Q&A: Superheroes, Violence, and Detractors

Why do characters in fiction get mad at heroes like Superman when he is clearly not a threat? Why do ‘good serration laws’ not seem to apply? If I saw someone save a child from a burning building that firemen couldn’t get to, I don’t think I would feel upset or scared at all. You could argue superheroes often use violence, but so do the police and the military, and it wouldn’t be too hard for Superman to join either of those to become legal. Do people only argue against superheroes for conflict?

Without knowing what you’re referring to specifically, this could be kinda tricky.

So, Good Samaritan laws protect you from legal consequences if you try to help someone and some harm occurs to them in the process. So, for example, if you try to administer CPR and break their ribs, you’re not legally liable.

For a superhero, this could potentially protect them from legal repercussions for injuries suffered when they try to save someone from a burning building. I’m saying, “potentially,” because, rather obviously, case law involving superheroes is rather limited. (This isn’t a joke by the way, there is a little bit of case law because of the Phoenix Jones stuff.)

For the record: I am vastly oversimplifying how these work, so don’t take this as legal advice. Also worth remembering that Good Samaritan laws don’t always protect you.

As for why this doesn’t seem to appear in comics, probably because most comic writers don’t have a full understanding of the law. This isn’t really a criticism, the law is a pretty complex topic, and it does fall outside the range of most writers who don’t specialize in that. In fact, courtroom scenes are the frequent bane of Daredevil writers.

So, there’s one huge jump here, Good Samaritan laws do not permit you to use violence. These are designed to protect you from being sued because you broke someone’s ribs. They do not give you permission to attack someone else.

There’s also a minor irony here in that it’s impossible for Superman to join either the military or police because he can’t, really, undergo a physical. I’d stick this under trivia, rather than a serious issue though.

Police and military do have the ability to use violence in the course of their work, but that is not without significant restrictions. Just because you’re a cop doesn’t mean you have carte blanch to inflict violence as you see fit. In some ways, in spite of having more powerful weapons, their options are even more restricted. So, while you can have a cop who’s secretly a superhero, you can’t, really, have a police superhero who uses force indiscriminately.

Yes, I realize Robocop (1987) subverts that statement. It’s kinda the point of the film.

There’s also plenty of superheroes who are cops in their day job, but then moonlight as superheroes to do things they can’t normally. In the real world (and most superhero comics), that is illegal.

Police are granted more authority, but that authority comes with procedures which are designed to protect the rights of innocent civilians. While it’s easy to create hypothetical situations where a cop knows they have the guilty party, and elect to break the law to stop them, in the real world, that kind of behavior can also allow a lazy cop to target someone who is innocent, simply to make themselves look better to their bosses, or protect themselves from embarrassment.

A superhero who uses violence indiscriminately is no better than a criminal. Just because you have the power to kill someone doesn’t grant you the right to do so. In the event that you’re dealing with superheroes who are so powerful they cannot be constrained by conventional law enforcement, you do have a real problem.

Another problem is that fights between significantly powerful heroes can result in a lot of collateral damage. We’re talking about billions of dollars to repair the city’s infrastructure because an alien decided it was time to throw down with someone else from his home planet.

So, two kinds of “heroes.”

You have low power (or unpowered) characters who are basically humans with some extra perks going out and killing one another. There’s no magic way of saying, “oh, yeah, that one was the good guy.” Especially when you’re rolling up on a scene where one guy decided to kill dozens of people. Turns out the victims were drug dealers, but that doesn’t tell you that the person doing the killing was a good person and not just a new rival.

You have high power, godlike, characters like Superman who have a real danger of tearing the city apart. While characters like Superman tend to be pretty careful with their power, there are plenty of examples of superheroes in a similar weight-class who don’t pay much attention to how much damage they do when they’re punching each other through buildings. At that point, it doesn’t really matter from a practical stand point who’s good, or who’s bad, when both parties pose a significant threat to people going about their daily lives.

In both cases, you also have a real risk of a hero being mislead, either by deliberate misdirection, or simply jumping to the wrong conclusion and making a mess of a situation.

There are a few things that can help. A superhero who is more careful about their use of force can be viewed by the police in a more positive light. Characters like Superman and Batman enjoy strong relationships with the local police, and even characters like Daredevil have a respected status, because of their reputation. In the extreme example, because of his meticulous approach, even The Punisher is often viewed positively by police in his world, even though what he’s doing is extremely illegal.

It’s also possible to have a superhero like Hellboy or Nick Fury who is, officially, part of a governmental organization specifically tasked with handling threats that conventional law enforcement is unable to.

As for people hating superheros? That can be from a lot of different causes. The simplest answer may simply be that the superhero in question has a reputation. This could be they’ve made mistakes in the past, and jumped to conclusions, with tragic results. Could be their powers come from some, “evil,” source. Could be someone holds a grudge against them, or playing them as the bad guy just sells papers. It’s not a short list.

A superhero’s origins could have some significance in setting. One example is Lex Luthor: who views Superman as a threat to humanity. How coherent this is varies, but there is some logic to his position. Kryptonian refugees include some incredibly dangerous supervillains, and even Superman isn’t infallible, so Luthor’s position has some merits, even if he is a textbook supervillain.

When you’re writing antagonists for your superheroes, it’s important to parse out why characters might be opposed to your heroes. Rational grievances are better for your story.

If your superhero just killed a bunch of people without much provocation; that’s going to get some push back.

-Starke

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