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Superhero Ethics

10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now?

Travis Smith

Superheroes are at the forefront of popular culture and have been for several years. The genre is a cultural phenomenon that shows no signs of fading. The premise of Superhero Ethics is that we should take this phenomenon seriously. These comic book stories are more than popcorn amusements. Read as metaphors, they can illuminate various approaches to forging our characters, directing our lives, relating to others, and promoting the common good.

As the audience response to this year’s Avengers: Infinity War shows, millions of people around the world are heavily invested in the motivations, decisions, and destinies of their favorite superheroes. These characters speak to people in profound ways that are often underappreciated. In Superhero Ethics, Travis Smith investigates what they are saying—what messages about life they’re communicating.  

Throughout the book, Smith frames his analysis around a single question: Which superhero embodies the kind of ethical character we should strive to emulate in today’s society? He arrives at his choice by structuring the book as a contest. He takes ten top superheroes and pits them one against another, chapter by chapter. The hero who better exemplifies how we ought to live advances to the final round. By the end of the book, a single superhero emerges victorious and is crowned most exemplary for our times.

Among the timeless questions Smith explores are:

  • How can we overcome our beastly nature and preserve our humanity? (The Hulk vs. Wolverine)
  • How far can we rely on our willpower and imagination to improve the human condition? (Iron Man vs. Green Lantern)
  • What limits must we observe when protecting our neighborhood from crime and corruption? (Batman vs. Spider-Man)
  • Will the pursuit of an active life or a contemplative life bring us true fulfillment? (Captain America vs. Mr. Fantastic)
  • Should we put our faith in proven tradition or in modern progress to achieve a harmonious society? (Thor vs. Superman)

Superhero Ethics is a fun and edifying read—one that will appeal to anyone concerned with popular and political culture in modern America.

Acknowledgments / xi

Introduction Challenge of the Superheroes / 3

Chapter 1 The Best of the Beastly: The Hulk versus Wolverine / 15

Chapter 2 Beacons of Imagination:Green Lantern versus Iron Man / 39

Chapter 3 Responsibility and the City:Batman versus Spider-Man / 63

Chapter 4 Ideals in Action:Captain America versus Mister Fantastic / 89

Chapter 5 Gods in a Longbox: Thor versus Superman / 119

Conclusion Contestation of Champions / 143

“Every boy grows up with questions about comic books: Who’s better, Batman or Superman? Who would win in a fight, Wolverine or Magneto? Travis Smith grew up and is now asking intellectually serious questions about comic books: Who is a better representative of idealism in action--Captain America or Mister Fantastic? Who better embodies the human capacity for imagination—Green Lantern or Iron Man? Travis is a nerd’s nerd and Superhero Ethics is fun and engaging. If you’ve ever cared about comic books or superheroes, you’ll love it.”

Jonathan V. Last, digital editor, the Weekly Standard

“Travis Smith ably demonstrates that costumed characters have a bigger purpose in our modern world than just filling movie studios’ coffers. If you look closely—and Smith really has—they can teach us plenty about right and wrong in these morally murky times."

Reed Tucker, author of Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC

Superhero Ethics cleverly casts famous superheroes against each other and their ethics in an enlightening and enjoyable fashion, and in doing so emphasizes the true value of superheroes in society today.”

Mark D. White, chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY and the author of The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero