I have been thinking about heroes, superheroes actually, quite a bit lately. The new Captain America movie is out, I’ve seen it twice, and has so far made more than a billion dollars. In the midst of that success, Marvel’s comic book division releases a new title, Captain America: Steve Rogers, which reveals that Cap is and always has been an agent of Hydra, the organization he has fought his entire career. The decision provoked strong reactions from the fans. All of this caused me to think about why, when well done, superhero movies are so popular. I think a large part of it has to do with morality, more specifically, moral judgment.
We are discouraged from making moral judgments and made to feel guilty if we do.
In today’s politically correct world, we are discouraged from making any moral judgment. We are taught that since we can’t know everything someone has been through, we shouldn’t judge their actions. A criminal isn’t to be held accountable for his choice to commit crimes because he had a difficult childhood. Trump’s use of eminent domain and blatant cronyism are excused because “that is how the game is played.” This frowning on judgments extends to whole cultures. Intellectuals tell us we cannot condemn a culture that murders people for apostasy or treats women as third class citizens. Nor can we view a culture that defends individual rights, e.g. the culture of the American founding, as superior to others.
Of course, we do make these sorts of judgments every day. We have to if we are to live. It doesn’t matter if our daughter’s new boyfriend had an abusive father if we know that the boyfriend has sexually assaulted another girl we stop our daughter from seeing him. It doesn’t matter if a beggar has had bad luck if we see him shooting up in an alley, we won’t give him money when he asks later. When we read stories of women condemned to death by stoning for adultery, not just by some radical group but by national governments, under Islamic law, we rightly, at least in our own minds, condemn a culture that sanctions such actions. We feel guilty, as intended, for making these judgments and as a result, many become vocal opponents of moral judgments.
Superheroes not only make moral judgments, the act on them.
Superheroes do the opposite, and this is what makes them so appealing. They look at the world, and they judge for themselves what is good and what is evil. Based on their judgment, they fight to oppose the evil and protect the good. And they win. This, not any superpowers, is what makes them heroes. Hawkeye and Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe exemplify this. They are both skilled but otherwise normal humans, and they are equally heroic, perhaps more so than their teammates Captain America and Thor. As Hawkeye puts it to Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron, “I’m just a guy, fighting robots, with a bow and arrow.” They still see what is evil in the world and fight against it and to protect the good.
We hunger for characters that do this. We need to see characters, people, who look at the world, at reality and take a moral stand to protect their values, come what may, despite the difficulties. And without guilt. It would have been easier for Matt Murdock simply to take the money from Wilson Fisk. He could have used that money to support his work with those who could only pay him in produce. Instead, he identified Fisk’s actions as evil and knew that he could not live happily in a world where such evil went unopposed. It didn’t matter that Fisk and his mother had suffered abuse or that Fisk had killed his father to protect her, scarring Fisk for life. What mattered is that Fisk’s actions were evil, not his motivations. The nature of the villains in superhero movies does make it easier to make these moral judgments, Ultron’s plan to destroy all humanity is obviously evil, but what is important is not the scale of the evil but rather the act of identifying the evil as evil and fighting against it.
Our love for these sorts of characters is not limited to superhero movies or their small screen counterparts. We also see this in the popularity of crime dramas on television. In the 2015-16 season, three of the top five programs were crime dramas, including the number one show on television (for three years running) NCIS. These types of shows have characters who not only investigate acts of evil and bring the villains to justice but also identify and pursue their values, the good. We love equally that Gibbs, despite his faults and past mistakes, won’t rest until evil is vanquished and brought to justice and that DiNozzo chooses to protect his and Ziva’s daughter by leaving a job he loved.
In her Los Angeles Times column published on July 8, 1962, reprinted in The Ayn Rand Column, Ayn Rand touched on the issue of why these types of programs are so popular. She wrote that crime stories and Westerns, I would add superhero stories:
are the last remnant of romanticism on our airwaves. No matter how primitive their terms, they deal with the most realistic issue of man’s life: the battle of good and evil. They present man as a purposeful being who is able to choose his goals, to fight for his values, to resist disaster, to struggle and to win. The best of such stories offer the invaluable elements of a purposeful plot structure – of ingenuity and suspense, of the daring, the unusual, the exciting.
It is the need for moral heroes that has caused the uproar
It is this need for characters who present this ideal that has caused such an uproar of the “revelation” of Captain America as an agent of Hydra, an agent of evil rather than good. Of all the heroes in the Marvel universe, Cap is the one we could describe, as Ayn Rand did Robert Stack’s portrayal of Elliot Ness, as “a man whom evil cannot because it has nothing to offer him.” Captain America has always been the hero most guided by his certainty of what is good and what is evil Click & Tweet! , by his principles. He also believes most deeply in the ideals of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the ideals of individual rights and liberty. That each individual should be left free to act as they choose and face the consequences of those actions.
It is his moral certainty that has made Captain America the heart and leader of the Avengers, and it is this certainty that likely is being attacked with Marvel’s new storyline. I don’t believe that Marvel is actually going to retcon the entire history of Captain America to make him a long time agent of evil. Some online have suggested that this new storyline is simply a simulation Cap is in, controlled by the Red Skull, designed to make Cap believe he has always been an agent of Hydra so he will be one when the simulation ends. (Similar to what Samaritan has been attempting with Shaw in the final season of Person of Interest.) Even if he resists and breaks out of the simulation (which is what I am thinking will happen), if it weakens Cap’s moral certainty, it will destroy the character, the hero. The role model who has shown us for generations that evil can be identified and fought. Indeed, that evil must be identified and fought.
It will be a victory for those who keep telling you, “who are you to judge.” After all, if the man who has fought for the good for 75 years against all manner of evil isn’t certain what is good and what is evil, how can you be?