Templeton Press, 168pp. Paperback $14.94 US
By John Geddert
Travis Smith received his PhD from Harvard University and is associate professor of political science at Concordia University, Montreal. He is principally interested in the intersection of politics, religion, and science, and has published examinations of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. He has also been collecting comic books since he first bought Uncanny X-Men #207 in 1986. Smith’s writing has appeared in “The Weekly Standard” and “Convivium Magazine.”
Our society is not one comprised entirely of heroes. It is unlikely many of us would openly or brazenly use such a word to describe ourselves, let alone actually possess anything nearing the wildly fantastic abilities that warrant one the status of comic-book stardom. Many of us probably wouldn’t even truly desire to have such status and powers, even if they were remotely within the realm of possibility.
Yet, as a society, superheroes have enthralled our interest and admiration, both the stories surrounding them and, more importantly, their character. Ever since the debut of Superman in 1938, youth have avidly consumed superhero stories, growing into adults who continued to consume and create increasingly varied, broad, complex, and diverse superhero media. We live in a world where Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, begun in 2008, has grossed over 14 billion dollars. Although the majority of us, outside of some few comic-book fanatics, would not actually wish to see a world filled with Bat-men and Spider-men, or their assorted nemeses, it is clear that these characters have great potential value and resonance.
Despite this, we are likely inclined toward viewing superheroes as the figures of fairly trivial media, existing on the cultural level of what Classical philosophers, such as Plato, would have classified as ‘poetic’ and pandering to the dramatic whims of the people. We are consequently unlikely to hold Hawkeye, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Black Widow, or Thor to the same level as Hamlet, Jane Eyre, Odysseus, Anna Karenina, or Beowulf (although the comparisons between Beowulf and Thor would be ample). In Travis Smith’s recent book Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now?, he is not attempting to suggest we hold such characters on an equal level per se, but he is strongly suggesting that they are worthy of serious ethical consideration.
Superhero ethics. A curious and perhaps convoluted idea. To be clear, Travis Smith is not so much interested in discussing the ethics that superheroes themselves follow exactly. He is more precisely interested in viewing superheroes metaphorically, comparing how they symbolically represent different ethical ideas, “so that they are rendered less fantastical and more relevant to the lives of us less heroic, nonsuper beings” (5). It is their extraordinary character and inherent qualities that make these figures truly ‘super’, not their powers, and in their exaggerated nature they provide a simpler imaginative lens through which we can view different approaches to the “quandaries of ordinary life” (8). They offer an accessible poetic metaphor for our modern society. But the question that has always clouded poetic metaphors remains: what metaphor, if any, serves as a model that will bring about the good in our society?
This is the critical question of Smith’s superhero treatise, and it is from this question that he derives the novel format of his book; each chapter shall be a contest between two great superheroes, and in each contest the duo shall compete over who models better an approach to different human questions. The Hulk vs. Wolverine: how to preserve our humanity in face of our beastly natures; Iron Man vs. Green Lantern: how we can use our imagination and will power to improve the human condition; Batman vs. Spider-Man: our role in protecting our community; Captain America vs. Mister Fantastic: whether the active or contemplative life brings truest fulfillment; Thor vs. Superman: representatives of faith, whether in tradition or in modern progress. These are the stakes of Smith’s curious tournament of ethics. It is a refreshing idea, and hardly what most readers are likely to expect of a Harvard graduate philosopher.
In the interest of avoiding spoilers I will refrain from revealing the victors of Smith’s ethical bouts. However, I will try to reveal Smith’s own goal in pitting these heroes together for ethical comparison. Smith is not attempting to view obliquely the human condition as a whole; rather, he is specifically focused on which hero provides the best model for the here and now, which hero offers the best guidance for modern western society as we currently careen and zig-zag towards and away from what is best.
I was initially somewhat skeptical of Smith’s presumption that he might accurately and truly determine in this context which ethical issues are most relevant to the here and now. It was sometimes difficult to get a sense of some strong overarching philosophical theme, which almost seems natural considering the multifarious qualities of the (literally) colourful characters being discussed. However, as broad as the discussion is, Smith does a good job of illustrating some pertinent issues. A frequent topic of consideration is the way in which our modern technological society often “absolve[s] individuals of the need to practice personal and interpersonal responsibility” (72), and the prevalent conviction these days that the universe does not have objective standards of morality, but only subjective, ‘self-determined’ contingencies which themselves can be overcome through willpower. He also recurrently discusses the challenges of modern mass democracy, the proliferation of corrupt power, and the apathy and general lack of direct and responsible involvement of the citizenry. It is critical to point out that Smith is primarily interested in finding the most widely applicable hero model—imitable by the greatest number of people, whose metaphorical example will have the most salubrious effect on our political society—not a model for the ideal human life.
Indeed, in a different time and context, different heroes might prove victorious. Smith is not being a subjectivist in this; he is simply acknowledging the truth that different contexts call for different approaches. His book is meant to be accessible, and focused on our context, as modern North Americans. Superhero Ethics succeeds at mirroring the accessibility of the medium it discusses; though Smith may reference Francis Bacon, or Plato, or the broad issues of modernism, the reader needn’t be a philosopher to follow and appreciate the depth of the conversation. At the same time, the book is never overly watered down, like mere ‘coffee-table philosophy’. Superhero stories are accessible to all, and offer relatable symbols of conflict and approach. Fittingly, Smith’s book should be accessible to any concerned citizen of modern society. If you enjoy either superheroes, ethics, or both, you will enjoy the ruminations of Travis Smith.