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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

Whether in comic books or on movie screens, superhero stories are where many people first encounter questions about how they should conduct their lives.

Although these outlandish figures—in their capes, masks, and tights, with their unbelievable origins and preternatural powers—are often dismissed as juvenile amusements, they really are profound metaphors for different approaches to shaping one’s character and facing the challenges of life.

But, given the choice, which superhero should we follow today? Who is most worthy of our admiration? Whose goals are most noble? Whose ethics should we strive to emulate?

To decide, Travis Smith 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.

How, then, shall we live?

  • 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)

Using superheroes to bring into focus these timeless themes of the human condition, Smith takes us on an adventure as fantastic as any you’ll find on a splash page or the silver screen—an intellectual adventure filled with surprising insights, unexpected twists and turns, and a daring climax you’ll be thinking about long after it’s over.

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

Pop Matters

"[P]rovides some useful food-for-thought for today's socio-political context."

Justin F. Martin

"A fascinating, thought-provoking, insightful study that will hold particular interest and relevance for all dedicated comic book superhero fans."

Midwest Book Review