Ends and Means: The Politics of Superheroes With Dirty Hands

Featured Image: Superman crying, DC Comics

Last year Ashley wrote an essay for us called Snap His Neck! I return to it from time to time. Violence is something you can’t get away from if you’re at all interested in superhero comics. Superhero violence, as cartoonish and sometimes antisocial as it can be, isn’t interesting to me on its own. I’m not so interested in acts of superhero violence as I am in what they represent — what does the use of violence signify? What social and political implications are embedded in it? and what is this violence used to excoriate, celebrate, or justify?

Depictions of violence don’t lead to acts of violence (though there may be a link to aggression), but representations of violence can work to normalize it. That is, the way we depict violence in art can build on or alter our attitudes to real violence, and a cultural milieu of violent response to challenges, can make violent responses in real life a little bit more normal. This is most dangerous when it comes to depictions of systematic and structural violence, like rape or race-based violence, and to urban myths like torture. Torture is real, unfortunately, but the thing is, it doesn’t work. Paranoid over policing in the form of racial profiling? That doesn’t work either. But it’s all too real. What art does, like good rhetoric does, is lean on truthiness (as Stephen Colbert put it) to exchange the truth for lies — the commonsensical obvious truth, which appeals to us on a deep level because it confirms what we know about the world, is used to push the facts out of the frame. Art and rhetoric can reflect back to us a version on the world that we are comfortable with and confirm its reality. Or it can challenge it. And the use of violence can do both: challenge or confirm.

What I’m interested in today is how superhero violence is employed in Man of Steel and Captain America: Winter Soldier to engage with violence as political act, as a forgivable means to a laudable end. The films both challenge and confirm violence, from the personal to the political to the structural — it’s complicated.


“Just watch me,” is a phrase that Canadians of a certain age, and Canadian’s with good history teachers, are pretty familiar with. When asked during the October Crisis how far he would go to restore order, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau said, “just watch me.” Who would he arrest? Thousands were falsely arrested by the Montreal police and RCMP while hundreds were kept in jail without charges. How wide a net would they cast in searching for the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) terrorists who’d been bombing mailboxes and now kidnapping public officials and politicians? They arrested Communists, students, professors, and anyone who’d been seen publicly connected to the FLQ, or privately rumoured to sympathize with them. They illegally examined private data. They wouldn’t bend.

The crisis was resolved in the end through negotiation — the government cut a deal with the kidnappers, murderers too, as it turned out, having killed Pierre Laporte in a panic, and order was restored to Montreal. But not without a price. Quebecers’ suspicion of Anglo authority ramped up even more, and Anglophone Canadians had a renewed suspicion of government authority. But funnily enough, the moment has become a touchstone in Canadian university classrooms. How should the government respond to terrorism? Why, just look to our canoe-paddling, guitar-strumming hippy Prime Minister PET who cracked heads and called worriers “bleeding hearts.” What’s needed is a strong hand and an even stronger spine.

Every country has its examples of tough guy politics. Moments when a leader, whether they were known for toughness in the past or not, does something extreme in the name of the collective good. Declarations of martial law, suspensions of civil liberties, the authorization of black ops missions, the foment of rebellion in a foreign country of strategic value — the leader’s hands may get a bit dirty, but they did it for us, and so, that dirty act is its own kind of good. Right?

This kind of tough guy politics, a politics of ends and means, is forever. It makes for tidy logic: sometimes criminals must be dealt with harshly, and sometimes a good guy must do terrible things to ensure that the public is safe from those criminals. But it’s a logic that accounts for only one moment — the act — and one that extrapolates fantastically from an act of supreme, we’re told, cold rationality. Zod aims his heat vision at a human family. Superman has him restrained, but can’t hold him forever. He knows that Zod will never stop at a death toll in the mere thousands — he wants genocide or else. So he snaps Zod’s neck, and weeps — he’s lost the last tie to his homeworld; he’s lost a piece of himself in doing something terrible in the service of others. What could Superman have done differently? Man of Steel gives him few options — the movie is designed around its climax so neatly that there were few things he could have done differently along the way. There’s an inevitability to the scene, an attempt to make it more than necessity, but rather something fundamental to the character — a cornerstone of Zack Snyder’s new Superman. And through that inevitability, Superman’s hands come out pretty clean. It wasn’t a convenient kill; it was the only option he had, in that moment or any other. (The perversity of a twenty minute downtown punch up aside, there’s again little breathing room for the character to get the situation under control.)

Screencap: Man of Steel, Superman and Zod, WB 2014
A split second choice.

But let’s look at a character whose hands are decidedly dirtier. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, we learn that spymaster Nick Fury has been, in addition to normal spying operations, amassing an incredible arsenal of weapons, tiny and gigantic, all of them flying, and the most sophisticated listening technologies the world has yet seen. He wants to be ready, he says, for next time. The next time being: alien invasion, international terrorist attacks, perhaps a world war. Thankfully, the film gives itself time to ask questions like what is the cost of readiness and what is the cost of having those tools, and their potential misuse? In Man of Steel, Superman kills one man and he’s effectively cleansed of guilt by the logic of the film — it was, after all, an inevitable and necessary death. Nick Fury, on the other hand, endangers the lives of billions, double deals, and seeks to install a new global regime of preemptive policing. He does it all for good reason, of course, he wants only to protect those in need of protection, and imprison or kill those in need of killing. He’s motivated by fear, which is the secret behind all those terrible, “rational” acts: that when power sees its limits, it lashes out with overwhelming force. During the third act, Fury has a forced change of heart. Captain America tells him in no uncertain terms that the murder-helicarriers — ahem, helicopter-aircraft carriers loaded for terrorist bears with lasers, missiles, and more — won’t just be retaken, and they, along with SHIELD itself, will be dismantled. When he finally confronts Alexander Pierce, committee member, international diplomat, and the villain of the piece, Fury says that the end of SHIELD requires “the courage not to.” By this he means that Fury has found the courage not to use the weapons and technologies he’s spent his life working toward; he has the courage to turn away from the fantasy of total security.


Alexander Pierce, Winter Soldier’s bureaucratic villain, is smartly played by Robert Redford — I mean, he plays him smartly but also, how clever to have him of all people be the representation of securitization and the military-industrial complex. (See: the political activism and decades-long filmography of a Hollywood progressive, but especially All The President’s Men, where he plays Bob Woodward to Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein.) It’s a smart move in a movie built on a clever repackaging of America’s recent history of foreign adventuring and security obsession for a pop audience. As with real America, so goes Marvel’s America, save for the incredible international cooperation and potential threat to sovereignty that SHIELD represents — I have to assume that there have been far more internationalist Democrats in office than the US has actually seen in recent years. (Sorry not sorry, Bush family.)

Screencap: Winder Soldier, Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce, Marvel 2014
Espionage and diplomacy shake hands.

There is, of course, a certain courage to doing something outside the moral and ethical norms of the day. Ruling peoples can convince themselves that all sorts of things are just: everything from genocide, to apartheid, to simple discrimination. And I guess political murder is a bold act. But responding to threats with overwhelming force and whatever dirty deeds might be “required” is neither courageous, nor transgressive, it’s just drawn that way. Political realism, the halfway-philosophy that dominated American thinking about international relations and security for decades during the Cold War, is part unironic Machiavelli, part will to power. The central tenet of realism is that states act, in a rational and consistent manner, to protect their vital national interest. That is, above all else, states are self-centered and cooperative only when convenient, law-abiding only when convenient. There’s truth in this and some delusion: a whole lot of confirmation bias and social construction goes into what we consider “rational” and there are almost too many exceptions to prove the rule, including the millennia of international agreements and pacts that make it harder for states to be selfish and destructive. But this idea of the state, a selfish, rational actor that protects itself above all, is not transgressive; it’s commonplace. And so too are means-for-ends state and tradecraft. All the cool philosophers agree: sometimes you just gotta preemptively kill potential foreign and domestic threats.

For all that the Geneva Convention has been thoroughly trampled on, (and the Convention Against Chemical Weapons…and biological weapons…and landmines) it represents an attempt to pull back from this logic; an attempt to refuse. The very existence of near-universal international law shows cool-dude dirty-hands courage to be a lie. Like hipster racism, the willingness to do evil for the sake of good is common, not rare; it’s a baseline enshrined not due to human or state nature, but due to the lack of courage to do something riskier than committing to war: committing to cooperation, or at the very least, committing to not being our very worst selves. There’s a funny disconnect to realism, Prince-era Machiavelli (if we’re going to take it seriously — not everyone does!), and similar philosophies. As individuals we’re supposed to obey the state, be good citizens, and generally not be terrible to each other. When organized into states though, we’re supposed to approve of any act, no matter how terrible, if it means our survival, advantage, or comfort. And not only is this assumed to be just the way things are, it’s considered politically good. States, of course, have too much at stake to risk their citizens for ideals; unlike their fleshy citizens, who have nothing to worry about.

Billboard from They Live!
The always reliable billboard from They Live!

And this is how we build men like Fury into figures of heroism, by rationalizing that such acts are terrible, but necessary — thank god we have men who can press the button. It takes some steel to kill, or at least it takes some practice — only a small percentage of soldiers in World War One even fired their weapons, let alone fired them accurately and with intent to kill. (That number tends to increase with the professionalization of armies. Go figure. The training works.) But it takes even more steel to meet an open hand with your own hand open. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to trust, especially for people who’ve been immersed in this thinking.


It’s often the bad guys in superhero comics and movies that represent those “realistic” ideals; Man of Steel‘s Zod all but embodies state building by force majeur. He’s bent on recreating Krypton and nothing will get in his way. His opposite is Superman, who views the world through more hopeful eyes. He’s no naif though. While on his gap year adventure around the world, he’s civil but wary, and prepared to exact petty revenge on those who treat him or others ill. Bullied at a truck stop and unable to just fight with his harassers — he can’t reveal his powers! — he instead ties their vehicles into knots. There’s a bit of tantrum to it, but he’s young at this point, and more important than how he acts out is how he restrains himself. It’s a hallmark of the character, that he won’t respond to threats or insults with great force, because he knows just what his power is capable of.

And although killing Zod is muddied with means-for-ends logic, there is a wonderful moment, late in the film, of violence as political resistance — a perfectly Superman moment, where he downs a LexCorp/Air Force satellite and smugly, cheerfully meets their objections head on. The satellite was meant to spy on Superman, and one must assume on citizens as well, but Superman swats it out of the air — this kind of structural violence, total surveillance, is no match for him. In this moment, he embodies human not super power; the power of mass refusal. The power of nope. Many philosophers, by the way, don’t consider destruction of property to be violence — rather, destruction of property, especially state property, is an act of vital resistance. Hang on to that while we switch gears.

Meanwhile, in Winter Soldier, Fury has begun to imagine ways of dealing with international conflict and terrorism outside of the logic of ends-for-means, dirty hands and clean hearts. For Captain America the choice is clear: civil liberties must be respected, therefore we must not build security infrastructure that infringes upon it; justice can only be meted out for crimes actually committed, not crimes that might be, and therefore we cannot in good conscience “deal with” potential threats. For Fury, who’s been immersed in this rubric since the start of his career — his storming a captured embassy to end a hostage crisis is what inspires Alexander Pierce’s turn to HYDRA — it’s tougher. And in a telling scene where Black Widow testifies before an American subcommittee (give her a movie, it’s time!), it’s tough for the politicians too. “You’ve taken away our entire intelligence infrastructure,” one committee member cries. Black Widow has little more than cold comfort for us, saying “You’ll always need us.” Perhaps we will — but not the SHIELD of old, or its murder-carriers.

While Captain America makes the choice with ease, he doesn’t do it without considering the consequences — of course he doesn’t. In Captain America: The First Avenger he carries a heavy weight on his shoulders, going swiftly from nobody to lynchpin in the Allies’ fight against HYDRA. His raison d’etre since being thawed out is an expansion of that mission: world security and the fight against totalitarianism and oppression. He and Fury are neatly set up as counterpoints and Winter Soldier has many scenes of the two fighting over the helicarriers, SHIELD tactics, and the crisis at hand, but also their approaches to security. Sam Jackson gets a great monologue where he explains that his father carried a loaded fifty-four in his satchel as he walked home from work, because as much as he liked people, he didn’t trust them. His father lived in a quote unquote bad neighborhood and his choice was simple self-defense. Fury, however, does not. As a representative of a superpower’s security institutions, his carrying a loaded weapon into every negotiation is quite a different thing. The most powerful person in the room is carrying a gun, because he’s worried the weakest might harm him — what are the implications of that? Is the existence of terrorism worth destroying your way of life, and yourself? Is the death of one person worth a retribution that results in the death of thousands, the degradation of cultures?


As Ardo pointed out in her analysis of Winter Soldier‘s trailer, fear breeds fear. And an obsession with security only breeds more obsession: the fantasy of absolute security; the fantasy of decisive heroes who, with a few precisely chosen terrible acts, can usher in this state of absolute security. I like to imagine a version of Man of Steel where Superman gets to make actual overtures to Zod, where the climax isn’t so inevitable and we can see the range of possibilities that may lead us to that decisive confrontation, or may not. I like to imagine a version of the Nolan Batman films where there’s someone else, anyone else, who might be capable of addressing that string of villains in a credible fashion. The question: how did Gotham get backed into that corner? Who is responsible for things reaching those extremes? Why is Batman even necessary? If he is — is he? And then there’s Iron Man. Tony Stark’s richie rich buffoonery casts doubt on his insistence that he’s necessary to America, and by default (that’s how it works in these movies), world security. No one else has such good technology. No one else can use it as wisely. Certainly not Nick Fury. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are both individualist cowboys weighed down by a white, rich man’s burden — but where Bruce is suspicious of the competence of authority, Tony is suspicious of its existence. Good points all around, but is the alternative only decisive militarized force, embodied in one man who will usher in that fantasy world of perfect security? (Exhibit Watchmen: Ozymandias is the apotheosis of world saviour, political superheroes. Game set match? At least give me a point.)

Screencap: Man of Steel, Kryptonians, WB 2014
Zod looking down on his domain.

But the nasty secret behind the rhetoric of total security, embodied or not, is that it doesn’t work. And the even nastier secret behind means-for-ends is that we have no way to test if such dramatic actions bear fruit, even when they seem to. That is, correlation being not causation, we cannot prove that bombing Dresden or Nagasaki “worked” — there are too many other factors at work. Similarly, we cannot prove that broken windows theory — aggressively cleaning and making right public spaces so as to ward off litterers, taggers, the homeless, will trickle down to other forms of crime — actually works. Rather than celebrating boldness and pragmatism, justifications of Dresden and Nagasaki only feed back into the thinking behind them: threats can be crushed with absolute force; threats must be crushed with absolute force; civilian casualties are sad but inevitable.

But since we’ve been talking about security and surveillance, oh the age of NSA leaks and the CIA on Twitter, let’s talk about just that. The last few decades have seen an intensive militarization of civilian police forces all over the world. In North America, this change has been in part due to wars abroad and in part due to rhetoric around policing, security, and surveillance. It’s always been a hallmark of police forces that they’re the biggest gang around, helpful to members of the dominant social group (in North America that’s historically meant middle class white people of Western European descent), middling to terrible to everyone else. Police do perform a variety of useful functions, including traffic control, ordinance enforcement, and rounding up criminals, but it’s impossible to separate those functions from their use as political tools, or from the way they are embedded in structures of violence themselves. Let’s break that down a bit: there is no police force that operates outside of politics or political control; and there is no police force that operates outside of normalized oppression; because in large part, police, who have a monopoly on legitimate use of force in most states, protect that which is taken to be normal. And in an atmosphere of rising paranoia and increased willingness to use new security technologies and armaments, that means that the police response to that which is taken to be abnormal is increasingly militarized. And increasingly useless.

I’ll borrow an example from Ardo. Criminal activity, or the perception of such activity, among poor or vulnerable populations is often met with sweeping restrictions on movement and public spaces and increased public scrutiny. With crackdowns. Neighborhoods are over-surveilled, over-policed, and poor people and people of colour are arrested in numbers far exceeding the rest of the population. The neighborhood’s prospects, meanwhile, only deteriorate. They are punished en masse, not for the crimes of the few, but the crime of being different; of making the dominant group uncomfortable. Surveillance of the neighborhood increases fear internally — innocent people correctly fear unjust arrest — and externally. The 24/7 fear cycle reminds people that there are criminals out there, people who don’t look like them, illegals, deviants, others. It reminds them that these people are either already threats or potential threats. Damn political correctness, we’re just speaking the truth, right? Every incident of violence or arrest is an opportunity to market a new security program or tool. And no one, in the end, is more secure. But now, in the age of smartphones, social networks, and body cameras the missteps of the police are easier to bring to the light too. Every incident or arrest is also an opportunity to interrogate policing, to ask who is behind the camera? Who is wielding the baton?


WinterSoldier sees the ultimate superspy, Nick Fury, putting aside the life and the organization he’d spent a lifetime building, to try something new. To live with “the courage not to.” (Not, however, the courage to decline a killing shot take Pierce alive.) When Captain America says that SHIELD must go, he doesn’t mean merely that we’ve got to give it up and build a brand new organization in its place, he means that the totalization that SHIELD represents, world security through American security, total security through absolute dominance of intelligence and superiority of force, must go. Stop the arms race — let’s rethink this whole thing. Superhero violence is complicated, not always in depiction (bif, pow, krakow!) but in what’s behind it. It’s worth asking, not just “Was this the right decision? Is Superman still a superhero after killing?” but also “How did we get here? What’s the logic driving this story, that’s pushing these characters into making these terrible choices?” and most importantly, “Was this inevitable? What will happen after?”

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

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