Superheroes And Virtue

There’s at least one way in which I’m a total nerd: I love comic book movies. Superheroes were a staple of my childhood, and while my tastes have matured (at least, arguably so) since those days, I have retained my enjoyment of the genre.

Of course, everyone can appreciate the spectacle of superheroes. And even moreso today, with comic book movies utilizing the cutting edge of special effects technology (both CGI and otherwise).

But, while I can’t say I don’t love the rush of adrenaline such action scenes can create, that’s honestly not the only reason I continue to watch them. In truth (try not to laugh), I enjoy these movies because of their messages.

There are few other types of movies where the central themes of the narratives involve a sincere praise of old fashioned virtues. To show what I mean, here are a series of a quotes from a series of some more recent superhero films:

  • Batman Begins
    • Rachel Dawes: Wait! You could die. At least tell me your name. Bruce Wayne: It’s not who I am underneath, but what I *do* that defines me.
    • Bruce Wayne: Rachel I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about… Rachel Dawes: No I’m sorry, the day Chill died I said some terrible things Bruce Wayne: But true things. I was a coward with a gun, justice is about more than revenge. So thank you
    • Henri Ducard: Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share .Bruce Wayne: That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.
    • Bruce Wayne: What have I done, Alfred? Everything my family… my father built… Alfred Pennyworth: The Wayne legacy is more than bricks and mortar, sir. Bruce Wayne: I wanted to save Gotham, I failed Alfred Pennyworth: Why do we fall sir? So we might learn to pick ourselves up Bruce Wayne: You still haven’t given up on me? Alfred Pennyworth: Never
  • The Dark Knight
    • James Gordon Jr.: Why’s he running, Dad? Lt. James Gordon: Because we have to chase him. James Gordon Jr.: He didn’t do anything wrong. Lt. James Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.
    • The Joker: We really should stop this fighting, otherwise we’ll miss the fireworks! Batman: There won’t *be* any fireworks! The Joker: And here… we… go![Silence. Nothing happens. Confused, Joker turns to look at the clock, which shows that it’s past midnight and neither ferry has blown the other up] Batman: [triumphantly] What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you? You’re alone!
    • Two-Face: You thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time! But you were wrong. The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased, unprejudiced… fair. His son’s got the same chance she had. Fifty-fifty. Batman: What happened to Rachel wasn’t chance. We decided to act. We three. Two-Face: Then why was it me who was the only one who lost everything? Batman: [grieved] It wasn’t…
  • The Dark Knight Rises
    • Catwoman: I blow that tunnel open, I’m gone. Batman: There’s more to you than that. Catwoman: Sorry I keep letting you down.[pause] Catwoman: Come with me. Save yourself. You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything. Batman: Not everything. Not yet.
    • Bane: So, you came back to die with your city. Batman: No. I came back to stop you.
    • Catwoman: You could have gone anywhere, but you came back. Batman: So did you. Catwoman: Well then I guess we’re both suckers.
    • Blind Prisoner: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
      Blind Prisoner: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
      Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.
  • Spiderman
    • Peter Parker: [voiceover] Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-man.
  • Spiderman 3
    • Peter Parker: Flint Marko. The man who killed Uncle Ben, he was killed last night. Aunt May: Oh, my. What happened? Peter Parker: Spider-Man killed him. Aunt May: Spider-Man? I don’t understand, Spider-Man doesn’t kill people. What happened? Peter Parker: I, uh… He… he was… I thought that – That you’d feel… He deserved it, didn’t he? Aunt May: I don’t think it’s for us to say whether a person deserves to live or die. Peter Parker: But, Aunt May, he killed Uncle Ben. Aunt May: Uncle Ben meant the world to us. But he wouldn’t want us living one second with revenge in our hearts. It’s like a poison. It can – It can take you over. Before you know it, turn us into something ugly.
    • Flint Marko: [looks down at the crowd below] I didn’t want this. But I had no choice… Peter Parker: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you killed my uncle. Flint Marko: My daughter was dying, I needed money.[flashback: Flint knocks on the car window with a gun] Flint Marko: I was scared. I told your uncle all I wanted was the car. He said to me “Why don’t you just put down the gun and go home?” I realise now he was just trying to help me.[Uncle Ben tells Flint to put down the gun and go home, just when Flint’s partner exits a nearby building with the money] Flint Marko: Then I saw my partner running over with the cash… and the gun was in my hand…[he shakes Flint’s arm – causing him to shoot Uncle Ben. Flint realizes this] Flint Marko: I did a terrible thing to you, I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back.[Flint’s partner drives off with the car, but Flint stays by Uncle Ben’s side] Flint Marko: [to Peter] I’m not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand. Peter Parker: I’ve done terrible things too. Flint Marko: I didn’t choose to be this. The only thing left of me now… is my daughter. Peter Parker: [after a pause] I forgive you.
  • Iron Man
    • Yinsen: Did you see that? Those are YOUR weapons… in the hands of those murderers! Is this what you want? Is this what you wish the legacy of the great Tony Stark to be? Tony Stark: I shouldn’t do anything. They could kill you, they’re gonna kill me, either way, and even if they don’t, I’ll probably be dead in a week. Yinsen: Then this is a very important week for you, isn’t it? 
    • Tony Stark: I never got to say goodbye to my father. There’s questions I would’ve asked him. I would’ve asked him how he felt about what his company did, if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts. Or maybe he was every inch of man we remember from the newsreels. I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability. Press Reporter #1: Mr. Stark! What happened over there? Tony Stark: I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up.
  • Thor
    • [Thor approaches the Destroyer] Thor: Brother, however I have wronged you, whatever I have done that has led you to do this, I am truly sorry. But these people are innocent, taking their lives will gain you nothing. So take mine, and end this.
    • Thor: Why have you done this? Loki: To prove to Father that I am a worthy son! When he wakes, I will have saved his life, I will have destroyed that race of monsters, and I will be true heir to the throne! Thor: You can’t kill an entire race! Loki: Why not?… And what is this new found love for the Frost Giants? You, could have killed them all with your bare hands! Thor: I’ve changed.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
    • Red Skull: Arrogance may not be a uniquely American trait, but I must say, you do it better than anyone. But there are limits to what even you can do, Captain, or did Erskine tell you otherwise? Steve Rogers: He told me you were insane. Red Skull: Ah. He resented my genius and tried to deny me what was rightfully mine, but he gave you everything. So, what made you so special? Steve Rogers: Nothing. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.
    • Abraham Erskine: Do you want to kill Nazis? Steve Rogers: Is this a test? Abraham Erskine: Yes. Steve Rogers: I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.
    • Steve Rogers: Can I ask a question? Abraham Erskine: Just one? Steve Rogers: Why me? Abraham Erskine: I suppose that’s the only question that matters. Abraham Erskine: [Displaying a wine bottle] This is from Augsburg, my city. So many people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own. You know, after the last war, they… My people struggled. They… they felt weak… they felt small. Then Hitler comes along with the marching, and the big show, and the flags, and the, and the… and he… he hears of me, and my work, and he finds me, and he says “You.” He says “You will make us strong.” Well, I am not interested. So he sends the head of Hydra, his research division, a brilliant scientist by the name of Johann Schmidt. Now Schmidt is a member of the inner circle and he is ambitious. He and Hitler share a passion for occult power and Teutonic myth. Hitler uses his fantasies to inspire his followers, but for Schmidt, it is not fantasy. For him, it is real. He has become convinced that there is a great power hidden in the earth, left here by the gods, waiting to be seized by a superior man. So when he hears about my formula and what it can do, he cannot resist. Schmidt must become that superior man. Steve Rogers: Did it make him stronger? Abraham Erskine: Yeah, but… there were other… effects. The serum was not ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion. Steve Rogers: Thanks. I think. Abraham Erskine: [Gesturing toward the wine] Get it, get it. Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man.
  • The Avengers
    • Loki: Kneel before me. I said, KNEEL![everyone becomes quiet and kneels before him] Loki: Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.[the crowd is terrified by his ability to appear and disappear] German Old Man: [defiantly rises] Not to men like you! Loki: There are no men like me. German Old Man: There are always ALWAYS men like you!Loki: Look to your elder, people. Let him be an example.[Loki is about to execute him with his scepter when Captain America intervenes] Steve Rogers: You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing. Loki: The soldier. A man out of time. Steve Rogers: I’m not the one who’s out of time.
    • Loki: I remember a shadow, living in the shade of your greatness. I remember you tossing me into an abyss, I who was and should be king! Thor: So you take the world I love as recompense for your imagined slights? No, the Earth is under MY protection, Loki! Loki: [laughs] And you’re doing a marvelous job with that! The humans slaughter each other in droves, while you idly threat. I mean to rule them. And why should I not? Thor: You think yourself above them? Loki: Well, yes. Thor: Then you miss the truth of ruling, brother. A throne would suit you ill.
    • Natasha Romanoff: I’d sit this one out, Cap. Steve Rogers: I don’t see how I can. Natasha Romanoff: These guys come from legend. They’re basically gods. Steve Rogers: There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.

Now, of course, one can take a cynical eye towards these stories. Certainly, some executives are making millions off of them, and it’s probably doubtful all those people profiting off these films are living lives of pure virtue. They’re probably, at least many of them, using these themes and their representations opportunistically.

But really, does that matter? The children watching the movies don’t know that. All they know is that Batman and Iron Man and Captain America are good people, and that good people are willing to sacrifice everything for the good of others. And if the kids of today are anything like I was as young boy, they’ll probably watch these movies more than once. Is it really such a bad thing that they repeatedly hear the message, “Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are, not a perfect soldier, but a good man”?