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)
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The Best of the Beastly
The Hulk versus Wolverine
Are We Not Men?
Let's compare the two most popular heroes among those whose superhuman qualities may be described as bestial: the Hulk and Wolverine. These two heroes, especially beloved by adolescent readers of comics and younger viewers of cartoons, represent the need to preserve our humanity despite the animal that resides within us all — as well as the secret desire to set that beast loose on occasion. They demonstrate the need to accept personal responsibility for our behavior regardless of what has happened to us; they also serve as cautionary tales about the onslaught of technological power unleashed by modern science.
Modern moralizing often treats us like pure spirits only incidentally embodied, abstracting away concrete circumstances and real-world consequences as we aspire to some theoretical ideal. For human beings to be oriented rightly toward honor, however, there needs to be an honest appreciation of our condition as animals of a sort — and an honest examination of the ways we restrain our animalistic tendencies in order to give society a chance to flourish. Our existence is inherently precarious: We live in a dangerous world where risk-taking cannot be avoided and guts aren't optional. Modern society tries to render courage unnecessary, or even dangerous; consider the standard advice given to those waylaid by a mugger: Simply hand over your belongings. People who stand their ground and defend themselves against threats are assumed to have been itching for trouble. We tend to eye those who exemplify or admire courage with suspicion, seeing them as jerks and dolts angling for a fight, putting us all in harm's way.
As we will see, Wolverine's need to defend the innocent and act honorably in a social setting contrasts with Bruce Banner's desire to live separately from society, protecting others by isolating himself from stimuli that might engage his rage. Wolverine is a heroic character with beastly qualities, fighting in a fashion that seems barbaric. The Hulk is a beast whose heroism often comes incidentally or accidentally. Wolverine will start a brawl whereas the Hulk is just really good at stumbling into one. The Hulk is practically invulnerable, thus diminishing the possibility for heroism during his rampages; he makes few sacrifices, scarcely takes risks, and requires courage only rarely. Wolverine reminds us that heroism is bloody and heroes get bloodied.
Wolverine accepts that violence is a permanent problem and he is ready for it, even on behalf of others. Honorable persons who step up in defense of others may find some pleasure in the fighting, but they don't fight for the pleasure of it. Counterintuitively, the Hulk represents the desire to avoid fighting, the wish that heroism wasn't called for. He fights out of anger and indignation that he isn't just left alone, retaliating against those who disturb him. The same people who expect everybody else to play nice can turn nasty when their peace and quiet is disturbed.
So who is more admirable? The man who struggles to restrain his animalistic nature by fighting for the rest of us in as honorable a way as he can manage? Or the man who means to repress his savagery, hoping to avoid anything that might trigger his anger and harm those unlucky enough to be nearby?
Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, was among the first of the great Marvel characters introduced during Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's flurry of creativity in the early 1960s. Debuting in The Incredible Hulk in 1962, Lee and Kirby initially envisioned the Hulk as a Jekyll/Hyde archetype adapted to the circumstances of the nuclear age: Banner gains super strength, invulnerability, and strange coloration after being belted by gamma rays during the test of an experimental superweapon. Originally, the change from Banner to Hulk occurs with nightfall; in time, anger becomes the trigger that mutates the mild-mannered scientist into a superpowerful rage monster.
The shift is an important one in the Hulk's development, one that makes him more relatable. Everybody — especially Jack McGee, the tabloid reporter hot on the monster's trail in the television adaptation of The Incredible Hulk — knows that anger is a major theme in Hulk stories. The title sequence for the television series, which ran from 1977 to 1982, started with a red sign flashing the word ANGER, revealed to be the greater part of DANGER upon zooming out. In the comics, the Hulk undergoes regular shifts in both hue and personality. Sometimes he is more timid and tame, and other times he is more oafish and cantankerous. Sometimes he talks like a toddler; sometimes he is shrewd; and sometimes Banner's mind asserts itself fully. He has shifted from gray to green and back so many times it's hard to keep track. But the version most familiar with TV and film audiences represents the core of the character, the default to which all other variations eventually revert. It is that version — the invulnerable, green-skinned simpleton who is "the strongest one there is" — that will be considered throughout this chapter.
The Hulk appeals to us on a visceral level: to the part of us that wishes we could lash out and smash everything; to the part that wishes everything life throws at us would bounce off harmlessly. The Hulk usually finds himself battling other monstrous creatures: often humans who have also been altered by gamma radiation, such as the Leader or the Abomination, or else aliens and extradimensional beings. Meanwhile, his personal Captain Ahab, General "Thunderbolt" Ross, hurls military materiél at him to put an end to the threat he plainly represents. The Hulk hurls it all right back. But the Hulk doesn't want to hurt anybody. Hulk just wants to be left alone! Puny humans keep trying to hurt Hulk! HULK SMASH! Once the smashing starts, the Hulk seems to relish it — like when he whips Loki around like a cat by its tail in the first Avengers film (2012). Eventually the Hulk will jump miles away and find a cave to hide in, leaving a dishevelled Dr. Banner to borrow some clothes and hitch a ride to the next town while "The Lonely Man Theme" plays on in the background.
Bruce Banner and the Hulk could hardly be more different. Banner, the brains, is scrawny and timid, while the brawny Hulk is fearless and dimwitted. Brilliant people are often aloof and enjoy being sequestered to focus on what really matters: the pursuit of knowledge. But scientific genius is always at risk of not getting the respect it deserves, disdained and despised by the very people who depend on it most. The Hulk represents the brainy person's desire to make ordinary people pay for underappreciating him, in physical ways that the dullards can understand.
The very name Bruce Banner sounds like Brutes Banner, as in one who bests and bars or banishes other beasts, or else Brutes' Banner, an incomparable exemplar among brutes, suggesting that the connection between these two personae is not entirely coincidental. We have all encountered people who seem to change in an instant at the slightest provocation. Or, if we are honest, Banner harboring the Hulk within himself reminds us that we each have nightmarish qualities that we suppress in polite company.
It is said that neither gods nor beasts have a place in ordinary society. Banner himself is rather asocial, interested more in science and technology and most comfortable when cloistered in a lab. He really only values the respect of other geniuses, like his "science bro," Tony Stark. He is not the kind of guy who likes crowds or seeks the adulation of the masses. Even his inventions under the Banner Tech banner are not products for mass consumption like the stuff that Stark's corporations manufacture, but rather specialized items for extraordinary purposes. The Hulk is a recluse by nature, preferring the vast, uninhabited expanses of New Mexico. Getting away from humanity sometimes leads the Hulk on long treks to distant worlds and alternate dimensions. He never seemed more at home than on Sakaar, the world that came to be called Planet Hulk. There he became champion of its deadly arena and overthrew its despotic government with the help of a ragtag band of fellow gladiators. Back on earth, he was a founding member of the Avengers but ditched them after their first adventure together. While he rejoins the Avengers now and then during his less irrational phases, the Hulk is a better fit for the Defenders, a "nonteam" made up of other misfits like Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Silver Surfer. He forms alliances with aliens and other monsters, but none of his relationships endure.
The Best There Is at What He Does
The world was introduced to Wolverine in the pages of The Incredible Hulk: 1974's issue number 180, to be exact. Wolverine, also known as Logan, has been depicted fairly consistently over the years across all media: He's a mutant whose body rapidly self-sutures thanks to a hyperactive healing factor, which also ages him slowly; he sports sets of claws that retract into his forearms and extend on command, making their trademark "snikt" sound as they emerge; and, as a result of his unwilling participation in an experiment overseen by a clandestine branch of the US military, his skeleton is coated in an unbreakable metal alloy called adamantium.
Despite its impractically bright colors, Wolverine has among the most realistic costumes in comics insofar as it, like Hulk's purple pants, is often in tatters. Wolverine was introduced as the third man in a fight between the Hulk and the cannibalistic creature called Wendigo, establishing from the get-go that however beastly Wolverine seems, it is principally beastliness itself that he contends against. Nonetheless, he is renowned for his animalistic qualities. He has keen senses suitable for hunting and tracking, deadly retractable claws, and a killer's instinct that, when provoked, will send him into a "berserker rage." Even his hair is wild: Two tufts spin up above the ears, suggesting ears pricked up at danger, while bushy sideburns creep down toward his chin, and rarely is he bereft of stubble. His hirsute nature speaks to the animal ready to burst forth at any moment. Proving that he is a man, and not just some animal — especially to himself — is his leitmotif.
Wolverine is basically the same guy whether he is in costume or in flannel and dungarees. He sports the same devil-may-care attitude whether he is going by his original legal name, James Howlett, or his assumed name, Logan. Even when he disguises himself, barely, as Patch, you have no doubt who you're dealing with, bub. Whatever his flaws — including memories that have been tampered with and a body that has rebuilt itself innumerable times, Wolverine has a kind of integrity and authenticity to him. Given that our own memories are far from perfect, and that Wolverine's body only suffers spectacularly and gruesomely what ours undergo constantly but invisibly at a cellular level, his dramatic struggles with identity are not really that foreign to us.
Wolverine's origin used to be one of the biggest secrets in comics, revealed in hazy glimpses. We assumed it wasn't pretty, but it wasn't just that we didn't know his entire history that made him so intriguing — he didn't know it either. However, the profit motive guaranteed that an official account would be published inevitably, and several series — all of them too intricate and convoluted to bother with here — have since been dedicated to recounting his origins. What's important is that Wolverine did not set out to gain the powers he possesses: His genetic destiny gave him his healing abilities; antagonists took advantage of that gift to graft metal to his bones; and enemies have messed with his mind so often that it's fair to ask how much of his behavior may be properly called his own.
Like the Hulk, Wolverine leaves civilization behind on a regular basis. He will disappear to the iniquitous city of Madripoor, indulge in a jungle adventure, or take a motorcycle far northward where he can shed his civilized façade and wrestle grizzly bears. Despite these excursions into solitude, however, Wolverine feels the pull of society, the need to belong. Whereas the Hulk doesn't want to have to deal with the puny humans who won't leave him be, Wolverine prefers subpolitical and premodern communities, as when he flees to the Arctic in an early episode of X-Men: The Animated Series (s01e06). He is wary of strangers, gruff with those whom he does not know, and generally unsociable — but not antisocial.
We see his sociability in the fact that he joins a great number of teams over the years. He was a founding member of Alpha Flight — the Canadian superteam that is housed within the federal government — but he didn't last long there. In the X-Men, he forms real friendships and learns to trust people, such as Nightcrawler, a saintly soul trapped in a body that looks demonic — who compares and contrasts nicely to the way Wolverine plays host to both beastly qualities and a noble spirit. In X-Force, preemptive assassination became routine as part of protecting mutantdom — his tribe — against the extraordinary threats it constantly faces. As an Avenger, he's the outsider within, the guy who'll do the dirty work that the others won't. Captain America told Wolverine in an early encounter (1986's Captain America Annual #8) that the Avengers would never have him; in time, Iron Man persuaded Cap to extend him an offer of membership (New Avengers #6, June 2005), insisting he's not a murderer.
Rather, "he's a samurai warrior." It's no wonder that ninjas — the dishonorable counterpart to samurai — are among Wolverine's most common sparring partners. Japan is Logan's true home away from home. There, nostalgic fantasies of a premodern society governed by traditions of honor rather than modern morals and legislation remain vibrant. Logan can imagine that in such a place he might fit in, even if he will never be made to feel welcome there.
Predators, Prey, or Both?
The Hulk is not motivated to become heroic by any sense of what is moral or noble. Trouble and danger find him frequently enough and he takes care of business, but he does not go out on patrol looking for criminals to apprehend. It is true that the Hulk has a soft spot for the weak: The presence of puppies or a beautiful woman calms him. The Hulk is largely a metaphor for our dismay at our frailty. He doesn't like to see people put in jeopardy, but he is motivated more by outrage at those who would victimize others than he is genuinely solicitous for their victims. He just wants everyone to be left alone.
Wolverine's sense of honor is personal. He does not defer to the standards of the communities he serves; he serves them in accordance with his own code. Admittedly, this makes it hard to distinguish his code from a subjective set of personal values. You might say that he fancies himself to belong to an imaginary community of noble warriors that includes the samurai from feudal Japan. But even if one dons a kamishimo and brandishes a katana, it is impossible to be a samurai in modern Western society. One can be a samurai only in a society that sanctions the role that samurai play. Wolverine maintains his code of honor despite the fact that within his social context he enjoys neither legal permission nor moral approval to execute his self-imposed obligations in the frightful fashion he does. Maybe his self-conception is misguided or ridiculous, even worthy of reproach. Read generously, he reminds us that something important has been given up in order for us to realize the way of life we now enjoy.
Gallantry is part of Wolverine's unfashionable masculinity. He assumes the role of protector for various ingénues in peril, such as Kitty, Rogue, and Jubilee. He has a different relationship with Jean Gray, whom he sees as a kindred spirit, someone else holding back an unfathomably dark rage. He calls her Jeannie, a homonym for genie, as if she might possess some magical way to ease his pain. Logan exhibits genuine compassion for those who are weak or in danger, because, as hard as it is to believe, he identifies with them. This commitment is on full display in Logan (2017), where he devotes himself to his ailing father figure, Charles Xavier, and his unexpected sort-of daughter, Laura. Bruce Banner, by comparison, tends to keep clear of relationships in which he would be obliged to care for anyone long-term. His professional relationships are shaky, and as regards women, the introverted Bruce Banner really only has his clumsy, ill-advised, and ill-fated relationship with Betty Ross — and she is better off without him.
There is some ambiguity about the heroic status of both Hulk and Wolverine; their very appearance gives that away. The Hulk was originally gray — and he sometimes turns gray again for a while — in a world where "shades of gray" suggest moral ambiguity. Even in his more familiar green and purple, the Hulk is coded as ambiguously heroic: Traditionally, superheroes wear primary colors and villains wear secondary colors. Wolverine originally and currently wears yellow and blue, but his costume during the time his popularity skyrocketed was orange with brown. On covert missions, he wears black and gray, like Batman — although Batman adds blue and yellow for his more kid-friendly appearances. The only other major character featured in this book who wears secondary colors is Green Lantern, and we'll discuss his ambiguities in the next chapter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Superhero Ethics"
Copyright © 2018 Travis Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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Table of Contents
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