Right now there are over 1 billion people in the world living on less than US$2 a day. Starvation kills hundreds of people every day. Lack of clean drinking water is responsible for at least 30,000 deaths every day. At the same time there are more people in the world who are overweight than there are people who are starving. And the fortunes of the world’s richest 100 people could lift every single person on the planet out of poverty.
Our illustrious (and virtuous) editor has laid down quite the challenge, arguing forcefully that we should choose heroism over villainy because being a super villain is just so… well… wrong. And she’s right.
That’s the point.
To start with the persistent argument across all of genre that humanity must be left to make its own mistakes, that every super-powered person who attempts to relieve humanity of this apparently basic human right (though needless to say it doesn’t appear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or any other such document) is a villain.
In 2012, when Israel and Palestine were blowing each other up and posturing that considerably greater violence was to come, Hilary Clinton and Mohammed Morsi brokered a peace that neither side sought. Israel seemed hell bent on “making its own mistakes” by eradicating Palestine and Hamas was equally committed to “making its own mistakes” by bombing whatever bit of Israel it could direct rockets at. Now, nobody would suggest that Clinton and Morsi’s role was anything other than coercive – without the backing of the US and Egypt, Israel and Palestine respectively could not expect to continue existing. And nobody in their right mind would say that this peace deal removed anyone’s fundamental rights to anything. The entire international legal machinery is designed to prevent humanity making its worst mistakes.
When Superman destroyed all the nuclear weapons in Superman IV (see the opposite argument), he wasn’t removing humanity’s dubious right to make its own mistakes. He was helping us be the best we can be, rather than defending our worst. The Nuclear Disarmament treaties are the best of humans, but which our corrupt politics is too broken to implement. That is, the international community had already decided nukes should go, they just couldn’t make it happen. When Superman decided he was in error he became less than a hero, he became a colluder with all the powerful regimes who use their position to tyrannize the weak.
Was Iron Man being a villain in his first movie outing when he intervened in an international conflict to save the inhabitants of a village? Of course not. We expect superheroes to intervene. And so, if I woke up with superpowers, I’d really really REALLY intervene. And I think it would make me a supervillain in the end.
So if the question is whether I would use super powers to intervene on a global scale and remake the world into something better rather than nab bag snatchers there can only be one answer: get the fuck out of my way.
OK. So hopefully you’re still reading.
Let’s consider how this might work. One day you wake up with the powers of Superman. We’ll use Superman because when people talk superheroes he is clearly the paradigm. If you wake up with the powers of Aquaman, fine, be a minor superhero, what are you going to do really?
But you wake up with near absolute invulnerability, super-strength, super-speed, the ability to fly, laser beam eyes, x-ray vision, super strong breath and the ability to effectively disguise yourself by putting on a pair of eyeglasses. You are, in almost every way, superior in abilities to everyone else on the planet.
At first you think that you would like to help some people out. You go to school and save a few kids from being bullied. You cruise around town and stop a few car thieves and muggers. You notice that a lot of your family’s friends are having their houses foreclosed upon. Your particular part of small town America has been hard hit by the local auto factory closing down and now everyone is out of work and the banks are moving in. You think, surely, with this near limitless power, I can help out the people in my town.
A few ideas occur to you. You could become a successful MMA fighter though with your strength it would hardly be fair (and potentially lethal) for your opponents. You could hold a benefit, announce your powers to the world, and ask for donations. I guess it could work, but there are a lot of houses to save. You could strong-arm the bank manager and make him back off on the foreclosures. That might work for a little while, but how long could it last?
Or you can steal some money—no, steal a SHITLOAD of money, and make everyone’s problems disappear. You could distribute it in small amounts, enough to cover each repayment so that nobody need ever suspect that the lost money from that Argentinian bank heist ended up in Smallville. The criminal option is tantalizing and no matter how hard you try to think about other options you become fixated on how many awful corporations there are making so much money off small scale tragedies like the one in your town. So you steal the money, everyone is saved, and you go back to local patrol duty, hoping that you haven’t permanently tarnished your character.
You finish school and end up in the big city. Every night (apparently never needing to sleep is another of your super powers) you protect the city, but crime seems never ending and the poor just keep getting poorer. One day your best friend comes to you and tells you he has been busted for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Now, you have always supported decriminalization of marijuana and you’re pretty angry that poor Jimmy Olsen is facing a stint in prison for smoking weed. You do some research online and discover that America incarcerates a greater proportion of its population than any other country and that the great majority of these are for petty drug offences.
You can see where this is going.
A tangle of corrupt officials, stupidly strict penal provisions and indifferent judges makes law reform near impossible (though you are heartened by the few states who have managed to legalize medical marijuana). One day you wonder if drugs should be legal; maybe you could even help make them legal. You are sick of hiding your powers, pretending to be mild-mannered when you could be awesome. Maybe a little bit of fear wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Some of those powerful people should learn to fear something.
It’s time to take the big step. It’s time to be awesome. You come out openly, deciding that being a hero should be a full time job. It turns out that crime doesn’t only happen at night or on slow news days. Working a human job is just pointless, there’s too much to get done. So now Superman protects the city—protects it from everyone. You set up a refuge for everyone who fears someone powerful. You tell the police that your friend will not be facing charges, they can’t take him, they can’t charge him, they can’t incarcerate him. But that seems unfair, there are so many people unjustly imprisoned. So you bust out everyone on petty drug charges and give them a place in your refuge.
Next to go are the pimps. Sex work should be legal everywhere and men shouldn’t be able to exploit women who would like to work safely, or force women into it who aren’t willing. So you take in all the sex workers and make clear that no pimps are welcome. If any complain you decide not to repeat the mistakes of so many superheroes, who are forever letting their nemeses get away and cause havoc another day. Seriously, how many deaths are on Superman’s head for letting Lex Luthor come back again and again? So some pimps get made an example of. If any complain, your combination of super hearing and laser eyesight make short work of them.
And so it goes on. You build a bigger and bigger city. There is no homelessness, no street violence, no domestic violence (abusive husbands fare quite badly under your reign). Drug use is legal and protected, as is sex work. Your city is starting to look more and more like a well-run Scandinavian country. As officials attempt to oppose you they are dealt with summarily. Of what importance is a mayor beholden to corporate interests? You appoint yourself mayor of the city, then president of the country. There can be no war, you can defeat any national army from the upper atmosphere with those awesome and too-often-forgotten laser eyes.
Are you a villain? In a sense, unquestionably. You violate every rule of official superherodom. You kill people. Relatively often. You have fun; not having to pretend you’re a boring human you get heaps of girls. You avoid that awkward bit where the girl you like is partly in love with both you and your alter-ego. She’s just totally into all of you. Sure you’re a villain, but you’re better than every superhero who never had the courage to do what you do. To genuinely use their powers to remake the world into the better place that humans wish they could but always fall short because they rely on consensus to do it.
And that’s ultimately what it comes down to. There are lots of people who want the world to be a better place and a few who are powerful enough to make sure that never happens. You don’t represent those in power, but you do represent a lot of others. And if that makes you a villain, well, the millions of dollars, beautiful women and sense of accomplishment make it all worthwhile.