ur modern superheroes have sex. Super sex, I suppose, but otherwise they do it according to the basic ethical norms of liberalism: with consent and without any hangups about marriage. It’s hardly surprising — our superheroes are reflections of our ideals, and our current ideal person is enormously attractive, unburdened by sexual hangups, and capable of saving the world from imminent destruction. And if super sex wasn’t ruining superhero movies, I wouldn’t make a big deal about it. But it is. It is ruining what I imagined would be the most difficult thing in the world to ruin — stories about people who can shoot rockets out of their hands.
Our culture promotes a law-based ethic. If you obey certain laws — don’t kill people, don’t rape — then you get to be a “good person.” Our current Hollywood sex scandal is a scandal over supposedly good people breaking the “one law” of sexual contact — that it be between consenting adults.
Christianity promotes a virtue-based ethic. To be a good person, it is not sufficient that one obeys certain laws. Rather, the very ability to obey moral laws (like thou shall obtain consent) is made possible by the strength of one’s character. You needs good habits, obtained through repeated good actions, in order to have the moral wherewithal to resist the temptations posed by possible pleasures or pains. From the perspective of virtue ethics, it’s hardly surprising that comedians and producers who lead virtue-disparaging lives also break our basic law concerning sexual contact. Hollywood discourages the practical habits of action that will allow us to continue to obey the law when we are tempted to do otherwise.
Our superheroes used to be virtuous. This is what makes the original comic book heroes look so goobery and preachy. Their episodic engagements with their enemies doesn’t just reveal them as powerful, but also as patient, prudent, temperate in their consumption of food and drink, and always ready to give little Jimmy a word of encouragement. Our current superheroes are edgy, morally-iffy gods who obey a basic code which can usually be distilled to the commandment: Don’t kill people unless you really, really have to. All else is up for grabs.
The difference between virtue ethics and law-based ethics is that the former is always concerned with the total person, whereas the latter is concerned only with a person’s adherence to a particular code. That incredible command of Jesus Christ, to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” is the logical conclusion of an ethics that sees no human failing as unimportant to the moral character of the whole person. Temperance, by which we refuse the impulse to excessively indulge a pleasure of the flesh, is a training in courage, by which we refuse to gratify the fear of some pain of the flesh. Courage is a training in fortitude, by which we endure evil for the sake of the good, and it relies on our capacity for patience, by which we wait for a good that is a long way off. Patience, for its part, helps check our self-righteous wrath and lust for power, enabling us to live out the virtue of generosity. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that all the virtues are interconnected because they are all expressions of love, “the form of the virtues.” There is no unimportant moral failing. The lack of one virtue affects the formation of them all.
Law-based ethics indulges the fantasy that a good person can have fun, naughty sections while remaining, as a whole, a good person. Iron Man can have a side-project of excess, greed and vanity and Luke Cage can prowl bars for one-night stands, but, deep down, they are still heroes. Daredevil and Batman get to indulge their rage, drop the guys off of rooftops and leave them paralyzed for the rest of their life, but we applaud, because, technically speaking, they are still obeying their personal law of “not killing.”
Almost universally, heroes from Wonder Woman to Green Lantern have, like us, cast off the silly, antiquated battle between the virtue of chastity and the opposed vice of lust. This leads to a storytelling conundrum. The audience must believe that a lack of clear commitment in romantic love will have no effect on the superhero’s commitment to the human race; that his inability to control himself in the face of pleasure is an adequate training for remaining stoic, noble, and unyielding in the face of great pain; that the man who cannot sacrifice the comforts of sexual union for the good of his soul will be roaring and ready to sacrifice himself for the planet Earth. In order to believe in these characters, we must disavow whatever love of holistic virtue still lingers in our breast and imagine our superheroes as disconnected and compartmentalized — their “fundamental goodness” kept pure from their indulged vices.
This becomes so difficult to maintain, that we have largely contented ourselves with the impossible image of the split-personality superhero. Batman gradually went from an upstanding, virtuous hero to a wonderworker whose chief miracle is that he manages to be a self-indulgent playboy by day and self-sacrificial knight by night. Superheroes have been gradually pulled into this same style. From The Flash to Green Lantern to Iron Man, they’re all fun, good-looking, naughty misfits who become stoic, self-controlled saints the moment they pull on a mask. This is increasingly how we view ourselves, as good people “really” and “deep down,” who, if the situation required it, would stand up for the oppressed — but somehow our name is never flashed in the sky, and our cape stays folded at the bottom of our sock drawer. It has not occurred to us that we are not called on to be heroes because, outside of movies, self-centered lechers rarely notice the oppressed.
Audiences are bored, quite rightly, by the fact that Hollywood seems incapable of producing a superhero movie that doesn’t end with the pathos-drenched threat of a Totally Epic Wasting of the entire universe. They are bored that the final showdown always amounts to a hero roaring to manipulate some CGI ball, stream, or wall of ungodly “energy” away from the innocent. But what else can we expect?
If our superheroes’ problems were limited, and the evils they combat were local and embedded within particular communities; if, in the end, the entire world was not in danger of being ground into villain-food, then the problem of the sexy superhero would become apparent. He would not be absolved from the difficulties of casual sex by virtue of the Armageddon. He would have to deal with the horribly un-casual drama of casual sex that ordinary people deal with. His inability to say no to his lust would, ultimately, be revealed as a defect that makes him less effective in keeping promises, developing selfless concern for small children, and remaining resistant to a bribe. He could not keep up with the early superheroes, who ran about helping women abused by their husbands, stopping petty thieves and delivering corrupt senators to justice. The morally iffy superhero who indulges his vices by day is only an effective means of administering justice if the administration of justice becomes really, really stupid. When we need someone to “restore peace to this particular community,” we wouldn’t pick someone notoriously vain like Iron Man, a wrath-prone Daredevil or a split-life multi-millionaire like Batman. We would pick a virtuous goober like the early Spider Man, who ties up the bad guys and leaves a note to the police. When we need someone to plug up a Space Hole sucking New York into another dimension, however, Iron Man will do as well as any amoral schmuck with a Space Hole plug. By consigning virtuous heroes to their kitschy, happy-go-lucky past, we have gradually built up the literary necessity for an eternally returning apocalypse, the magnitude of which absolves our edgy, conflicted heroes from what would otherwise stick out as harmful, ineffective and distracting to their vocation as a superhero — their vices.
This is the same reason we reduce the drama of the superhero movie to an ultimate power-off, in which streams (and sometimes balls) of energy are pushed back and forth between heroes and villains in an effort to save or destroy the world. If the character of our heroes is suspect, then we can only hope in their power — their purely technical ability to do what we cannot.
Wonder Woman is an excellent symbol of this phenomenon. The film is split in half by a scene in which Wonder Woman, demi-goddess, decides (like a good modern) to sleep with mortal-man Trevor after some romantic waltzing — much to his mortal-man delight. Prior to the sex, Wonder Woman was a paragon of virtue — intuiting the horrors of evil and carelessness and adoring the sparks goodness in the hearts of the human race. In step with her virtue, the film progressed in tight, self-contained fashion: Wonder Woman leads French soldiers against the advances of the Nazis, using, not just her power, but her courage, compassion, and heroic example. Post-sex, the film declines into the inevitable rock-off between goddess and god, the entire landscape reduced to a CGI maelstrom of ultimate power being pushed back and forth between morally questionable, but extraordinarily able creatures.
Part of what makes the new Superman, the Avengers, and the Defenders so boring is that the playing field is inevitably reduced to one in which only the extraordinarily rich (like Batman, Iron Man and other technological superheroes) the genetically superior (like the Hulk, Captain America and the other genetically altered superheroes) and the supernatural (all the gods that populate the superhero universe) can be of any use. Ordinary people scuttle out of New York for the day, only to show up once their city has been decimated and saved, clapping nervously. Original comic strips were full of asides to children to remember that “you can be a hero too.” If this looks cynical now, it is because our favorite superheroes do not engage situations in which ordinary people are genuinely capable in participating in the salvation of the world. Gods open portals and billionaires use their tech. The loss of virtue, by which ordinary men are able to great things, puts the emphasis on power — on technical or supernatural strength. What is true of movies is true of life: When we cease believing in the good man, we begin looking for the strong man to save us.
Suicide Squad is the ultimate expression of this problem. We want our own vices to be edgy, cool, and not to interfere with our self-proclaimed status as “a good person, really,” so we make our villains heroes. This feels good — then we are struck by the inadequacy of the villain to perform basic acts of heroism, mangled as he is in knots of vanity, greed, and lust. So — between butt-shots of Harley Quinn and some Very Good Scenes with The Joker — we raise the stakes to nauseating extremes (you must be momentarily good or else a witch-queen will enslave the human race). Recognizing that the vicious-man-as-hero cannot realistically save the world in and through his virtue, we reduce the world-saving act to an act of technical power (shoot the bad thing with a gun) making it possible for vicious, self-indulgent, lustful egomaniacs to be heroic — only by making a godawful movie in the process. In a way, Suicide Squad is the logical conclusion of all superhero movies in which the protagonists do not strive for personal perfection, but remain content to obey a few basic moral laws. It is a hyper-powered, unbelievable romp in which the categories of good and evil are shirked off in favor of the only value that seems to matter — power. To judge by the new Avengers trailer, our CGI-happy studios have not caught on to the fact that raw power is wearing thin.
If the lack of virtue necessitates an escalation to extremes, the inverse is also true, that the presence of virtue makes an un-apocalyptic movie possible. Spiderman: Homecoming is a self-aware take on this fact. There’s all sorts of silly shout-outs to our liberal status quo, but at its heart, the story is about a goofy, virtuous Peter Parker stuck taking care of the local, limited problems of New York City. He wants to break out, to quit his “friendly, neighborhood” vocation and take on the slick, amoral cool of The Avengers as they protect the world from total destruction. As an audience, we know that the moment he does he will be absorbed into an increasingly boring universe of grunting, sweating, super-charged schmucks playing heroes for impossibly high stakes and having sex with each other in the off-scenes. The possibilities of his new Avengers-Brand Spidey-suit confirm the inevitable: he’ll lose the virtue (the suit keeps advising him to switch to “instant kill” mode) and gain a heap of technological power (like Iron Man’s suit, the suit is pretty much Siri with the capacity to do anything an action sequence requires). The writers seem to have a kind of tragic consciousness of their new Spiderman’s doom: Homecoming teeters on the edge, lingering over the last moments of the small-town story before the inevitable upping of the ante that devours what little character Hollywood managed to slip into the blue and red suit. But it really is inevitable: as long as we keep up our silly attempts at being ethical without being virtuous, our superhero movies will continue to stink.