How Would You React to the Emergence of Superheroes?

I actually posed this question on Facebook before Batman v Superman was released. It didn’t get as long of a discussion as I’d hoped, but it did get some fascinating comments. I thought I’d bring it here, too, if people are interested in talking about it.

For the record, I saw Batman v Superman again on April 19th. Dad wanted to see it, and I went along with him. I liked it a bit better the second time around. I still have most of my complaints, but in general I’m not as bitter about it as I was after my first viewing, and I did see a few more things I enjoyed, plus the ending hit me a hell of a lot harder the second time around, too.

But that’s not what this is about, really…

One thing we got bashed over the head with from Man of Steal to Batman v Superman by Zack Snyder was that he wanted to answer the question of how these characters would exist in our real world. I don’t think he’s succeeded in dealing with that question so far, quite frankly, but it’s a fascinating question to ponder, I think.

So let’s ponder it.

The only caveat I’ll put to this question is that you have to pretend the comics don’t exist. Other than that, we’re talking about the reality we currently live in.

If Superman, Batman (and the Bat Family), Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, the Green Lantern Corps, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Zatanna, Black Canary, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Powergirl, etc, and all of their villains and “supporting characters” and worlds, all existed, how would you react to that? How do you think the world would react to it? What implications would it have for politics, for science… for social justice, even? What would it mean to us as atheists, now knowing that “gods” (of a kind) actually exist… including, of all people, Lucifer. Would you want to live in this reality?

As for me, I honestly have no idea. It would absolutely change the landscape of what our reality looks like. It’s something I first started pondering back when Nolan was releasing his Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan was tackling the question of Batman’s existence in “the real world”, and I think he did a great job with it, at least in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. So it’s a question I’ve had in my head for years, trying to come up with some kind of answer.

But it’s not an easy question to answer, I think. Or maybe it is for you?

let me know your thoughts in the comments.


  1. Bruce says

    Most of people’s lives are about home and friends, and this area wouldn’t change. But work lives and family budgeting are often much about money. Instead of “making money”, the basic aspect of how this part of society is organized would become mostly about begging and lobbying superheroes to give super solutions to all problems. The best-paid job in the world will be finding Superman’s friends and asking them to get him to help your company make money.
    After a time, the superheroes would all live in isolation from Homo sapiens and would be forced to cut any “social” contact with them. Superman would have to break up with Lois Lane if she knew who he was, unless he imprisoned her in a fortress of solitude for her own protection.
    We would just learn to live with a Master Race that made decisions for us without being part of our society.

  2. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    It depends a lot on the details.

    If the superheroes / supervillains were on the weaker end of the power spectrum, then not much changes. In particular, if a concerted effort of the military could defeat a superhero or supervillain, and if superheroes / supervillains could not blow up cities in a single go, then not much changes. We’d probably have some sort of reasonable “active superhero oversight act” that regulates and oversees active superheroes, because who doesn’t want to have Superman helping people? The active superheroes would effectively become freelance police, with some elements of procedure, and with accountability for fuck-ups and overstepping the bounds that are put in place. The CIA and NSA would then unofficially keep tabs on all superpowered persons, whether active or not. Our culture would go on with relatively little changes.

    On the extreme end of the power spectrum, with the whole kitchen sink ala The Justice League cartoon series, then the world probably ends. In particular, in a world where there’s dozens, or hundreds, of people that can blow up the planet through individual action, and with little to no chance to detect or prevent it, eventually one of them is going to blow up the planet.

    Consider a much more defined scenario: We discover Star Trek replicators. This discovery would need to be highly controlled, and the knowledge of how to create one would need to be highly classified. If one could create a Star Trek replicator in a normal machine shop, then civilization probably ends. The problem is that eventually someone will use the Star Trek replicator to create a bunch of thermo-nuclear bombs and use them to end human civilization. That or the very idea of civil liberties and especially the right to privacy goes entirely out of the window. The full kitchen sink ala The Justice League cartoon series, with all of those supervillains and their world breaking power, is very comparable to the Star Trek replicator scenario. Humanity just loses, or the only way for humanity to survive is to forgo all privacy protections, and become something like George Orwell’s 1984.

    I am assuming that the offensive abilities of supervillains can sometimes beat city-wide defenses and planet-wide defenses, whether through brute force or sabotage, which is part and parcel of conceptions of superheroes and supervillains. I only need “sometimes”, even “rarely”, because it just takes one time to destroy a city, or destroy the planet.

  3. screechymonkey says

    Ooh, fun topic. I trust you won’t mind if I reference Marvel characters as well, since I know them better. A couple of thoughts:

    1) The frequent use of the X-Men as a metaphor for racial prejudice (I’m informed that in more recent years, the trend has been to analogize to anti-LGBT prejudice) never quite held up to any serious examination in my opinion. We’re supposed to think that Senator Kelly is a terrible bigot for wanting mutants to have to register their abilities with the government, because that’s one step closer to another Holocaust, and the only real moral question is whether we should side with Magneto’s violent resistance or Xavier’s belief that humans can be talked out of their petty prejudice. But…. although there have been all sorts of myths and blood libels used to claim that people of a particular race or orientation are dangerous and out to eat or convert your children, mutants in the Marvel Universe really are dangerous. Some of them are walking WMDs. As the opening sequence to the second X-Men movie showed, even Nightcrawler (not usually on people’s lists of most powerful folks) could pretty much assassinate the President any time he felt like it. So being concerned about who these people are, what they can do, and how we could stop or contain them, seems pretty legitimate to me. That doesn’t mean that registering superbeings, much less locking them up, is the right call, but it would and should be seriously considered.

    2) In reality, we’d see a lot more government-employed superbeings. And not just in one specialized (and easily corrupted) agency like SHIELD or DC’s Suicide Squad. The Secret Service would probably employ telepaths (to detect potential assassins) maybe a shapeshifter (to provide a body double), as well as superpowered brawlers; ideally they’d have their own teleporter to get their protectee out of danger. Police wouldn’t just fire ineffectual bullets at whatever super-powered menace was rampaging through downtown, while hoping that the Avengers show up — they’d have a SWAT-team with their own version of Bat- or Iron Man technology.

    3) Comic books and movies need fight scenes to provide action, so dressing up in spandex and fighting evil seems like a good use of superpowers in those universes. Peter Parker can’t go on a date without some emergency cropping up that demands Spider-Man’s attention (and screws up Parker’s love life). In real life — how many times have any of us been in those situations? There probably wouldn’t be enough supervillains to fight, because even dumb people would soon find better ways to make money of their powers than rob banks or hold the world hostage. (Lots of super-powered reality shows!) And the ones who didn’t wouldn’t be put in some revolving-door prison like Arkham Asylum. And heroes could find better ways to do good, too. (Basically: we wouldn’t have the Reed Richards Is Useless problem.) This is one thing the TV show Heroes generally got right.

    4) Secret identities would be much harder to maintain than in the comics. Seriously, nobody can puzzle out that the vigilante with ultra-expensive high-tech gear either is, or is sponsored by, the lantern-jawed rugged young billionaire whose parents were brutally murdered in front of him as a child?

    5) For the social justice implications (and some discussion of my point #3), you could do a lot worse than to check out the webcomic series Strong Female Protagonist, about a superpowered young woman who gives up the masked crimefighting life to go to college and figure out how to actually make the world a better place.

  4. says

    I would be most concerned about the telepathic/mind control variants. Those would be super creepy.

    That’s one point where I’m really conflicted about what to do. On the one hand, you can’t let people with those powers just walk around without oversight. On the other, who’s going to provide the oversight? Wouldn’t they necessarily have to be telepaths themselves? And wouldn’t they just end up being PsyCorps a la Babylon 5?

  5. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Bruce in #1
    Totally no. It’s almost exactly comparable today to people trying to beg rich people for help. The superheroes would simply need to establish, individually or collectively, that they do not respond to requests for help, except through certain channels. They could simply establish a new cultural norm that begging superheroes for help is ineffectual. There would still be desperate people begging for help, just like in today’s world, and that would lead to something like the paparazzi and today’s celebrities, but it would be manageable.

    To screechymonkey in #3
    Thanks for citing the tvtropes page for “Reed Richards is useless”. You’re totally right.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To LykeX
    Good call on the telepaths and mind-controllers. Excellent reference to B5. Yea, it seems that the only solution is a PsyCorp of some sort. Of course, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with Babylon 5’s specific group named “PsyCorp”. We’re both talking about the general concept of a self policing organization that nominally reports to normal civilian government. It includes the PsyCorp replacement in the B5 series. Loosely, the idea was, if you’re a telepath, then you must register, and you undergo deep brain scans by another random telepath once a year or so, to check for misuse of powers. (No need for the PsyCorp policy of taking all telepathic children out of their households to raise themselves in some bizarre pseudo-military communist organization.) I haven’t given this much thought, but that seems like a reasonable solution, and it’s perhaps the best solution that I have right now. Of course, again, it depends heavily on the particulars and details of the power.

  7. says

    Screechymonkey @4 -- THANK YOU! That’s precisely my issue with the Marvel mutants as metaphor. Unless you think African-Americans, gay people, or whoever they are a metaphor for are genuinely dangerous, the metaphor falls apart really quickly.

    I’m as bleeding heart liberal as they come, but I honestly don’t know if I’d be the same in a world with demi-gods flying around, especially when it comes to the question of capital punishment. Someone like the Joker could be locked up safely and humanely in the real world (he keeps escaping custody in the comics because the writers like to use him as a villain and the readers love him as such), but Magneto or Kilgrave? There is no humane way to keep them safely locked up. One small piece of metal gets near him, Magneto is out. One word to someone that isn’t through a speaker, Kilgrave is out. I don’t know if it’s possible to have my progressive ideals living in that world.

    Then there is the question of what these super-powered beings would be doing. As presented in the comics, the “justice system” is just as terrifying as the villains. There is a reason there are protections for the accused, and in the real world as it is those protections fail far too often. Someone caught by a masked vigilante can’t be charged with anything. Who is their accuser? Where’s the chain of evidence? So if they were going to fight crime, it would have to be as a full member of law enforcement, and no police force needs Superman (oooh, does his hearing and vision create a WHOLE hell of a lot of privacy issues).

    Superbeings are fun entertainment, but if they existed in the real world the real world would be more hellish than it already is.

  8. screechymonkey says

    Yeah, telepathy is one of the most problematic superpowers. I’m not sure how many ethical applications of it there could be. Babylon 5 is one of the few fictional works I’ve seen that handled that thoughtfully. But I have my doubts about B5’s idea that businesspeople would agree to hire a third party telepath who would confirm that the parties were telling the truth in negotiations. How useful is that — can the telepath be fooled by the Constanza Method (“it’s not a lie if you believe it!”)? And would high-ranking business executives really be willing to have telepaths scan them, and trust them not to poke around in their heads?

    But then, maybe I’m just obsessive about privacy in that way. It always annoyed me on Star Trek TNG when Deanna Troi’s mother would casually read people’s thoughts and blab about it, and everyone treated it like it was a minor faux pas instead of something pretty offensive.

  9. smrnda says

    As others said, it depends on the level of powers.

    On one hand, there are superheroes without powers. Batman is a high tech vigilante because he’s really a rich dude with money to sink into the project. His powers are limited by technology, just like Iron Man. In some ways, the Punisher is a more realistic vigilante type. Given the value due process and the fact that society is already likely to bend in the sense of ‘guilty till proven innocent’ and ‘collateral damage is acceptable’ I don’t know if the non-superpowered vigilantes would be a good thing. It’s a fun fantasy to imagine someone going after ‘the bad guys’ outside of the law, but in real life, doing that is far from heroic.

    With superheroes, it seems to be the level of powers and the type that are key. A superhero like Wolverine (more powerful than a human but far from godlike) is way different than Superman. A million Wolverines would change the world less than one Superman, and two Superman types would pretty much end civilization.

  10. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    and two Superman types would pretty much end civilization.

    IMHO, still depends on the power level of a Superman, and Superman as a character has varied wildly between stories on strength and power. As long as our Superman could be reliably disabled or killed, and as long as Superman cannot destroy large amounts of stuff before he could be reliably disabled or killed, then it’s k.

    For example, part of that answer depends on if Superman can survive and fly in space (at high speeds). If yes, then that sounds like Superman could just colony drop the planet. In that case, we’re at the complete mercy of Superman, barring some preemptive strike. If there’s just one, then hope he’s a benevolent being, similar to how he’s typically portrayed. If there’s a lot of such Supermen, any one of them could destroy the world via colony drop or some other method if the other Supermen were “sleeping on the job”. End of the world.

    For example, if Superman does not pose an immediate threat of end of planet, and if Superman is highly vulnerable to Kryptonite, and he’s not “awesome” enough to dodge supersonic Kryptonite bullets, and we have a decent supply of Kryptonite, then Superman may be a manageable threat, in spite of his flying brick super powers. In that kind of world, I don’t worry about the future of civilization if there’s just a couple of them. I would worry about massive collateral damage from time to time, such as in the Man Of Steel / Batman V Superman films. And if we were lucky enough to have a Superman with the personality of DC Superman, the cliche “boy scout”, then the existence of Superman would be a good thing for most of us IMHO.

  11. says

    As Agent Kay said: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

    Humanity wouldn’t cope very well with super-beings at all, let alone alien dimensions. (Except maybe the Lovecraftians, and we’d better hope they’re wrong.)

  12. says

    Comic book superheros have the most meagre ambitions of characters in any form of literature. They stop bad guys and then maintain the status quo, which effectively means they do nothing. The idea that they have no political or social motivation to enact change is unrealistic.

    For example, the character Superman has unchecked power that could be used however he wants. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and he has the ability to force governments do what he wants if he were motivated (e.g. force the Soviet Union to give up during the Cold War, or capture ISIS singlehandedly today). Why focus on petty bank robbers or Solomon Grundy? Even if the character “believes in the democratic process” and won’t strongarm governments to solve larger problems, why doesn’t he do positive things for all of society (e.g. help built a land bridge from Russia to Alaska, use his strength to start and periodically power up an electrical generator to produce clean energy)?

    Tony Stark supposedly becomes anti-war, yet with all that gear and nanotechnology, he does nothing to stop war or violence (e.g. send out robots everywhere to destroy or disable nuclear weapons and street guns). I thought he was supposed to be incredibly smart.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    Reginald D. Hunter summed it up brilliantly on Have I Got News For You.

    “I don’t respect the concept of Batman because of what I understand about politics now. I’m gonna lay it out for you; rich dude owns a corporation with state of the art equipment, and he uses this to beat up on street level crime. He doesn’t mess with the industrialists or the super-capitalists, or the Murdochs or the Trumps, he really just fucks with the person that’s on the corner.

    Batman is a conservative’s wet dream.

    Fuck Batman.”

  14. mickll says

    We already live in a world where egomaniacs wield disproportionate amounts of of power, have vast egos and are unencumbered by the rules the rest of us mere mortals are forced to live by. I guess a word with superheroes would at least ensure that they look a bit more interesting.

  15. tkreacher says

    One relatively higher-powered Superman and we have a world God King, benevolent or otherwise.

    Likely otherwise.

  16. johnhodges says

    A pirate was once brought before a Roman Caesar. Caesar asked the pirate what he had to say for himself. The pirate replied “The only difference between you and me is the number of ships we command.”

  17. lorn says

    I disagree with the term superhero. They are super, they have more, perhaps unlimited, power. But they are not heroes. To be heroic you need to sacrifice. What does Superman sacrifice? Nothing. He risks nothing and he sacrifices nothing. Yes, he does great things but that should be the absolute minimum for a being with unlimited power.

    If you want to see heroism look to ordinary humans. Toiling endless hours and risking everything to save people, to rescue people at risk, to defeat disease, is heroic. It is heroic because we don’t have special supernatural powers.

    Of course, we can, sometimes, when things line up just right, change the world and move mountains. Lee Harvey Oswald changed the world with a few shots from an obsolete rifle. Alexander Fleming changed the world with his keen understanding of mold. Most scientists and medical researchers will spend their entire careers in the background adding unsung bits of knowledge to our understanding of the world. But a few lucky few, usually working in teams, in consultation with other teams, will build on that mountain of small facts and make a major advance.

    Women can create entire functioning human beings. Teachers can educate them. With a kind word we can inspire and guide. They will move forward and create worlds that we can’t even imagine.

    Humans are capable of grand and horrible things. Everyone knows the meme about someone going back and killing Hitler. How about someone going back and encouraging Hitler to be a better painter? Perhaps building him up to be a painter engaged in and inspired by his art. Broaden his pallet to include abstract expressionism and nudes. Instead of inspiring swastikas he could be painting flowers and mandalas. He could hang out in jazz clubs and smoke weed with the black and Jewish musicians.

  18. sonofrojblake says

    What does Superman sacrifice? Nothing. He risks nothing and he sacrifices nothing

    Devil’s advocaat…

    He sacrifices the chance of a “normal” life. He risks discovery. He sacrifices the chance of normal relationships. He could, if he wanted, use his powers for his personal convenience, living as Clark Kent, not bothering with the glasses or the dork act, just being a tall, handsome, well-coordinated, fit guy. He could get a job doing anything he chose -- his mental abilities would be up to it. Or he could simply grasp a handful of coal every week and sell the diamonds and live off the proceeds. He could be rich, talented and dripping with wealth and women, and at the same time as anonymous as any other schmo. He does not choose to live for himself this way.

    He chooses instead not to take advantage of his powers for personal gain… mostly… and instead sacrifices his personal life and relationships to save kittens from trees and similar. And in doing so, every time he steps out in specs, he risks discovery and the end of his carefully maintained “normality”. Admittedly, it’s not much of a sacrifice, or much of a risk… but I’m no fan of Superman either.

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