I admit it: I’m a superhero fan. I don’t read the comics but I do enjoy the television shows and movies (and there are a lot of them). There’s just something about the genre that is both fun and thought-provoking. We get the satisfaction of superheroes saving the world and vanquishing villains while also pondering philosophical questions about the consequences of the ways in which we save ourselves and the biases we hold against people who are different. Sometimes the methods the superhero genre writers use to ask these questions are blatant while other times, they are incredibly subtle.
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is a great example of subtlety at work. Last season they created a great plot twist and turned one of the regular characters, Agent Grant Ward – someone who worked for SHIELD, an intelligence agency like the CIA – into an operative for Hydra (the Nazi-like enemy organization). However, instead of doing the usual good/evil narrative, the writers gave us shades of gray. They showed Ward’s history and how he was brainwashed into doing things he otherwise wouldn’t have done. The writers cleverly made the case that perhaps Ward was a victim just as much as he was a perpetrator.
The subtlety has continued as they’ve revealed what the team has done with their prisoner. At the beginning of this season, a captured Ward was locked in an underground cell without anything other than a cot. He did not appear to be able to read, watch television, go outside or do anything other than sit in the dark. They did not provide him with psychological assistance even after he repeatedly tried to commit suicide nor did they allow him the company of anyone other than those demanding that he give them intelligence. Regardless of how you feel about Ward, that kind of treatment is torturous and, even though a large segment of the fanbase has overlooked it, I believe the writers are asking us how SHIELD – the supposed heroes – can justify treating someone so inhumanely.
The writers of the shows The Flash and Arrow were more blatant with their questions about torture during a cross-over event. Both episodes of the cross-over were fun and contained intriguing questions about youth versus experience, speed against strategy, and perhaps most importantly, how to treat enemies. In one of the most thought-provoking parts, Barry Allen (The Flash) is appalled by Oliver Queen’s (The Arrow) methods of interrogating bad guys. He argues with Oliver that torturing people is not acceptable.
At first Oliver justifies his actions because of his need to keep people safe and the dark world he inhabits. But later he seems to reconsider and tells Barry that every time he exerts the will to do what’s ugly, he trades away little pieces of himself. Oliver expresses his fear that who he is as a person may be what is traded, leaving only the Arrow – the weapon – in his place. All of this is interspersed with flashbacks of when a scared and traumatized Oliver was taught how to torture so that he could prevent bad things from happening. The whole situation was exactly as Carl Jung rightfully pointed out, “The healthy man does not torture others. Generally, it is the tortured who turn into torturers.”
Although they didn’t come right out and say it, the writers were making the incredibly important point that torture is not only ineffective (as was demonstrated when Oliver got bad information from someone he arrowed) but it also severely damages the people doing the work. That especially holds true for people in the real world who are asked to hurt or kill people as part of their jobs. NPR once did a great story covering the prison officials who do executions. Many of the people interviewed talked about how difficult it was and how killing someone – even for a “good cause” – changed them. The message was clear: no one should be asked to damage their humanity like that for the sake of a job.
Yet this is exactly what we ask of many people in the military. While the consequences of this damage go a long way toward explaining the high rates of suicide and depression in both active duty personnel and veterans, society in general prefers to celebrate their work instead of worry about how it affects them. For example, a lot of people are excited about American Sniper, a movie based on the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who carried the dubious honor of being the most lethal sniper with 160 confirmed kills out of a probable 255 (confirmed kills need a witness). Many admire his skills as a sniper but I am more concerned with how the consequences of his job influenced him. It was made clear in both the book and the movie that the Chris Kyle he was before all the kills was not the Chris Kyle he was after. No matter how righteous your cause or how you rationalize it, killing so many people takes an incredible toll on your soul. You become harder, sadder and your moral compass has to be whirling at times. Yes, Kyle was good at his job but they never should have asked so much of him.
But Kyle isn’t the only one changed by our endless wars and our emphasis on torture over due process, revenge above understanding and killing instead of healing. It seems like the American soul itself is a bit weary or perhaps soul-sick. I remember hearing stories about how enemy troops in World War II, realizing that capture was imminent, were desperate to reach the Americans over some of the other Allies because they knew we would treat them better. If something like that happened today, I wonder if they would make the same choice because, between then and now, our track record on human rights has gotten much, much worse.
Sure, our overall history is not the best (Native American genocide and slavery come to mind) but for a while there, we seemed to be getting better. We brokered peace deals (the Camp David Accords), encouraged Gorbachev to tear down walls, and worked on gaining equality for gay people, women and people of color. We even tried to beat poverty. Yet many of those advances are waning. Now we’re more militarized and people appear harsher, less tolerant, and more likely to focus on, even obsess over, what divides us rather than what brings us together as humans. All of these changes in our national identity led to the appalling torture that we engaged in at Guantanamo. As such, instead of being known as people who are compassionate, generous, and fun, like Oliver Queen, I fear we are turning into a Weapon. I don’t think that’s what we want or what will make us happy and it certainly won’t be good for our national soul.
The problem is that people are scared and, instead of doing what they know to be morally right, they give into their deepest fears. Author Katherine Paterson said, “To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.” She’s certainly correct because fear is a natural emotion and, managed appropriately, it can be informative. However, right now, it sure feels like we are swinging and being so out of control does not feel good or productive. So what are we to do?
Perhaps the superhero universe can provide some clues. After spending half of their season in darkness and anger, Ward’s escape may bring some light back into the Agents of SHIELD world because the team must look to the future instead of concentrating on past grievances and Ward has the chance to work toward redemption. At the end of the cross-over event in Arrow, Barry’s talk with Oliver helps him realize that his humanity is still there and that he can be Oliver instead of just an arrow. And in what is perhaps the most relevant development, Captain America: Winter Soldier ends with Steve Rogers rejecting the intelligence community with all its lies and human rights violations and going off to save his friend.
How does this translate into what we can do in the real world? While I understand that superheroes are fictional, the overall guidance they offer is sound: we either let others control who we are or we decide to be true to ourselves. Either they win or we do. I don’t know about you but I’d prefer that we be winners. In order to do that, we must move away from doing what’s ugly and instead start healing our soul by doing what’s right and just. Torture must stop immediately and the torturers must pay for their crimes. We must stop emphasizing fear and move forward with solutions that are based on who we want to be. We must focus on bringing people together instead of pushing us apart. And guess what is the best part? We don’t even need to be superheroes to do it.