Sometimes, things which are entertaining in fiction would be immoral in real life. This is fairly obvious, and there are two equally obvious ways to deal with it. The first is to assume that the same rules of morality apply to both: that reading about or watching an immoral act is the same as experiencing it in real life, and therefore depicting an immoral act is the same as committing it. (Or, in a slightly less absurd variant of this position, that depicting an immoral act is immoral, but not as bad as actually committing it.) The second is to assume that the rules of morality do not apply to fiction: that because it’s not real, anything goes.
Both are wrong, because both assume a one-to-one relationship between the morality of depicting an act and of performing that act. It’s not so simple: the act of depiction is an act, and therefore creating fiction has a moral dimension, as any action does. However, whether an act is moral or immoral depends on a staggering host of factors, one of the largest of which is whether anyone was hurt. Fictional victims being, well, fictional, they don’t count as “anyone.”
The unreality of fictional victims may, then, seem like a win for the “it’s not real, anything goes” position. However, while fictional victims cannot experience real harm, fiction can still cause harm. For example, there is fairly solid evidence that fictional depictions of minority groups influence attitudes toward them, with positive depictions tending to decrease prejudice against the group and negative depictions increasing prejudice. This effect is particularly strong on people who have little contact with real-life members of the group in question.
“Representation,” as the kids say, “matters.” If your only contact with black people is seeing them as criminals on TV, your only contact with Muslim people is seeing them as terrorists on TV, that tends to become the null hypothesis, as it were–the assumed-true, default belief that requires evidence to disprove.
And it doesn’t just apply to demographic minorities. The influence of representation can occur with any group of people with whom most of the general public doesn’t interact most of the time–people with particular accents, particular professions, fandoms, practically anything that can be used to group people.
Which brings us to superheroes and Leaving Megalopolis, a stunning graphic novel by Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore. The premise of Leaving Megalopolis, unveiled slowly over the course of the book, is that Megalopolis was once the only city in the world with superheroes, and hence the safest city on Earth. But something, referred to in the story as “the Event,” happened mere days before the beginning of the book and caused everyone with superpowers to simultaneously become violent, sadistic, indiscriminate killers, reducing the city to a warzone where the few frightened survivors cower desperately, try to carve out spaces safe from the superheroes by one method or another, or–the goal of our main characters–try to leave.
On the way, they encounter a number of obstacles, including, of course, superheroes, but by far the most interesting are the residents of a particular apartment building, who have been providing daily human sacrifices for the superheroes in return for leaving the rest of the residents alone. (According to the superhero seen “collecting,” they go along with it because they enjoy seeing how quickly and easily frightened people turn on one another.) We are told that they picked their targets based on old grudges and antipathies of the typical neighborly sort–the person who plays their music too loud, the person who never says “Hello,” or the dog who barks at night–which is precisely what you would expect, if you’ve ever dealt with the petty tyrants of an owners’ association.
In short, the people whom the community doesn’t like get fed to the superheroes’ appetite for violence, which is exactly what happens in every superhero narrative. The people of Gotham don’t like the Joker, so they’re okay with Batman beating him. And why does Batman do it? The superhero Visua explains near the end of Leaving Megalopolis: “It didn’t change us. It exposed us. We all thought we were heroes because we were… special. Chosen, maybe. But we were acting as our nature told us, do you understand?”
The residents of the apartment building are bullies, violently attacking the people they’ve decided deserve it. So are the superheroes of Megalopolis, and the Event didn’t change them, it just exposed them. Superheroes are accountable to no one. They hurt and kill others with impunity, and they get away with it because the people they’re attacking are the “bad guys,” villains by nature who can never and will never stop being villains, as BTAS spent three consecutive episodes reminding us.
And that’s a problem, because most people don’t have much contact with criminals or police, which means fictional depictions of criminals as unrepentantly evil people who are appropriately dealt with by violent heroes, who in turn are accountable to no one and have no limits except their own judgment, are easily accepted as being normal, good, or true. And a culture in which it’s assumed that criminals are unrepentantly evil, and that the unaccountable use of violence against them is heroic, is how you end up with 1200 people being murdered by the police in 2015.
The superheroes of Megalopolis, in other words, are no different from the apartment dwellers, who are no different from the “Good Man” described in one of the prose side-stories included in the book, who became the outwardly kindly leader of a band of survivors living in a mall, then took control of the food supply and attempted to rape a teen girl. None of them, in turn, are any different from main character Mina’s father, who lit her mother on fire, a clear parallel to the fire-themed hero that killed Mina’s lover and claimed the sacrifices from the apartment building.
Again and again throughout the book, we see the same theme recurring: abuse of power. People who have power use it to hurt the people they have power over, because that’s what power does. That’s what power is for, and it’s why people seek it. Heroism, if it is to be found in Megalopolis at all, is found when the powerless turn against the powerful: when Mina sacrifices herself so that the others can escape; when one of the escapees temporarily convinces Overlord, the most powerful of the superheroes, to fight the other heroes; when, in a side-story, an unpowered former sidekick fights his superpowered former partner to save a girl that stumbled onto their old hideout.
So, then, is this the answer? Is the only moral depiction of superheroes one in which the superheroes are villains, and the unpowered people they’re fighting are heroes?
That may very well be the case. On the other hand, part of convincing Overlord (such a terrifyingly authoritarian name for an ostensible hero, and yet barely a stone’s throw from “Superman”) to turn against the heroes was mentioning how his comics stopped being good when they turned “grim and gritty” in the 90s, the last time depicting superheroes as violent bullies was popular. Simply depicting the superhero as excessively violent and unaccountable results in Man of Steel–or, as Leaving Megalopolis depicts it, Overlord spends some time murdering other heroes instead of the unpowered, but is still clearly evil.
There are, ultimately, two questions to ask here: Are superheroes irredeemably violent and authoritarian, or is there a way to construct them differently? And if they can be constructed differently, is it worth it?
Leaving Megalopolis ultimately answers that superheroes are irredeemable. The DCAU, on the other hand, tries to redeem them even in the midst of the “grim and gritty” 90s. We shall see if it succeeds.
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