“In a democratic society, one debases oneself when one debases another; when we reduce other people to caricatures of themselves, we only make caricatures of ourselves.” – Travis Smith, “Superhero Ethics” (2018, p. 148)
In many places in-person and online, demonization has become synonymous with debate, and confirmation bias with conversation. Can superheroes teach us anything about civility and citizenship in a democratic society? As broadly-construed metaphors for past and present political philosophies, political scientist and professor Travis Smith thinks so. As such, Smith’s argument for the societal relevance of superheroes is consistent with those of other scholars (e.g., Bainbridge, 2007; Reyns & Henson, 2010; Sharp, 2012; Vollum & Adkinson, 2003). In “Superhero Ethics” (2018), Smith analyzes 10 superheroes in the form of a contest, pitting them against each other with regards to their personal ethics and the implications of those ethics for democratic societies. After briefly summarizing Smith’s analytical approach (spoiler-free), I will highlight what I believe to be three implications we can take from Smith’s analysis that just might help our socio-political discourse as a democratic society become more humane, meaningful, and ultimately more super.
“Superhero Ethics” (2018) contains seven chapters, with five devoted to contests between ten superheroes. In the introduction, Smith lays out the purpose of the book, which is to determine which superhero’s ethical perspective, metaphorically speaking, is the most admirable and therefore most needed in today’s socio-political context. In addition to articulating the book’s purpose, Smith does a great job of addressing the relevance of superheroes and providing disclaimers and clarifications related to his subsequent analysis in a way that I believe makes the book more interesting to someone such as myself whose background is in human development and not political science.
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The first contest is between the Hulk and Wolverine, two superheroes dealing with animalistic rage but manage it in different ways. Second, Iron Man and Green Lantern face off with regards to the ways they leverage their willpower and imagination in the service of others. The third contest features Batman and Spider-Man, superheroes who care very much—albeit in different ways—about the cities they reside in and are committed to protecting. Captain America versus Mr. Fantastic makes up the fourth contest, with the focus being on how their lives are indicative of their orientations towards practical and contemplative orientations towards wisdom. The last two superheroes pitted against each other are Superman and Thor, with Smith (2018) comparing and contrasting how each “says something” about the inherent dignity and capabilities of humanity. The order of the contests is intentional, as he starts with metaphors for the more beastly aspects of the human condition (Hulk and Wolverine) and ending with metaphors for the more divine aspects of the human condition (Superman and Thor). In the concluding chapter, he compares and contrasts each chapter’s winner until ultimately one superhero is left standing.