroes still need to adopt an alter ego. The paradigm has developed from a diegetic world with
a single hero protagonist (e.g. Zorro stories) to one which includes various actors with a range of
motivating factors and attitudes towards the government and uses of disguise (the contemporary
superhero narrative). The evolution of the standard norm of hero vs. establishment dichotomy
causes the once single and unified attitude against the authorities to be diluted with the rising
number of characters and narratives.
Different explanations have been utilised in the superhero narratives to justify
the continuous presence of the mask. We must distinguish between those characters that maintain
close ties with the government and those who do not: Superman and Captain Americas costumes
function as a beacon of hope and the symbol of the country, but do not protect their identity; they
are commonly seen as being closely involved with the government. Other characters, like SpiderMan, Daredevil, and Rorschach, remain true to the tradition of hiding their identity in order to


separate their civil lives from the crimes undertaken in their crime-fighting. As a result of being
secretive they do not enjoy either praise or understanding from the government or media, nor do
they usually have support of the authorities in their endeavours. They must adopt masks to maintain
a normal life outside their superhero facades.
Batman presents a complex character when considered from this perspective as he used to
have a criminal-like reputation in Gotham but eventually managed to build a mutual-trust
relationship with at least police commissioner Gordon. He is one of those heroes who walk the line
between acting with or without the governments approval.
For some heroes the presence of the mask is justified in the exact same way as it was in
the time of Zorro, for others it is simply a reminiscence of the familiar concept and perhaps
a certain homage to the tradition. This change in the attitude towards the ruling power with some
heroes no longer opposing but rather becoming an integral part of the government body is
consequently depicted as threatening in several major postmodern storylines. Black Panther and
Dr. Strange describe the present relationship between the U.S. government and superheroes in New
Avengers: Illuminati as tense: Were not anti-establishment but were not establishment. Were
counter-establishment. (Bendis 6). In the similar manner Batman in the dystopian world of
The Dark Knight Returns sees the position of vigilantes outside the law as a must: Sure were
criminals, you said. Weve always been criminals. We have to be criminals. (Miller 135)
This theme of attempting to institutionalise heroes along with the morals they stand for and
integrate them into the government body keeps surfacing in the superhero narratives since the end
of the 1980s. Various writers approached this idea from different angles but they all agree that it
does not benefit if the traditionally anonymous voice of the people opposing the ruling power
becomes its integral part. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Captain America voices these
concerns about the legislative forcing all superheroes to unmask and become employees of
the government in a fiery exchange of views with the government operative Maria Hill:


Captain America: Youre asking me to arrest people who risk their lives for this
country every day of the week.
Maria Hill: No, Im asking you to obey the will of American people, Captain.
Captain America: Dont play politics with me, Hill. Superheroes need to stay above
that stuff or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are.
Maria Hill: I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law.
(Civil War #1 23)
It does not help to try to label the masked hero within the traditional antithetical categories
of good guy/bad guy because the character clearly possesses certain characteristics of both.
The hero figure is traditionally driven by personal code of benevolent ethics, fights against
malevolent characters and helps those in need; at the same time he is likely to disrespect the laws of
society, especially if they stand in the way of what he recognises as the morally right thing to do.
In order to be convincing in acting outside conventional society the masked hero needs to be
understood as a predominantly moral voice that cannot be effective without a guise and therefore
must necessarily stand apart from conventional society and outside the governing body, which often
comes with the burden of being labelled a criminal.

4.2 Internal Reasons: The Secret Identity

Superheroes elevated the whole concept of an identity-concealing mask to entirely new level
and created the tradition of costume which in turn creates a whole secondary identity. Costume is
thus no longer designed to simply conceal the identity of its wearer but it is actually an extension of
the psychology of the protagonist wearing it. A comparison to fully appreciate the function and
concept of a mask and a costume is not trivial: understanding the difference bears literary
significance. A mask is usually designed only for the facial area; when someone puts it on, he does


not create a new identity, he merely conceals his own. A costume is usually all-encompassing and
wearing it creates an entirely new identity.
A noteworthy tradition in the superhero genre is that the masked hero and the civil person
are radically different personalities, commonly two opposite extremes of a particular characteristic:
confident Superman is the opposite of awkward Clark Kent, conscientious Batman is the opposite
of vain Bruce Wayne, strong Spider-Man is the opposite of weak Peter Parker, etc. By putting on
their costume these characters are making a statement that the rules that restrain them in their civil
lives, should it be the limitations of their own civil persona or the laws of society, are no longer
valid and they are now free to act as they will, with no regard for restrictions of any kind, save only
for their own conscience. Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask,
and he will tell you the truth. (Wilde) This is exactly what the superhero narratives are all about
stripping off the confinements of our civil lives and embracing some greater value as our own.
With some characters development the dominant identity changes and it is the costumed
one which attains the primary position in the individuals life. Some characters are able to balance
out their two lives while others become consumed by their mission, even to the extent that they
resemble psychotic traits. An example of this development and the effect it has on mental stability
is seen in Batman. The character started as Bruce Wayne who underwent a life-changing experience
in his childhood when both his parents were murdered in front of him. This is the beginning of
Bruces personal mission to bring down all criminals in his home city of Gotham, the decision
which in time gave birth to his superhero persona of Batman. As years passed and he became more
and more involved in his war against crime, the initial primary identity of Bruce Wayne became
secondary to the identity of Batman. The promise to his parents had become the only goal in life for
Bruce and he started to gradually neglect his civil life which no longer had any significance for him.
At this point the character is more himself when he is wearing the Batman costume than in acting
out Bruce Waynes everyday life as a wealthy playboy.


Many of Batmans superhero colleagues in the Justice League of America express concern
about his mental state and his absolute devotion to his cause. There is even a conflict about what he
should be called by his colleagues when he is in guise, showing his attempt to escape the dual
nature of his life:
Superman: I admire you. Through sheer, determined will youve made yourself
the best you can be, youre my friend but I dont like you. [] My life is
motivated by what I believe is love, while yours theres a darkness in you thats
ugly. Very ugly and it will kill you.
Batman: Nothing can kill me. Anything that tries, makes me stronger.
Superman: Youre less connected to humanity than I am.
Batman: You here to save me?
Superman: I cant do that. Youre the best, but I need you to be better, I need to
know that youll try to find peace.
Batman: I will. When my war is over.
Superman: Batman
Batman: Kal-El, my name is Bruce.
Superman: You havent heard a thing Ive said, have you? Bruce is just a mask.
(Azzarello, For Tomorrow 15-7)
When it comes to psychologically traumatised superheroes there is no better example than
Rorschach in Watchmen. Psychology is the defining aspect of the character, not only on the obvious
level of the name of his hero persona and his mask which is a mere white cloth covering his face
with constantly shifting black dots, making a reference to the well-known psychological inkblot
test, but also in the origin story of the character and his fundamental motivation. Rorschach is
the prototype of a haunted antihero, totally consumed by his mission to the extent that nothing from
the original civil persona remains. Issue #6 of Watchmen focuses solely on the characters origin,


taking the form of an interview with a psychologist at the penitentiary that Rorschach was
transported to after he had been taken in by the police. The conversation between the doctor and his
patient reveals Rorschachs traumatising childhood experiences that made him very conscious of
the poor state of the world, forced him to distinguish the good and the bad in absolutes and lead him
to his radical worldview about the rotten and despicable state of the human society and the decision
to follow a solitary life in the pursuit of retributive vigilantism. The doctor tries to convince him
that he did not quite get the full picture of human nature and that there is good in the world too, but
all these attempts eventually come in vain as the author Alan Moore does a very good job of
articulating Rorschachs nihilistic immoral worldview that he accepted after his original decision to
kill a criminal rather than apprehend him to the police:
[I] looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there.
The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone. Live our lives,
lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear
children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else.
Existence is random. Has no pattern save for what we imagine after staring at it
for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. (Moore, Watchmen
#6 26)
These fears of human insignificance that slumber in everyones mind which shaped Rorschachs
character eventually get to the doctor as well and the following contemplation of his own life
through his patients philosophy has devastating effects on his personal life.
The line between a mentally stable and unstable person in the context of superheroes boils
down not only to the time spent in and out of the costume but also to how well they manage to keep
their dual identities separate in their mind. The most traumatised heroes, such as Rorschach,
the Punisher, and Batman, who abandoned their civil lives altogether in pursuit of their mission and
became consumed by their alter egos reveal the danger of such absolute devotion to a cause. Alan


Moore invokes Nietzsche to comment on this danger of commitment to a bipolar ethical view in
the conclusion to Watchmen #6, a warning relevant to the entire genre: Battle not with monsters,
lest ye became a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. (Moore,
Watchmen #6 28)

4.3 The Peculiar Case of Kal-El

Despite being the grandfather and archetype for all other superheroes Supermans case is
radically different from all others when it comes to the matter of secret identity. The majority of
superhero characters follow the pattern of being born into their civil identity and undergoing some
dramatic life-altering event that eventually brings them to the decision of putting on a costume and
launching out on the career of a masked crime-fighter. In other words, the person behind the mask
is the real deal, the costume is what comes later. Not so with Superman: Bill, portrayed by David
Carradine, in Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004) points out this issue so well that it is worth to quote him in
As you know, l'm quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about
superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating.
Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly
well-drawn. But the mythology... The mythology is not only great, it's unique.
[] Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there's the superhero and there's
the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter
Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to
put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman
stands alone. Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman.
When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark
Kent. His outfit with the big red S, that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby


when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses,
the business suit - that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend
in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the
characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak... he's unsure of himself... he's a coward.
Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race. (Tarantino 1:44:15)
Unlike other superhero characters, Superman actually has to deal with not two, but three identities.
He was born on another planet as Kal-El, came to Earth as a baby where his foster parents gave him
the name Clark Kent and when he eventually revealed his abilities to the people of Metropolis they
constructed for him the artificial identity of Superman. What is unique for Superman in this regard
is that the development of his powers preceded the development of his civil identity. When he left
the Kent farm and moved to Metropolis the civil identity was already a costume reminding him to
restrain the true extent of his powers. It is only as the hero Superman that he can explore his limits
and be truly himself. Likewise, the costume with the bright red and blue and the S sign that inspired
the name for his superhero persona, are all part of his alien identity they are the symbols of his
lost home planet.
For most superheroes the idea is to keep their civil identity safe and separate as something to
come back to when they are done chasing criminals for the night. But what is then Supermans
motivation to slip back into the skin of uptight and clumsy Clark Kent? Why does he not simply
spend all his time flying around in red and blue? The reason for this is psychological: Superman
may be an alien and feel like an alien but he was brought up by loving human foster parents and has
the psychology of a human being and therefore feels the need to belong. According to the Maslows
hierarchy of needs, our need to connect to others is paramount to our well-being, prioritized just
below our physiological needs[.] (Waid 327) Since Earth is the only home Superman came to
know in his life, as one of the few survivors of the planet Kryptons destruction he desires to
experience all the highs and lows of a normal human life: only as Clark Kent can he belong and


pursue happiness. Belongingness is the driving force of human behavior [] [b]elonging to

a community provides the sense of security and agency that makes our brains happy. (Denning)
As he is not one of the people he protects Superman is alone among the superhero
community to legitimately exhibit the messianic secret, the reluctance of Christ to reveal
the fullness of what and who he really is until the people around him are ready to understand and
accept it (Morris, Whats Behind the Mask? 4518). As the genre develops and superhero
characters become more and more human over time, the unique quality of the alien origin of
the Man of Steel grows in importance. The notion of being a visitor to this world while being one of
us at the same time gives the character a unique allure. The greatest guardian, defender, and savior
must be one of us, while also being more than us. (Morris Whats Behind the Mask? 4518)


5. Morality
The interest in superheroes begins with fascination for their amazing powers but the longterm interest in the masked do-gooders is based on the increasingly sophisticated narrative and
character development. Superheroes are an epitome of good and their stories reflect the same moral
lessons that we value outside of narrative fiction.
The superhero narrative can be seen as an exaggerated narrative reflecting
the choices we must make in our lives. As such, they are given exceptional
characteristics so that we might hope to live up to a fraction of the good that they
do in their worlds. (Reynolds 1349)
One of the most fundamental peculiarities behind the concept of a superhero is the basic
question of why do they do what they do. The character of a contemporary superhero is more
relatable to the reader as he is conceived as a troubled person faced with an array of difficult
choices catalysed by the sudden gain of amazing powers, not the perfect all-redeeming messiah of
the 1940s. Asking the question Why are superheroes good? addresses ethical questions of morality
in the reality of our everyday lives. Identifying the reasons behind the hero's benevolence forms
a core part of their identity and has contributed to more than seventy years of compelling storytelling.

5.1 Why Are Superheroes Good? The Practical Explanation

Comics are recognised as a primarily story-telling medium: the main idea behind
the conception of every superhero character is pre-eminently to tell a story. This premise brings
a trivial answer to the initial question: the superheroes are good because they must be good.
The binary opposition between good and bad is the defining characteristic for story-telling in
general. The reader must clearly identify the protagonist and antagonist of the story, as the two must


clash in battle. Superhero stories are fundamentally adventure stories concerning an adversarial
struggle between a clearly identifiable protagonist and their various antagonists.
The dichotomy was substantially more obvious in the early works of the genre. Although in
time the stories have become increasingly more complex to interpret and analyse even the most
morally ambiguous postmodern storyline must have a clearly identifiable protagonist and antagonist
in order for the story to work on the narrative level, even though their fundamental moral values
may be turned upside down: the actions and the ethical nature of motivation of each main character
in Watchmen are largely open to the readers interpretation and the novel guides its readers to
evaluate the characters deeds through their own morality, yet their roles of protagonists and
antagonists in the narrative are fixed. In the tradition of the genre the reader is inclined to associate
the protagonist with a hero and the antagonist with a villain. In Watchmen we see the difference
between interpretation and narrative function: despite being a violent and murderous psychopath
Rorschach is a protagonist and Ozymandias, despite his sincere and eventually successful effort to
save the world, is the villainous antagonist.
Just as the movie industry adopted the Hays Code7 of moral content in motion pictures there
was a movement to include a uniform moral code for comic books during the Golden and Silver
Age. The pressure for the adoption of the moral code intensified after the publication of Seduction
of the Innocent in 1954, a book by German-American psychiatrist Frederick Wertham, warning
against the negative impact that the comic books allegedly had on juvenile readership. As the result,
the Comics Code8 was established in 1954 and included rules of responsible authorship, which
among others clearly stated that [i]n every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal
punished for his misdeeds. (History Matters) The Code commanded the tone of superhero stories
and naturally the construction of their characters and plots.


Officially the Motion Picture Production Code

Officially the Comics Code Authority


The two explanations for the morality of superheroes stated above are of practical nature,
related to the narrative level and social context of the time. As such, they are of little relevance to
interpretation and analysis of characters motives for being good within the given discourse.
In order for superheroes to become popular and maintain their popularity across decades and
generations, they must be good in some broadly recognisable way that remains relevant to
the reader.

5.2 Understanding Morality Through the Philosophy of Plato and Kierkegaard

Evaluating the ethical qualities of being good or bad has preoccupied philosophers for a long
time, even Plato considered the ramifications of an individual gaining a superpower in his own way.
The Ring of Gyges story in The Republic introduces the reader to a metaphor for our understanding
of the function of good. Gyges was a common shepherd in the king of Lydias service. By
coincidence he came into possession of a magic ring that had the power to make him invisible.
Upon discovering this and realising the potential his new artefact gives him Gyges does not hesitate
and immediately turns against his king by seducing his wife and conspiring with her against her
husband. He finally kills the king and takes possession of the kingdom for himself. Plato then goes
on to make a point that [n]o man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could
safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or
kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. (Plato
Plato is cynical in this view of morality. According to this perspective, there is clearly no
inherent code of ethics embedded in every individual. His idea about a common man immediately
turning to evil once he has a safe advantage over others reveals two approaches to understanding
morality the good of an individual and the good of society. Platos logic suggests that the two are
in fundamental opposition: [a] man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any


good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust,
there he is unjust. (Plato 4297) There is nothing besides the oversight of other members of
the society that forces us to be good: the many who are weak cooperate to pass laws and whip up
sufficient social disapproval to keep the few who are strong from completely taking over. (Brenzel
2705) Authority through strength is uncivilised and is the same way in which even animals respect
authority. Plato sees this as a system of organisation which doesn't respect mankind's development.
To replace strength we need morality to limit those who could otherwise easily take over. Despite
the fact that there are always individuals in society clearly advantaged mentally, physically, or
otherwise, the artificial concept of everyone being equal rooted in the laws of morality limits
the few in order to elevate the most.
The second fundamental take on morality in The Republic is focused on the character,
stating that without being just and good there is no way for a person to be happy: for everyone
happiness is based on moral character. The reading of morality and happiness as directly related
concepts inspires the reader to act based on the highest of human pursuits happiness. In this view
morality is contrasted as being the internal mechanism to achieve happiness for each individual,
instead of laws devised by society to control the populace. To be immoral means to be unhappy,
worse than the possible legal repercussions of breaking a law: the pursuit of happiness lies in moral
A superpowered figure is a distinct representative of a privileged individual in society.
Without the limiting influence of morality, both external and internal, such a person would have
the top position in the social hierarchy of power and could never be challenged by other, less-gifted
individuals. It is by embracing the moral principles of self-restraint and discipline that such a person
gains the title of a superhero. This stance is rewarding in itself since being moral equals to pursuing
happiness and satisfaction.


Other philosophers also perceived morality as a dual concept. The Danish philosopher Sren
Kierkegaard describes a similar view in Works of Love and names it the Concept of Double Danger.
This is a reformulation of similar ideas to those in Platos Republic, heavily influenced by
Christianity. According to Kierkegaard, in order for us to be good in life we must overcome internal
and external dangers. The internal danger occurs when we must suppress our own selfish desires
that go against the well-being of others. Similar to Platos concept, Kierkegaard says that the initial
attitude of every person is selfish but it is within our power to overcome this tendency and with our
actions put the good of others above our personal interests.
The external danger lies in the society and its general reluctance to appreciate good in its
pure form. Kierkegaard says: give up your selfish desires and longings, give up your arbitrary
plans and purposes so that you in truth work disinterestedly for the goodand submit to being
abominated almost as a criminal, scorned and ridiculed for this very reason...but choose it freely.
Superhero narratives form an interesting insight into the ethical matters. The notion of
personal sacrifice for the good of others is crucial for many superhero stories. Personal sacrifice has
been shown both as an admirable concept (e.g. Spider-Man who consistently helps others despite
the devastating effects it has on his personal life) and a justification behind twisted logic of
deranged villains (e.g. Ozymandias grand decision in Watchmen to take on his own shoulders
the death of millions in order to save billions).

5.3 The Ethics of Dr. Manhattan

Superheroes are often compared to gods walking the Earth in their stories. It is usually
sufficient to be able to fly or lift a car with bare hands in order to acquire this label but there is one
character who comes really close to being truly omnipotent. Dr. Manhattan is the single most
powerful superhero in comic books and the only superpowered hero of Alan Moore and Dave


Gibbons Watchmen. In 1959 an accident during a scientific experiment transformed Dr. Jonathan
Osterman; due to the accident he gained abilities including the absolute control over matter, ability
to shape reality with his mind he is able to read objects on atomic level, travel instantaneously
anywhere in the universe, split his existence and be present at several places at once, and has
the unique ability to perceive events atemporally by seeing his own personal future and past
simultaneously. Given the historical context of the Cold War he is quickly turned to a weapon by
the American Government, given the nickname Dr. Manhattan and becomes a walking nuclear
deterrent (Moore, Watchmen #4 31). What becomes of moral principles of a man turned into
a nearly all-powerful being? Are the human principles of right and wrong even relevant to someone
who walked across the sun and seen events so tiny and so fast they hardly can be said to have
occurred at all? (Moore, Watchmen #12 18)
Dr. Manhattans transformation causes a radically different worldview and emotional
absence toward human affairs and suffering. It is implied that there are two sides to the character
some emotional residue from his past as Jonathan Osterman and his new superhuman self that is so
above human affairs that they become largely irrelevant to him. He consistently exhibits
indifference to various moral issues throughout the story, ranging from infidelity to murder and
even nuclear holocaust. When Manhattan witnesses Edward Blake gunning down his pregnant
girlfriend, he does not interfere (Moore, Watchmen #2 15), even though he has infinite ways how
to prevent the murder.
As someone who is able to perceive the full grandiosity of the universe Dr. Manhattan does
not think of human beings as morally valuable because the appreciation for the unique quality of
life eludes him and he considers life to be highly overrated phenomenon. (Moore, Watchmen
#9 13) Since the difference between the state of being dead and alive cannot be quantifiably
measured, he does not acknowledge such a distinction to be objectively relevant: A live body and


a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, theres no discernible difference.
Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. (Moore, Watchmen #1 21)
Is Manhattans absolute knowledge of the reality of the world the reason for losing
the personal sense of what is right and wrong in human terms? If this is the case it would mean that
knowledge and morality are on the opposite sides of one scale and one can never possess both.
As science progresses and we know more and more about the world, this hypothesis would mean
that the knowledge would increasingly diminish our moral sense in the same way as it had
happened to Dr. Manhattan.
This conjecture can be refuted: Albert Einstein certainly had a better idea of the workings of
the universe than most people and it did not make him an immoral person; similarly, an adult has
more knowledge than a child and yet we do not think of children as morally insignificant beings.
More knowledge simply does not cause one to lose the sense of morality.
Dr. Manhattans taciturn quality when it comes to voicing moral reasoning is often put in
relation to his immense knowledge but the correlation between the two is merely implied, never
explicitly stated. Although his nearly absolute knowledge makes him perceive human life in
comparison to the wonders of the universe as brief and mundane, (Moore, Watchmen #9 17) he
is not entirely free of common human needs. He maintains a relationship with a fellow crime-fighter
Laurie Juspeczyk and it is through her that the reader gets to hear most of Manhattans moral
reasoning. There is no question that his girlfriend is the most influential person in his life, quite
possibly the only one who has impact on him at all: Dr. Manhattans emotions towards Laurie are
the decisive factor in establishing his overall moral stance towards humans in general.
The notion that emotions are highly relevant when dealing with ethical questions is among
others proposed by the moral sense theorist David Hume, who strictly differentiates between reason
and emotions (sentiment). In saying that morality is determined by sentiment (Hume 1601) he
argues that our moral sense is based exclusively on emotions: a moral judgment is entirely non-


rational. Conceived as the ultimate rational being, Dr. Manhattan lacks the emotional capacity to
make a moral judgment altogether.
The American psychologist Gustav Gilbert, who observed the Nazi leaders during
the Nuremberg Trials, comes to a similar conclusion about the correlation between emotions and
ethics. He is characterised9 as saying, In my work with the defendants I was searching for
the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. Its the one
characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.
Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy. (Simoneau) Dr. Manhattans lack of empathy is shown
when he chooses not to intervene in life-or-death situations, such as Edward Blakes gunning down
his pregnant girlfriend. Blake consequently comments on Manhattans account [y]ou didnt lift
a finger. You really dont give a damn about human beings. [] Youre driftin outta touch, doc.
(Moore, Watchmen #2 15) Manhattan fails to feel empathy towards the woman because
the concept of life and death has no longer the same meaning for him as it has for other people.
We have established that emotions are crucial in the development of ones personal moral
sense. Towards the end of the story Dr. Manhattan maintains only one emotional investment in
the world and that is his girlfriend Laurie. Apart from her his emotional response towards anything
or anyone else in the universe is non-existent. This emotional lethargy is presumably derived from
his absolute knowledge: he simply knows too much about everything to be moved by anything.
This is an expression of the danger of too much knowledge: his supreme knowledge makes him
ignorant of the traditional human values.
Dr. Manhattan has one last remaining desire, revealed in the conversation with Laurie on
Mars, a wish to observe the single one thing that has been eluding him to this point: Thermodynamic miracles Events with odds against so astronomical theyre effectively impossible, like
oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. (Moore, Watchmen #9 26)

In the 2000 television docudrama Nuremberg


It is the only moment in the whole story when he clearly expresses a selfish personal desire. What
follows is a revelation about an important aspect of Lauries life that forces Manhattan to reevaluate his view of human life in general. He begins to see the human life as the miracle he was
longing for a long time:
In each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply
those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being
alive, meeting, siring this precise son, that exact daughter Until your mother
loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand
million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you that emerged. To
distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to
gold That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermo-dynamic miracle. (Moore,
Watchmen #9 27)
When he appreciates the unique quality of his girlfriends life he applies the same reasoning to
the whole humanity: The world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they
become commonplace and we forget. I forget. (Moore, Watchmen #9 27) As a result, he ends
his seclusion and returns to Earth, willing to interfere in the human affairs once again because he no
longer sees them as irrelevant. Manhattans emotional development sets off his moral sense which
eventually forces him to act and do the right thing.
The story of Watchmen explores how morals apply to a cosmic being with nearly infinite
power and knowledge. Even though his moral sense is largely diminished, Dr. Manhattan is forced
to acknowledge his own relevance to the world and other people, eventually making him accept
the fact that he is morally accountable as well. Dr. Manhattans personal development is shown
when he replaces his wonder for a hypothetical, miracle-like event, the changing of an atom, for
the wonder for every single human life. In doing so, he comes to appreciate the universe as a whole.


5.4 The Tangled Web of Consequentialism: Reading Spider-Man as Promoter of Civil

The conflict between civil and personal responsibility is a recurring situation in the SpiderMan comic book. In a typical model situation Peter Parker is hastily swinging through the streets in
his costume in order to make it to a date with his girlfriend on time, when he comes across
a situation that requires his intervention, e.g. a building on fire with several people trapped inside.
Being the hero he is, Peter does not hesitate and rescues them. As a result he fails to arrive at
the meeting and his girlfriend consequently breaks up with him because she is unaware of his secret
identity and this was not the first time he let her down in this manner. Peters personal life therefore
suffered as the direct result of his decision motivated by choosing the greater good, the morally
right thing to do. As this kind of situation becomes his daily routine, there is a growing frustration
in Peter concerning the poor state of his personal life that keeps suffering at the expense of his
secret superhero identity. Finally he decides he will no longer carry on as Spider-Man. Is Peter
obliged to risk his own life on regular basis on the grounds of the simple fact of him possessing
The evaluation of Peters reasoning from ethical perspective requires invoking
a consequentialist philosophy, particularly utilitarianism. Consequentialists claim that there are no
absolute definitions of good and evil and the morality of each action should be judged exclusively
on the basis of its consequences. Utilitarianism is a normative ethics theory that directly links
human experience such as happiness or suffering to the moral concepts of good and bad. Jeremy
Bentham and John Stuart Mill belong to major proponents of utilitarianism; three rules derived
from their philosophy are in turn applied here to the context of superhero narratives:


Rule #1: In order for a person to do good, he or she must choose the course of action that leads to
maximising overall happiness and/or reducing overall suffering in the world.10

This is a simplified reformulation of the Greatest Happiness Principle by John Stuart Mill
who holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they
tend to produce reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by
unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. (Mill 104) Utilitarianism does not relate
the quantity of happiness or suffering to any one individual, it is concerned with the overall
presence of it in the world: one cannot justify their decision on the grounds of what makes them
happy or sad but must instead give preference to whatever is beneficial in this regard to others.
In the model situation Peter is faced with the choice between preventing a great suffering (saving
people from fire) and in comparison a petty suffering (the emotional hurt of his girlfriend). That
the lesser suffering is more relevant to Peter personally and may damage his personal life is not
a relevant factor here. The Greatest Happiness Principle establishes Peters decision as proper.

Rule #2: A person should live to the fullest possible extent of his own potential in order to produce
the greatest good possible.

This is an implied rule in the utilitarian philosophy. If pleasure and freedom from pain, are
the only things desirable as ends[,] (Mill 104) then all endeavour in life must be directed towards
maximising pleasure11 and minimising pain. Utilitarianistic philosophy is not exclusively concerned
with evaluating individual decisions, it also insists on personal growth of an individual in the long


The happiness or suffering resulting from the decision should not be linked in any way to the one making
the decision, for standard is not the agents own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether
(Mill 179)
The pleasure in this context refers to any stimulant of human mind that leads to happiness.


run: everyone should work hard in life in order to achieve their fullest potential and thus bring
the most happiness into the world.
This rule is a well-articulated motivator for any person with superpowers it ultimately
answers the question whether such an individual is obligated to become a superhero in order to use
his powers for good; or whether it is his right to hide his powers in order to have a normal life.
Although Peter enjoys his newly gained freedom and plentitude of free time following his decision
to stop being a superhero, he is soon faced with a situation which forces him to make a judgment
call and no intervention from his part would directly result in someones death. This experience
reminds Peter of his decision in the origin story of the character and he ultimately comes to terms
with the utilitarian reasoning:
Now, at last.. Its all crystal clear to me once more! I can never renounce my
Spider-Man identity! I can never fail to use the powers which a mysterious
destiny has seen fit to give me! No matter how unbearable the burden may be
No matter how great my personal sacrifice.. I can never permit one innocent being
to come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act (Lee, The Amazing
Spider-Man 18)
As superpowers need to be considered an integral part of Peters potential, by the utilitarian
philosophy he is obliged to always take action in situations when help is required; as much as
a smart and gifted person is obligated to develop his potential in order to contribute the greatest
good possible in their future profession.

Rule #3: A persons actions to achieve good should be only within the immediate limits of that
persons power.


Being a superhero is risky; the extent of Spider-Mans superpowers does not prevent him
from getting hurt in dangerous situations. He acknowledges this and continues to deliberately put
his life at risk on regular basis. Is this kind of behaviour admirable or should it be condemned?
An important point in utilitarian philosophy is that everyone should stand up only to the challenge
they see themselves fit to stand up to. Utilitarianism does not call for supererogatory acts.
Supererogatory acts are acts above and beyond call of duty. [They] are good to do but not bad not
to do. (Robichaud 3168) The same principle applies for the work ethics of emergency services:
A firefighters job description includes an acceptable risk and constant evaluation of situation. This
logic also applies to superheroes. Due to his superpowers, Spider-Mans possibilities outreach
the possibilities of common men and his evaluation of situation takes this into account. Such
reasoning projects to everyday reality of the characters life: every time Peter sees a hostage
situation on the news, witnesses an accident on the street, or learns that a serial killer is on the loose,
his sense of responsibility forces him to act because his extraordinary abilities allow him to do so.
Non-superpowered people are free from such predicament: they do not need to feel guilty for not
intervening in dangerous situations because they are as likely to get hurt as anyone else.
Utilitarianism acknowledges devotion to the production of happiness as the only ultimate
decisive factor and personal sacrifice as acceptable means of reaching this end.
The utilitarian morality does recognize in human beings the power of sacrificing
their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that
the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to
increase, the sum of total happiness, it considers as wasted. The only selfrenunciation which it applauds, is devotion to the happiness, or to some of
the means of happiness, of others; either of mankind collectively, or of individuals
within the limits imposed by the collective interests of mankind. (Mill 273)


As the direct result of his decision to become a costumed crime-fighter, Peter Parkers lifestyle is
very stressful and he is often disenchanted with the reality of his personal life: apart from
the physical pain and mental strain he is also often jobless, penniless and without a girlfriend.
In accordance with utilitarianism he makes a personal sacrifice to fulfill his moral duty.
The source of Peter Parkers moral responsibility has been established on the grounds of
utilitarian philosophy. How does the same reasoning apply to all the others who cannot stick to
walls and do not have the proportionate power of the spider, the regular people who go around their
day jobs and deal with their own issues most of the time? An important but curious minor character
to the Spider-Man stories is the hot-headed editor of the fictional New York newspaper the Daily
Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, who is always the first one to publicly condemn the superheros latest
endeavour. It is largely because of his rampant editorials in the Bugle that Spider-Man has never
lived to see any appreciation in the eyes of public. The reason behind Jamesons hostility towards
Spider-Man has never been made explicitly clear in the comics: the reader is always aware of
the superheros best efforts to do good, yet the same actions are consistently interpreted by Jameson
in negative light and his paper portrays Spider-Man as menace. Why does Jameson have such a
hard time seeing this character the same way the readers do?
Jameson comes across as being uncomfortable with an obvious and imminent display of
heroic behaviour. He embodies the notion that people like inspirational stories about great men but
feel intimidated when confronted with heroism directly: he rejects the idea of selfless heroism.
Jameson is an epitome of a common practical man who is preoccupied with his own selfish
interests, e.g. selling as many copies of the Daily Bugle as possible. Since slandering Spider-Man
has proved to be a viable strategy for him in the past, he will gladly continue to do so.
As pointed out in the chapter 5.2, according to philosophies of Plato and Sren Kierkegaard
we live in a world inhabited by people driven by selfish interests; the ordinary level of moral virtue
is not very high. The long line of prophets and peace promoters who met an abrupt and violent end


in their lives, ranging from Jesus, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King to John Lennon, suggests that
people tend to prefer saint-like figures from safe distance but feel uneasy when faced with selfless
heroism directly. Spider-Man narratives acknowledge this by utilising the contrast between
the superhero protagonists and the critical perspective of J. Jonah Jameson as the representative of
a common man.12
An iconic statement of the superhero genre is traditionally attributed to Peter Parkers uncle
Ben: with great power there must also come great responsibility. (Lee, The Amazing Fantasy
11) This simple creed proved useful for Peter on numerous occasions but is also applicable outside
of fictional narratives. The moral lesson from reading Spider-Man stories is transferable to
everyman: every individual has some sort of power which assigns him the appropriate level of
responsibility. For the context of normal peoples lives Spider-Mans message could thus be
articulated in less catchy but more convenient the amount of responsibility one should feel is
directly proportional to the amount of power they wield. This brings the rest of us who do not spend
their nights in costume on rooftops back in the game.

5.5 Utilitarian Ozymandias and Deontological Rorschach. The Threat of Authority in

The narrative of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen is driven by a secret scheme of
the antagonist Ozymandias who plans nothing less than saving the world from certain destruction
from nuclear weapons during the Cold War; his plan however comes at the cost of several million
lives: he plans to teleport a genetically engineered creature that would detonate upon its arrival to
New York, correctly assuming that the imminent palpable threat of alien invasion would force
the political leaders of the world to end hostilities and unite against the common enemy. Three


The theme was also explored by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross in the graphic novel Marvels, narrated from the unusual
angle of common bystanders. The story sums up the overall history of the Marvel universe and reveals fear and
insecurity that heroic deeds evoke in the residents of Manhattan Island.


fundamental rules of the utilitarian philosophy were established in the previous chapter. Can
Ozymandias reasoning withstand the test of utilitarian thinking?
The world of the alternate 1980s in Watchmen is still plunged deep in the worst state of
the Cold War with no hope for any change for the better in sight. Ozymandias is very conscious of
the global situation and the impending danger of nuclear holocaust. During the climax scene of
the novel he reveals this knowledge as the main source of motivation behind his plan:
I saw east and west, locked into an escalating arms spiral, their mutual terror and
suspicion mounting with the missiles, making the possibility of disarmament
progressively more remote. [] Meanwhile, expensive arsenals meant less cash
to spend upon their old; their sick and homeless; on their childrens education.
As stockpiles grew, as computers reduced human involvement, the spectre of
accidental apocalypse stalked even closer. Simply given the mathematics of
the situation, sooner or later conflict would be inevitable (Moore, Watchmen
#11 21)
Ozymandias, Andrian Veidt by civil name, is a man of reason, one who carefully weights
the consequences of his actions on almost mathematical level, a characteristic of consequentialist
philosophy. His actions are in perfect accordance with the three utilitarian rules stated in
the previous chapter 5.4: he makes the mathematically correct calculation that sacrificing the lives
of several million people is justifiable if it saves lives of even greater number of people (Rule #1),
he continually develops the potential of both his body and mind, becoming a world-class athlete and
gaining the reputation of worlds smartest man[,] (Moore, Watchmen #1 17) accumulating
enough wealth to allow him to carry out his plan (Rule #2) and finally, since his plan is successful
and Ozymandias effectively averts the threat of nuclear holocaust, his ambition must be
acknowledged as fully within his reach (Rule #3). Even though Veidts logical reasoning is


flawless, a pressing notion that there is something terribly wrong in sacrificing millions of lives is
present, no matter what the outcome might be.
The moral conundrum of the situation is reflected on the reactions of the four remaining
protagonists: they all share the opinion that Veidts plan was morally wrong; however, their
opinions differ about the best following course of action. Since the explosion in New York has
already occurred and the harm cannot be undone, there is a common consensus among three
characters that exposing Adrians plan would benefit nobody and it would only undone the good
that his plan had eventually brought about: they agree they will keep the true nature of events to
The fourth protagonist, Rorschach, is the only one in opposition. He is depicted as moral
absolutist, distinguishing between good and evil in absolutes. This dichotomy lacking any shade of
gray is symbolically reflected on his mask: Black and white moving. Changing shape but not
mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful. (Moore, Watchmen #6 10) Rorschachs motivation is
driven by the will to always do the right thing without any regard for the consequences, a stance
eloquently expressed in his personal mantra that gains literal meaning towards the end of the story:
There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon, I shall
not compromise in this. (Moore, Watchmen #1 24) The global scale of Veidts scheme has no
effect on the fundamental moral reasoning: lying and killing innocent people is wrong, therefore
Veidt should be exposed and punished, even if it means plunging the world into the danger of
nuclear war again.
The idea that an action should not be judged at all on the grounds of its consequences is
inherent to deontology. Deontological ethics claim that our decisions should be based only on our
moral duty:
Deontology goes beyond saying that the ends never justify the means. It actually
says that at least in moral decisions, you shouldnt think in terms of ends and


means, or consequences, at all. Once you start thinking about means and ends,
youve left the realm of morality altogether, because youre only thinking about
how to get something you want, either for yourself or someone else. (Loftis
As a moral absolutist, Rorschach must have an underlying moral sense that guides his
actions. His morality is rooted in the origin story of the character, the experience that transformed
him from Walter Kovcs into the vigilante Rorschach. His transformation was deeply
psychological: the confrontation with the sheer brutality that people are capable of caused him to
take a secular stance in disregarding any external source of morality and lead him to the realisation
that God was not there. The cold suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone. [] There is
nothing else. (Moore, Watchmen #6 26) Rorschach is concerned exclusively with his own
subjective moral judgment. The lesson he brought from his transformative experience is that [t]his
rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children.
Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. Its us. Only us. As such,
Rorschach was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. (Moore,
Watchmen #6 26)
Deontology does not end with stating that we should disregard consequences of our
decisions on behalf of their moral value. One of Kants categorical imperatives provide an insight
into the fundamental nature of moral reasoning of Ozymandias and Rorschach:
Man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as
a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether
they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at
the same time as an end. (Kant 637)


This statement designates all human beings as untouchable units that cannot be a part of
quantifiable reasoning between good and evil: it is not permissible to use a single human life as
means of reaching ones goal, rational beings must always be treated as ends in themselves.
Both Ozymandias and Rorschach violate Kants categorical imperative: Rorschach does not
hesitate to beat people senseless in order to get the information he needs and kills criminals as
penalty for their deeds; Ozymandias scheme is based on collateral damage in form of the death of
millions. Utilitarianism in Ozymandias interpretation also fails in two respects: (1) By reducing
the residents of New York to mere quantifiable units, he essentially rejects any notion of human
rights; and (2) his assumption that he can correctly predict the future eventually turns out to be
incorrect either. Although he succeeded in his plan, it is unclear how long will the world peace
based on a lie last. I did the right thing, didnt I? It all worked out in the end, asks Adrian
Dr. Manhattan at the very end of the book. In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever
ends, (Moore, Watchmen #12 27) replies the omniscient man with smile, amused by Adrian
being unable to see beyond the limits of the narrative that he is a part of. The notion of uncertain
future is further emphasised by the last panel of the book: Seymour, a clumsy and fatuous assistant
at a New York newspaper, comes across Rorschachs journal in the crank file. If he reads it and
decides to publish the story, Ozymandias plan will be exposed, the lives sacrificed for nothing and
the peace lost after all. The problem with correctly predicting future is that there are too many
variables to take into account, many of which are people with free will whose future course of
action can never be accurately predicted.13 And even if it were, it would be only for some short time
ahead. After then, the future would be a shadowy secret once again. Ozymandias utilitarianism
thus fails in Rule #3 in that his reach exceeded his grasp.
These two bipolar characters may reason on the grounds of entirely antithetic philosophies
but they are similar in that they are readily willing to make decisions that fatally affect lives of other


This theme is also addressed in the chapter 6.3.


people. Superheroes in Watchmen serve as images of authority and power: the novel warns against
the idea of anyone setting himself up as the guardian of society and its moral authority, should it be
an overly enthusiastic politician or a superhero. It is worth noticing that Dan Dreiberg, the Nite
Owl, arguably the most normal person among the main protagonists finds the idea of making grand
decisions on behalf of other people repugnant. How.. how can humans make decisions like this?
he asks at the end of the story when considering whether they should keep quiet about the true
nature of events surrounding the explosion in New York. Were damned if we stay quiet, Earths
damned if we dont. (Moore, Watchmen #12 20) Similarly, the commissioner James Gordon,
another paragon of an old-fashioned honest working man, makes a similar remark in The Dark
Knight Returns when he first expresses his admiration for president Roosevelts ability to raise
the spirit of the country and mobilise the army after the attack on Pearl Harbour, only to feel
horrible when he comes across an article saying that Roosevelt knew about the attack and let it
happen (principally the same trade-off that Ozymandias makes in Watchmen): Pearl was what got
us off our duffs in time to stop the axis. But a lot of innocent men died. But we won the war. It
bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldnt judge it. It was too big. (Miller 96)
The tagline of Watchmen, found sprayed on buildings several times throughout the book,
makes a corresponding point that the idea of any authority not kept in check is inherently
dangerous. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? asks the Roman poet Juvenal, pointing out the problem
with enforcing marital fidelity with women. Moore and Gibbons move the quote to political context
and ask the timeless question Who watches the watchmen?


6. The Impact of Superheroes on Society

There is an inherent contradiction behind the conception of a superhero character.
By the basic definition, superheroes do good by fighting crime and thus helping society and making
the world a better place. The trouble with this premise is that such behaviour circumvents state
mechanisms designed to deal with the same problem legislative, executive and judiciary power.
Naturally, no one could blame an individual who happens to run into someone in need and exhibits
heroic effort in order to help them, but in case of superheroes we are not discussing isolated
incidents these people actually go out looking for danger and they do it frequently and voluntarily.
This can no longer be understood as a simple projection of heroic behaviour but as a social
statement as well. With their actions, superheroes implicitly put themselves above the law and
proclaim the state institutions placed there to do this job inefficient, through their typical actions
some superheroes undermine the foundations of society. The long-term consequences, being
impossible to predict, may result in more harm than good. Someone who executes justice under
their own authority is a vigilante, who undertake[s] law enforcement in their community without
legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate. (Soanes 434758)
In order to explore the ramifications of such behaviour, a distinction between a prototypical
character of a hero and a vigilante must be made.

6.1 Differentiating Between Hero and Vigilante

The issue of vigilantism eventually comes down to the question of how much respect does
a masked person hold for laws. In order to demonstrate the difference between them we shall look
at the symptomatic pattern of behaviour of two contrasting characters of the genre the Punisher,
civil identity Frank Castle, and Daredevil, civil identity Matt Murdock.
The Punisher is a product of the 1970s, the period known for its violent action movies with
such archetypical roles as Charles Bronson in Death Wish or Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Their

characters share the same conviction to make the criminals pay no matter what because
the delegated institution are clearly powerless to do so. The high death toll of 70s action movies is
indicative of their primary aim as entertainment with little to offer in terms of philosophical
undertones. This is the era that also gave birth to the Punisher, a dark and deranged vigilante, very
distant from the typical image of a superhero. Frank Castle is by no means a positive character and
certainly no hero. He is a grim and brutal enforcer of his personal vendetta against all criminals
whose number of victims goes to hundreds, a dark image of the vigilante persona, and a warning
example of an individual who takes his personal view of immoral justice and disrespect to
institutions too far. He is characterised as having only one positive trait, honesty. He is very direct
in his motivation and has no grand ideas about making the world a better place by killing criminals:
Joan: Why do you kill them bad people I mean?
Castle: I hate them.
Joan: Oh. I thought it might be you wanted to make the world safe for good
(Ennis The Punisher #8 2)
In contrast Matt Murdock, Daredevil, is the very opposite of the vigilante persona of
the Punisher because he cares a great deal about law. Employed as a lawyer during the day and
acting as a vigilante at night, he often goes after the very same criminals that managed to escape
justice in court. Murdock is also very religious and represents the unity of three authorities:
submission to God on moral level, respect to the legal system in following the rules of society, and
following guidance of his conscience to do good on personal level. Daredevil is unique in
the superhero community in that he is able to link together these three concepts in an effective way.
When these two character cross paths, the consequent conflict fully reveals their opposite
worldviews: the Punisher is getting ready to kill a man named Dino Gnucci from a rooftop with
a sniper rifle in front of a courthouse when Daredevil makes appearance at the scene and tries to


stop him, at first only verbally: Dino Gnucci is a monster but when he falls itll be according to
the law, not in the mockery of it. And not shot down in the street like a dog. Dont you understand
that? Cant you choose not to kill, just for once? If you could just see that you have a choice
(Ennis The Punisher #3 15). The Punisher is naturally not convinced and a brief brawl takes place
that he wins with a ruse and knocks Daredevil unconscious. After the blind hero regains
consciousness, he finds himself tied up with a revolver ducktaped to his hand. Castle set the scene
this way in order to prove his point:
The Punisher: One bullet. One shot. One chance to stop me killing Dino Gnucci. Its
time for that choice you were telling me about. [] If you dont shoot youve got
a death on your conscience. A death you could have prevented. If you do shoot,
youre a killer.
Daredevil: What kind of a choice is that?
The Punisher: The one I make every time I pull the trigger. The one Im making right
now. (Ennis The Punisher #3 18-9)
Daredevil becomes increasingly under pressure as the window of opportunity for him to act grows
smaller. He desperately tries to convince the Punisher who is getting ready to take the shot of
the wrongness of his doing but Castle remains calm:
Daredevil: No! Nobody has to die! You dont have to do this! Dino Gnucci deserves
to be taken off the streets, but legitimately! For something hes actually done! And it
has to be that way or else everything, these laws we have, the society weve built is
all completely worthless! For crying out loud, man. Dont you see that? Dont you
The Punisher: The thought of Dino Gnucci living one more minute is enough to drive
me insane. Dont you see? (Ennis The Punisher #3 20)


There is clearly no dispute about the guilt of Dino Gnucci, they both agree that he should be
punished for his crimes, so what is the fundamental difference in reasoning between these two men?
The British philosopher John Locke argued that the important part of entering the civil society is
each of its members giving up the right to private vengeance, delegating a legitimate government
and voluntarily becoming a subject of it in order to have a legislative body that is authorized to
address and punish crimes. (Locke 1158).
The Punisher thinks on deeply personal individual level, rooted in the origin story of his
character. After his family was murdered by a group of gangsters he set out on a long journey of
personal vendetta against not only the men responsible for the killing of his loved ones, but against
all criminals. Any crime since then has become a personal matter for him and he fails to see what
impact this pattern of behaviour would have on society at large.
Daredevil, on the other hand, values laws above all. It is safe to assume that he would have
no problem with a criminal getting the death penalty, as long as he would be found guilty and
sentenced by judge and jury. He refuses to accept the personal responsibility for other peoples
actions. Killing a person in cold blood in order to prevent him to possibly murder someone else in
the future is not an option for him. Much like Batman who over and over brings Joker back to
the Arkham Asylum and consistently refuses to kill the mad criminal to end the long line of his
victims, Daredevil expresses a strong conviction for the state apparatus and the power of
rehabilitation. In accordance with his Christian upbringing, Matt Murdock as Daredevil believes in
the second chance just as much as he believes that every man is responsible for his own choices in
life and no single person can be a judge of them. If either Batman or Daredevil single-handedly
decided that it would be better to kill an incorrigible murderer, it would mean both personally
sinking to their level and questioning the effectiveness of the state legislative and institutions they


In Daredevil v1 #169, detective Nick Manolis angrily challenges this view of the costumed
hero by pointing out that the mass murderer Bullseye, whose life Daredevil saved moments ago,
will almost certainly go free in court. According to the detective, Daredevil would do better to let
him die and thus prevent him from doing any more harm in the world. Daredevil replies:
Nick, men like Bullseye would rule the world were it not for a structure of laws that
society has created to keep such men in check. The moment one man takes another
mans life in his own hands, he is rejecting the law and working to destroy that
structure. If Bullseye is a menace to society, it is society that must make him pay the
price, not you. And not me. II wanted him to die, Nick. I detest what he does
what he is. But Im not God Im not the law and Im not a murderer. (Miller
Daredevil 30)
Two patterns of behaviour have been established: one which accepts Lockes philosophy
and advocates pursuing criminals only to the extent that would not hurt society (Daredevil), and
the other which holds no respect for the legislative state body whatsoever and is driven only by
internal personal conviction (the Punisher). It is therefore justifiable to call the former character
a hero and the latter a vigilante. Furthermore, we can extend these two models of behaviour to other
characters, like Batman (a hero) and Rorschach (a vigilante). The same defining feature of these
characters are in place: respectively their regard or disregard for laws and their unwillingness or
willingness to take lives. Batmans trademark of leaving criminals in front of the police station
(albeit often beaten to pulp but alive) for his partner Jim Gordon to legally process them can be
contrasted with Rorschach leaving the body of a dead rapist in front of the police station with
the note saying Never! (Moore, Watchmen #4 23) his response to the Keene Act, the law that
requires all masked individuals to seize their activity.


6.2 bermensch from Krypton: Reading the Superman Mythology Through Nietzsche
People of Metropolis seem to be always grateful when their red 'n' blue-dressed champion
comes to aid them in the time of need. Why would they not be? Think of all the lives saved and
catastrophes averted over the years thanks to the Man of Steels presence on Earth, not to mention
that he always readily fixes back to its place that big globe thing from the top of the Daily Planet
building every time it happens to come falling down. But there is one person in Metropolis who
sees Superman in different light not as a saviour but as a threat to all of humanity. For Lex Luthor
Superman is a personal nemesis. When he looks at the caped figure hovering over the city, he does
not see a messiah the others cheer for. I see something no man can ever be, he says instead. I see
the end. The end of our potential. The end of our achievements. The end of our dreams. You are my
nightmare. (Azzarello Lex Luthor #1 22)
Although a great deal of Luthors animosity towards Superman is of personal character and
caused by his hurt ego, he does voice some legitimate concerns about the presence of an almighty
alien in the world. Luthors frustration comes from the certain knowledge that no matter what he
will ever be able to achieve in his life, his accomplishments will always be dwarfed in the eyes of
public by Superman. Luthors character is conceived as the embodiment of self-determination and
resourcefulness that could, and in several alternative-reality storylines indeed did, bring human
civilisation to whole new level. One such instance occurs in Superman: Red Son, where Luthor in
the wake of the ultimate defeat of his rival goes on to become the president of the United States and
later of the whole planet, devises a brand new form of efficient government and through
the scientific research eradicates diseases and radically prolongs the natural human life. All of this
because there is no longer any Superman in the world to keep his mind occupied. And yet when he
is asked about his greatest accomplishment on his death bed, without a moments hesitation he
whispers: Defeating the alien. What in the world could possibly compare with saving my people


from Superman? (Millar Superman 145) Why is it so important for Luthor to have Superman
removed from the face of the Earth before the mankind can reach for its full potential?
Recent works depict Lex Luthor as an extreme existentialist, completely rejecting ethics and
willing to undergo immense personal sacrifice in his mission to elevate humanity. His vendetta
against Superman is personal only to the extent that he sees the alien superhero as an obstacle in his
mission. Im not interested in bringing him down, he says at one point, but obsessed with
bringing us up. (Azzarello Lex Luthor #3 19) He lives in the existentialist conviction that there
is no God and therefore no inherent purpose to our lives, only the purpose we make for ourselves.
Lex sees other peoples lives as shallow, with no goal in mind, because they were stripped of
the responsibility for their actions. Why bother with innovations or being careful when you
constantly have the unattainable ideal in sight everyones favourite faster-than-a-speeding-bullet
superhero, who is sure to save the day every time it needs saving? According to Luthor, Supermans
message to the citizens of Metropolis is that they do not need to take care of themselves because he
is here to do it for them. This redemption from responsibility and the god-like status that
the superhero gained over the years are his main concerns. I believe theres something inherently
dangerous when something real becomes mythic, says Luthor. I believe when that happens, we
lose the part of ourselves that yearns to be great. Because when faced with a myth? We cant win.
(Azzarello Lex Luthor #3 20)
Luthors concerns are proven true in an Elseworld story14 Superman: Red Son which works
with the premise of what would happen had the rocket carrying baby Superman did not crash in
Kansas but in the Soviet Russia of 1930s. Instead of the loving nurture by the Kents, little Kal-El
therefore receives communist tutelage and the guidance of Joseph Stalin and becomes the Comrade
of Steel, who, as the champion of the common worker, fights a never-ending battle for Stalin,
Socialism and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact. (Millar Superman 13)

As the disclaimer states, in Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and
places some that have existed and others that cant, couldnt or shouldnt exist.


The different nurture however does not change Supermans nature and he remains to be a goodintentioned superhero who helps to save lives not only in the U.S.S.R. but in America and the rest
of the world as well.
The difference between the Soviet and the American Superman lies elsewhere. Lex Luthor
identifies the dissimilarity when he asks the question:
What if he changes his mind? What iftonighthe looks down at us and
decides were not capable to manifest our own destiny? What if tomorrow he
wakes up believing he knows whats best for us? That its not enough to protect
the world when he can rule it? The only safeguard we have against that happening
is his word. (Azzarello Lex Luthor #3 16)
This is what happens in the Red Son story. Following Stalins death, Supermans homeland is struck
with famine and he is forced to watch people starve as the government is unable to deal with
the situation. The turning point occurs when he sees his childhood friend among famished people
waiting in line for food portions:
Lana Lazarenko: Its okay, Superman. Its not your fault. Its just the way
the system works, you know. You cant take care of everyones problems.
Superman: Actually, I can, Lana. I could take care of everyones problems if I ran
this place and, to tell you the truth, theres no good reason why I shouldnt.
(Millar Superman 13)
This is the beginning of Supermans rule over the country. Crime doesnt exist. Accidents never
happen. All due to president Superman! (Millar Superman 7) proclaim posters of his
authoritarian regime that eventually reveals the danger of a single person cumulating too much
power in his hands. As his grip over the country grows tighter in time and Superman gains absolute
control of the state apparatus, despite the fact that everyone is fed and secure, a number of
revolutionaries begin to emerge, demonstrating the only aspect that Supermans perfect country is


missing freedom. My desire for order and perfection was matched only by their dreams of
violence and chaos. I offered them utopia, but they fought for the right to live in hell. (Millar
Superman 101) Lex Luthors concerns about the limiting influence of the superpowered alien
placed in charge of things are proved to be highly relevant: despite being genuinely good person
who tries to help people as best as he can, the Superman of this world is lead astray by thinking that
he can and should solve all the problems for people single-handedly.
The origins of the concern about the possible future course for mankind are seen in
the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and his concept of bermensch. In 1933 the Nazi party came
into power in Germany and the grave misunderstanding of Nietzschean philosophy about the better
form of the future man fuelled Hitlers dreams of racial purity. At the same time two American
Jewish authors Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster published a short story in a science-fiction magazine
called The Reign of the Super-Man and introduced a figure that would be later transformed into
the first superhero as we know him today. Despite being by the same authors, the original SuperMan (hyphenated) of 1933 was a very different character to the Superman (unhyphenated) of 1938:
instead of the flying saviour who is always there to catch you when you fall he was a downright
villainous figure, dreaming of the world domination through the immense power of his mind (if this
is not enough to associate him with the contemporary antagonist Lex Luthor, it may help to note
that he is also portrayed as bald). The original idea behind the conception of the character is clearly
a warning against the ramifications of the political order based on the Nietzschean idea of
the bermensch. The same concept was abused by Hitler and misunderstood by Siegel and Shuster,
an error that the latter duo later addressed by turning the Super-Man character into a heroic figure
(now Superman) and the bald megalomaniac into a villain.
Apart from the conspicuous similarity when it comes to translating his name to English,
Nietzsche's bermensch has actually very little to do with the modern form of the Superman
character. The concept, described by Friedrich Nietzsche in his philosophical novel Thus Spoke


Zarathustra (originally published in four parts between 1883-5), states that the bermensch differs
from man as much as man differs from the ape. What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing
of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.
(Nietzsche 360) bermensch is conceived as a higher form of humanity, unrestrained by the values
and conventions of the past. Instead of submitting to God and following his laws, he rejects the
religious authority altogether and creates new rules for himself, thus angering the other, lower forms
of life. Whom do they hate most? Him who breaketh up their tables of values, the breaker, the
lawbreaker:he, however, is the creator. (Nietzsche 497) The rejection of any existing religious
doctrine is best phrased in Nietzschesexclamation: GOD IS DEAD! (Nietzsche 356), meaning
that for the future man, the figure of God as the ultimate authority grows increasingly irrelevant as
he is able to construct values for himself. Can we apply these characteristics to the modern figure of
The first problem we encounter is that he is an alien: Nietzsches bermensch is clearly
defined as the next step in human mental and physiological development. No matter how long could
people of this planet evolve, their cells will not be able to directly absorb solar energy because they
do not possess the Kryptonian physiology that allows Superman to do what he does.
Secondly, even if we disregard his unique physiology, his heroic character and the values he
holds dear come from his upbringing in the simple rural environment of the Kent farm in Kansas
and the lessons he received from his foster parents, the everymen Jonathan and Martha Kent. He
does not construct any new values on his own and is famously known for fighting for some very old
and rather abstract human concepts truth, justice and the American way. Supermans morals are
not driven by some new, drastically different system of belief that would distance him from
the common man but he instead reinforces the traditional old values. He also certainly does not
perceive his fellow Metropolitans as a laughing stock or a thing of shame; he cares for them, looks
after them and sees them as morally equal to himself.


Finally, there is the clear religious influence in Supermans origin story. Nietzsches
bermensch is very unequivocal about the importance of discarding the religious authority but
the Superman myth is rooted in the Judeo-Christian messiah tradition. Some features of
the mythology surrounding the Man of Steel are in this regard implicit, such as the nature of his
heroic-saviour figure, the parallels between his story and those of Moses and Jesus (destined to do
great things from birth), or the fact that he draws his power from the Sun, just like Jesus draws his
miraculous power from his divine father. Other features make more direct remarks like
the depiction of Supermans father in the 1978 movie as a heavenly figure who clearly voices his
sons mission to become the saviour of the world, the initial naming of his foster parents as Mary
and Joseph Kent, or an anonymous shout from the crowd in 1996s Kingdom Come graphic novel:
Second coming of Superman. (Waid Kingdom Come #2 13) As a prominent representation of
a messianic figure in popular culture Superman does not fit the definition of Friedrich Nietzsches
Lex Luthor also has traits which can be associated with the bermensch. He is
unquestionably not alien, possesses no superpowers, save for his mind, and is determined to achieve
great accomplishments in life. Many of his deeds also reveal that he does not subscribe to
the traditional notion of morality: he has no moral conundrum in using or killing people as means to
achieving his goals, usually directed against the Man of Steel. From what he does it is implicit that
Lex sees himself and the ends he is trying to achieve as of more importance than the lives of other
people. As an existentialist and a moral nihilist, the trinity of ideals that Superman has become
distinctly associated with are mockery to him as well:
Truth? Thats in the teller. Just calmly messaged words that very well may be
nothing but carefully finessed lies. Justice? Belongs to the judge, who sits above
those who put him there because they cant trust themselves. And the American


way? It constantly evolves out of something that proves to be true and a lie.
(Azzarello Lex Luthor #1 18)
Although Luthors indifference towards ethical matters certainly brings him closer to
the ideal image of bermensch he is not in any case a perfect man. This most markedly projects
into his personal hatred towards the Metropolis superhero and his own inability to let go of it and
use his mind for more constructive ends than destroying his personal nemesis. Prior to his ascension
to the higher form of humanity Nietzsches bermensch must first overcome himself and the state
of nihilism that necessarily comes after rejecting the external sources of morality: [m]ay they
become convalescents and overcomers, and create higher bodies for themselves! (Nietzsche 616) It
is only after the bermensch creates himself that he can create new values. Nietzsche shares this
belief with Luthor. If Luthor believes in anything at all it is the power of self-improvement. We
were created to create ourselves Its the greatest gift our creator gave to us. [] Born to greatness
is a lie. And fate was invented by cowards. But destiny is something we hold in our hands.
(Azzarello Lex Luthor #3 3-4)
Reading the antagonism between Superman, the last son of Krypton, and Lex Luthor, one of
the most insidious villains that comic books have to offer, through Nietzschean philosophy reveals
that neither of the candidates is a good match for the philosophers bermensch. Despite
Superman's name suggesting that he is directly associated with the concept his traits and the nature
of his origin exclude him from being a valid candidate. That Lex Luthor represents many necessary
characteristics of bermensch is disturbing when considered in the light of his character flaws, but
his characteristics which exclude him from being the model for bermensch, like his pride, selfcentredness and ruthlessness, are at the same time the features that make him a believable, wellwritten villain: his malevolence prevents him from being an adequate person to elevate humanity to
the next level.


An bermensch moves society forwards for the better through benevolent means and for
selfless purposes. While Superman doesn't change society he embodies the set of values which will
define the future human society envisaged by Nietzsche and in doing so represents a character ideal
achievable without his extraordinary means.

6.3 Heroes Turned Villains in the Marvel Civil War

The distinction between heroes and villains is generally clear in comic books. Traditionally,
supervillains hatch their nefarious schemes while superheroes prevent them from succeeding,
usually accompanied by the publics appreciation. However, as superhero narratives have drawn
increasingly closer to reality in the past decades an obtrusive question comes up what would be
the publics realistic view of individuals who could read minds or blow up stuff with the mere
power of thought? It is a permissible idea that the public of the same diegetic world would be
equally afraid of all such superpowered individuals, no matter their distinction within the literary
categories of good guys and bad guys. This is the starting point for the plot of the 2006 Marvel
crossover event Civil War that largely affected the publishing houses whole universe. You still
dont get it, Peter, says Tony Stark to Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man #532, Right now,
in the eyes of the people and the government, for as long as we remain anonymous, were all bad
guys. (Straczynski 10).
The turning point that changes the public opinion about costumed heroes occurs in
Stamford, Connecticut. In the pursuit for the ratings of their TV show, a group of young and
reckless superheroes engage several superpowered criminals in their hideout in a residential area.
In the ensuing battle the supervillain Nitro unleashes a massive explosion, causing a death toll of at
least six hundred, many of which are children from a nearby school. In the fallout of this event and
the publics indignation Congress pushes through the Superhuman Registration Act, a bill that
requires every superpowered individual to register with the government and reveal his or her true


identity. When this bill becomes law it splits the superhero community in two, turning many old
friends against each other as many former heroes suddenly become criminals in the eyes of
the government.
Hobbes Leviathan, published in 1651, deals with political philosophy and helps us analyse
the tension between two possible states of human existence: the natural state of nature and
the artificial civil society. Hobbes argues that in the state of nature, without a common Power to
keep them in awe, [men] are in that condition which is called Warre (sic); and such warre, as is of
every man, against every man. (Hobbes 1814) It is a state of equal vulnerability because every man
is as likely to be killed by his peer as any other. Furthermore, without a common power in this state
morality is not codified so it is not conceivable to consider killing someone an injustice and it may
very well be a logical option. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law,
no Injustice. (Hobbes 1837) Hobbes characterises human life in the state of nature as continuall
feare (sic), and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and
short. (Hobbes 1814) This dichotomy states that an individual may be either completely free and in
constant fear for his life, or he allows his freedom to be limited but gains certain security in return.
Hobbes answer to the injustices of human life in the state of nature is for people to give up a
certain portion of their freedom and establish a common power to rule over them: leaving the state
of nature means setting up a fixed set of rules enforced by an authority that every member of
the community would be accountable to. This choice between freedom and safety is the same
choice that people are making by drafting the proposal for the Superhuman Registration Act in
the Civil War story.
It used to be that superpowered individuals, be they benevolent or malevolent, are rarely
held accountable, unlike everyday lawbreakers: the superhero who destroys a building to apprehend
a criminal is traditionally applauded without concern for the destruction caused while the criminals
are sentenced. State mechanisms of control command authority over neither superheroes nor


supervillains. While a genuinely evil person would not bother with considering the full extent of
consequences of their actions a hero might fail to see it as well. Unlike the idealised heroes of
the Golden Age the contemporary superheroes are flawed and make mistakes like every other
person, only in their case these mistakes have dire consequences. When Spider-Man makes an error
in judgment and by mistake causes even more damage than there originally was before he came
swinging in to help, he leaves the scene with nothing more than the sense of personal guilt.
As they do not know their civil identity there is no way for the state authorities to hold
a person wearing a mask accountable. That [p]eople were sick of sixteen-year old kids blowing up
buildings (Millar Civil War #5 20) shows the discontent with the lack of accountability for
superpowered people, regardless of their intentions. The registration and control over superpowered
individuals are presented as a solution to restoring public faith in superheroes.
In reaction to this new legislation there are strong proponents and objectors among
the superhero community. Those who immediately stand out as strong supporters of the registration
cause are Tony Stark (Iron Man), Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic of the Fantastic Four) and Hank
Pym (Yellowjacket), notably all brilliant scientists. On the other side of the rising conflict we have
moral paragons and political idealists like Captain America, Patriot, Falcon, The Invisible Woman,
Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Luke Cage, and Daredevil. The pro-registration group sees the new
law as a natural evolution of the relations between the governance and the superhero community,
while opposers view it as a violation of the rights of people who willingly and voluntarily risk their
lives for a good cause on everyday basis and see the state as having no right to force heroes into
revealing their civil identity and thus potentially endangering their friends and family.
That the brightest scientific minds support registration is significant if we look at the history
of critical thinking, like Hobbes they apply critical reasoning to politics. The Enlightenment saw
development in both the natural sciences and political philosophy. Through empirical reasoning
both scientists and philosophers sought to understand the world around them in a new light, in


a way which could withstand logical challenges. The concept that there are real, measurable laws in
nature identifiable through observation and reason was also used in political philosophy to codify
the social contract: if we could understand the objective principles of political science we could
devise the perfect social order that would prevent wars and allow individuals and communities to
exist without fear and thrive. Just like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton described the observable natural
world, Hobbes looked at the nature of society from an empirical perspective and it is this objective
reasoning that is employed to argue for legislation in Civil War.
The conflict between the proponents and objectors of registration is one which develops
from a philosophical difference to actual conflict, a civil war between superpowered individuals.
The classical dichotomy of good versus bad changes into for and against the new law and we see
superheroes and their former adversaries uniting under a cause against those rebelling against
the new law. The pro-registration side takes steps that certainly seem rational but in the long run
clearly tip the scale of readers sympathy towards the rebels not only because the antiestablishment is usually more likeable in the popular fiction but because the course of action based
solely on logic is revealed to be increasingly morally wrong. Along with recruiting their former
foes, convicted criminals, to fight in favour of the new law, the pro-registration lobby constructs
a high-tech prison in the Negative Zone, a place outside our reality, where the captured heroes can
be safely kept imprisoned indefinitely, and creates a robot clone of Thor, the god of thunder, as
the ultimate weapon against the rebels. While the reader is drawn to side with the rebels there is still
an ideological conflict in the narrative until the robot Thor gets out of control and kills the popular
hero Goliath during a fight, forcing many pro-registration heroes to reevaluate their attitude towards
the enforced registration.
The threatening intricacy of application of cold, calculative reason represents a common
theme in political philosophy and also projects into the modern superhero narrative: in Fantastic
Four #542 it is revealed that Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic formed his view of society on


the grounds of Psychohistory, an entirely new scientific field he devised. By using this new method
he can, in his own words, predict societal trends to an extremely high degree of accuracy.
(McDuffie 21) As a scientist Richards is foremost preoccupied with things that are quantifiable and
possible to analyse through scientific methods and the significance of an individuals free will
eludes him, which he admits by saying that his theory is useless for predicting the actions of
individuals. You may as well try to predict when a particular nucleus will decay in an isotope.
Impossible. (McDuffie 21)
Both the government and Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic, as a notable proponent of
the Superhuman Registration Act, fail to respect the value of an individual within society. While
Richards acknowledges that he cannot predict an individuals actions he continues to not take into
account the value of free will in his reasoning. Just like in Watchmen where Ozymandias chooses to
sacrifice the few (albeit millions) for the many (i.e. billions),15 the government in Civil War
sacrifices the rights of a minority to appease the majority.
It is not until the death of Goliath, an act clearly evil enough, that most heroes are finally
forced to discern between what is morally justifiable and what is legal, which eventually turns out
to be the morally pivotal moment of the whole conflict. With the civil war finished and leaving both
fighting sides morally compromised, Richards ultimate lesson from this experience is that there are
things that cannot be put to numbers but which are equally important nonetheless things like
common sense and the gut feeling that tells you that what you are doing is simply wrong, even if
you cannot precisely articulate your concern and you have a watertight theory that backs up every
step in your course of action. It takes another brilliant scientist, a criminal called Thinker, to point
this out to Richards: I see no flaws in your equations. The science is unassailable. [] And you.
So brilliant, yet so naive. You thought you could make these moves without personal cost, without


Addressed in the chapter 4.6


doing evil yourself? [] Understanding every intricacy of the big picture, while blindly walking
further and further down the path of evil. (McDuffie 22)
The government, in wanting to appease citizens, allow their fear to control the relationship
with superheroes, rewarding selfless heroism and sacrifice with persecution and imprisonment. This
narrative shows the flaws of a totalitarian regime which does not acknowledge individual
circumstances in pursuing social security. Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase
a Little Temporary Safety deserve neither[.] (Franklin) The validity of a political course of action
is in both the theory used to back it up and in how it is enforced. The significance of this story lies
in the way it plays out the central theme of political philosophy whether it is better to be free or to
be safe. In doing so Civil War sends out a warning message against excluding the moral sense from
political and scientific reasoning. One positive aspect of the conflict is that it helped to bring about
a new social order that would make the people feel safe and secure and allow them to believe in
their heroes once again.


7. Conclusion
This thesis was an exploration of philosophical richness behind popular cultures
phenomenon of superheroes. Several major philosophical themes, including respectively the matters
of identity, morality, and society were identified and analysed using a number of storylines and
characters from different periods of the genres history as examples.
Superheroes form a significant aspect of popular culture for over seventy years. They have
moved past their original literary medium of comics and have become ubiquitous in
the contemporary world, embedded in public subconscious, and present in movies, on television,
apparel, etc. The superhero stories remain topical for their readers: the long-term popularity of
the main representatives, characters who are as old as the genre itself, lies in the constant
development and changing paradigm of the narratives. This work establishes the underlying
philosophy as the key component that keeps the stories attractive.
The parallel between the superhero stories and the ancient mythologies shows that they
share the same societal functions, well-known characters from both worlds possess similar traits.
The genre defines new category of literary character superhero, both an extension of
the traditional conception of hero character from Ancient Greek mythology and an independent
cultural category. Superhero narratives create a consistent mythology of their own, addressing
equally wide range of topics for their readers to contemplate.
The history of the superhero genre consists of three distinct periods, each signalled by an
important change of paradigm: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and the Bronze Age. The Golden
Age establishes the new kind of fictional character the perfect messianic figure of superhero;
the Silver Age reworks this principle and turns superhero characters into flawed and erring humans;
and the Bronze Age removes the element of superpowers and turns the protagonists into antiheroes.


The inspiration for the original concept of superhero character can be traced in the literary
history: the vigilante formula evolved from Robin Hood to the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and
numerous Pulp magazines characters; the evolution lies in the way narratives approach
the triangular relation of the people, the establishment, and the hero character. The genre installs
the tradition of costume as the trope for creating a secondary heroic identity.
Superheroes are traditionally synonymous with justice and serve as paragons of good:
Spider-Man is a representative of the traditional approach and his guiding moral principles have
roots in consequentialist philosophy. This view was challenged by the postmodern perspective that
depicts superheroes as despicable antiheroes: the moral conviction of the characters of Watchmen is
ambiguous, derived from both consequentialism and deontology. The general interpretation of their
motivation calls for condemnation.
The superhero characters are often shown to be a disrupting force in society, undermining
the credibility of the state institutions. Daredevil and the Punisher serve as two prototypical
characters with different attitudes towards the state mechanisms and thus respectively representing
the image of a law abiding hero and an uncompromising vigilante.
The political philosophy projects into superhero narratives: relations between superpowered
community and public are affected by legislation. The contemporary narratives send a warning
message about applying cold logical calculations to political reasoning. The science-fiction element
of alternate reality worlds allows the superhero genre to explore otherwise unthinkable possibilities:
the archetypical positive character Superman turns into a totalitarian world-leader. The narrative
explores the ramifications of an almighty person, impossible to be deposed, in charge of a country.
The Nietzschean concept of bermensch is applicable to Superman and his arch-enemy Lex Luthor,
thus exploring the nature of the image of future man.
The superhero narratives serve as metaphors, reflecting many traditional philosophical
issues. This thesis provided an insight into how some ancient-old conundrums are addressed in


the superhero narratives in new and provocative ways that successfully speak to the modern


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9. Czech Abstract
Objektem zjmu tto prce je filozofie za superhrdinskmi pbhy. Tento kulturn fenomn
je povaovn za modern formu mytologie v tom, e m podobnou funkci a poselstv jako
mytologie starovkch kultur. Vybran pklady z nru demonstruj ptomnost mnostv
filozofickch koncept.
Prvn kapitola seznamuje tene se superhrdiny jako dleitm kulturnm fenomnem, jen
m vznamnou roli v souasn populrn kultue.
Druh kapitola pedstavuje superhrdinsk pbhy jako modern mytologii, a identifikuje a
srovnv tradin pojet mytologie s jejich modern komiksovou formou.
Tet kapitola se zabv rozdlenm nru do t zkladnch etap, rozprostrajcch se na
ploe od tictch let dvactho stolet do souasnosti, a popisuje vvoj typickho modelu
superhrdinskch pbh na mnostv pklad.
tvrt kapitola se vnuje vznamu masky a jej tradici v literatue. Ustavuje postavu
maskovanho hrdiny jako literrnho pedchdce modernch superhrdin. Kapitola tak popisuje
extern a intern dvody pro ptomnost masky.
Pt kapitola e etick otzky. Zan popisem praktickch dvod k zobrazen
superhrdin jako kladnch postav a analyzuje etick nzory Platna a Srena Kierkegaarda.
Spolen s konsekvencilnmi a deontologickmi filozofiemi jsou pak tyto nzory aplikovny na
tradin a postmodern pojet superhrdinskho pbhu.
est a posledn kapitola se zabv spoleenskmi otzkami: popisuje rozdl mezi
maskovanm hrdinou a jednotlivcem beroucm zkon do vlastnch rukou, aplikuje Nietzscheho
pojem bermensch na mytologii kolem postavy Supermana a popisuje jak se politick filozofie
projevuje v modernch superhrdinskch pbzch.


10. English Abstract

This thesis deals underlying philosophy of superhero narratives. It regards them as cultural
phenomenon and modern mythology, possessing similar functions and messages as mythologies of
ancient cultures. Various philosophical concepts are identified on selected narratives of the genre.
The first chapter deals with superheroes as an important cultural phenomenon and acquaints
the reader with their significance in the contemporary popular culture.
The second chapter presents the superhero stories as modern mythology. It identifies and
compares common similarities between the traditional conception of mythology and the modern
superhero narratives.
The third chapter deals with the periodization of the genre from the 1930s to the present.
It establishes three major periods and describes the distinct change of paradigm in the conception of
superhero characters and stories, along with a number of representative examples.
The fourth chapter introduces the trope of mask-wearing and its tradition in literature.
It traces the character of masked hero in literary history and identifies the predecessors of modern
superheroes. The chapter also addresses the twofold reasons for mask-wearing external and
The fifth chapter deals with morality. It begins with the practical explanation of why must
superheroes be good from narrative perspective, and goes on analyzing the view of ethics of Plato
and Sren Kierkegaard. These principles, along with consequentialist and deontological
philosophies, are then applied to two contrastive examples: a traditional and postmodern superhero
The sixth and final chapter addresses societal issues: it acknowledges the difference between
a hero and a vigilante, applies the Nietzschean concept of bermensch on Superman mythology and
illustrates how political philosophy projects into modern superhero narratives.