This year will deliver major superhero ensemble films that provide alternative views of the limitations and proper exercise of power. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered this spring to uneven reviews, and Captain America: Civil War is due out later this summer. As Charlie Jane Anders has observed, these films offer a noteworthy message to our contemporary situation. “These films are all about a man with superpowers and colorful clothes, and the question of whether he (and his friends, in Civil War) have too much power and too little accountability,” writes Anders.
And make no mistake, this is a significant risk. In his battle with Zod at the conclusion of Man of Steel, large swaths of Metropolis are leveled as the two beings with god-like powers engage in a brutal death match. Superman’s dispatching of Zod represents another concern for someone like Batman, as at least in this case it becomes clear that Superman has taken it upon himself to combine the powers and functions of police, judge, and executioner. (In a significant departure from tradition, however, it is Batman in the latest film who has little compunction about killing.) Combine that with the propensity of the masses to deify such a being and pledge allegiance to such a god, and you have an explosive mix of power, ideology, and self-righteousness.
Batman thus recognizes the truth in Lord Acton’s axiom, invoked in Batman v. Superman, that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Or as Lex Luthor puts it, American still believe in the fantasy that the exercise of power can be “innocent.” Acton likewise observes that “great men are almost always bad men,” in part because history tends to valorize their deeds and also because they operate out of a heightened sense of moral entitlement.
Superman represents the pinnacle of superpower, and his corruption would threaten the entire world. In Injustice: Gods Among Us, an alternative story line that feeds into some of the dynamics of Batman v. Superman, a Superman in an alternate universe has finally had enough with the evil, chaos, and disorder on Earth and goes about implementing a new world order. This break is occasioned by the death of Lois, and in BvS, Lois is hinted at as being key to Superman’s turn toward tyranny. In Injustice, Superman rules with an iron fist and uses other superheroes as his agents of domination. When Batman worries about Superman’s corruption, it is episodes like Superman’s cold-blooded murder of a child that he has in mind. One of the dream sequences from BvS underscores this. In Injustice just as in BvS, is Batman who has contingency plans in place for Superman’s fall, and who puts things in motion to eventually defeat the tyrannical Superman.
The DC universe has always had such mutual limitation of power by superheroes as the basic model for how to best limit the abuse of superpowers. The Justice League is a kind of aristocracy made up of superheroes, who hold each other accountable and can join together to oppose anyone or any other group that seeks to impose tyranny.
“I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own,” says Steve Rogers, whose moral compass always points due north. Thus the basic conflict that runs throughout these films is whether superheroes can exercise autonomy and implement a responsible form of self-government (such as the Justice League), or whether government “supervision” is required (in the form of SHIELD, governmental registration, or international treaties).
The payoff of all this is that just as there is no uncorruptible exercise of power, there is no uncorruptible form of government, for whatever can be made by man (or Superman) can be unmade by man (or Superman). The aristocratic Justice League could devolve into an oligarchic regime or be taken over by a power-mad Superman. The benign governmental oversight of superheroes could turn into social tyranny, geopolitical machinations, and nationalistic warmongering. And the democratic “conversation” that Senator Finch calls for in BvS can turn into populist demagoguery.
As fantastical as these stories might seem, the perennial popularity of superhero tales indicates that there is something in them that resonates with the human condition. One key lesson of this year’s superhero blockbusters is that we must recognize the truth that vigilance for the corruptions of power in its various forms is an ongoing requirement for the flourishing of a free and virtuous society.