Superheroes are Bastards, Marvel Edition
Previously in my uber-cynical breakdown of superheroes becoming horrible people, I looked at some of the paragons of the DC Universe. Now it’s time to take a look at the Marvel Universe.
Marvel is known for its more human and flawed characters, so it’s not surprising that so many of them just snap and become terrible people. In this rant, I’m going to focus on the superheroes who are most often considered to reside on the moral high ground or who are in the position to influence a lot of other superheroes. I’m not delving into guys who have always been unstable, such as the Hulk or the Sentry, and I’m not going to touch on heroes who have been dangerously sociopathic from the beginning, such as the Fantastic Four. While the FF serve as the prototypical good guys in the Marvel Universe, they have never really held the moral high ground – in their earliest adventures, Reed Richards intentionally and remorselessly misled five billion alien beings into living the rest of their lives as microscopic size, while the Thing routinely tried to brutally assault a teenager.
No, this time I’m looking at Spider-Man, who is Marvel’s flagship character, Wolverine, who is the current leader of Professor X’s school for mutants, Iron Man, who is one of the founding members of the Avengers, and Captain America, who is the closest thing that the Marvel Universe has to a paragon of justice.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, Peter Parker had one of the most organic character developments in modern comics. He graduated from high school, attended college, faced tragedy, got married, and became a father-to-be. Imperfect from the get-go, he nonetheless strived to live life responsibly in an attempt to make up for the death of his Uncle Ben.
Sadly, tragedy can derail even the best of men.
Spider-Man began to unravel during the Clone Saga, where questions as to whether he was the real Peter Parker emerged. During this time, his wife, Mary Jane, was pregnant. Although Peter and MJ had their problems due to the pressures of this saga, Peter’s growing family nonetheless served to anchor him. At one point, he even made the decision to stop being Spider-Man so he could be a father to his child. The Clone Saga ended tragically, though, and while Peter was revealed to be the true Spider-Man, his child was killed by his arch-nemesis Norman Osborn.
Since the death of his child, Peter Parker has regressed, showing less and less responsibility and becoming more like an irresponsible man-child. This behavior unfortunately got reinforced early when Aunt May, who Peter had thought to be dead, was revealed to be alive. Believing that his loved ones just don’t stay dead, this caused Peter to vehemently refuse to believe that MJ died in a plane crash. Although he was eventually justified in that belief, his immediate actions after that, rather than mourning, included picking a fight with the Hulk that nearly caused the crash of a passenger train (and which would have likely killed hundreds had the Hulk not been the one with a cooler head for a change and fixed the tracks).
Since the death of his daughter, Peter seems to refuse the idea that his superhero life will ever cause the death of his loved ones again. He never took out life insurance, despite being married and in a profession that routinely put him in danger. He unmasked himself to the world without considering the consequences, and then made a deal with Mephisto when Aunt May nearly died as a direct result. In making the deal, Peter even admitted that he could not take responsibility for his action, and was willing to destroy his marriage as a result.
With MJ no longer an intimate part of his life, Peter continued to regress into becoming a self-indulgent, irresponsible buffoon. When the Chameleon disguised himself as Peter Parker and seduced Peter’s roommate, Peter didn’t consider the implications of this rape by fraud except in terms of how it inconvenienced him. He committed fraud in a misguided attempt to clear J. Jonah Jameson of a crime, and it was Jameson himself who revealed the attempt and then blackballed Peter from journalism. When recruited to replace the deceased Human Torch in the Fantastic Four, he showed up making jokes and wearing a costume resembling the dead Torch’s, complaining when he was called to task for his ignorant and insensitive behavior. He broke into somebody’s honeymoon suite so he could have masked sex with the Black Cat and showed no remorse over doing so. He has been incapable of holding down a relationship, refusing to do anything beyond having anonymous sex with the Black Cat and destroying his relationship with Carlie Cooper due to his refusal to inform her of his double life. When Norman Osborn gained a position of political power, Spider-Man did almost nothing to stop him, simply telling people that Osborn would eventually undo himself. While this turned out to be true, it also resulted in many deaths before it came to pass.
Having endured numerous tragedies in his life, Spider-Man has gone into a state of denial where he refuses to grow up and refuses to take any sort of responsibility for his actions. Currently, Peter Parker is dead and Dr. Octopus is running around in his body as Spider-Man. That the villain is showing more responsibility than the former hero shows exactly how low Peter had fallen before his death. When he inevitably returns, it will be interesting to see whether he experiences a rebirth or whether he continues his dangerously irresponsible behavior.
You might wonder why Wolverine, who has always been a fairly vicious killer, is on this list. He’s here because, up through the 1990s, he had a very identifiable character arc that was taking him away from being a killer. For most of his 30-year history, Wolverine has been a character who has fought his baser instincts, and for a time it appeared that he was going to win. Unfortunately, the life of a superhero eventually brought back his darker instincts.
Wolverine was introduced when he took on the Hulk in Canada. Shortly after that, he became a member of the X-Men and, under the teachings of Professor Xavier, worked hard to curb his murderous instincts. True, he did slip from time to time, such as when he met the Hulk again and got goaded into nearly killing his old foe, but overall he learned to work as part of a team and to kill only when absolutely necessary. He even showed incredible altruism at certain points, such as when he allowed himself to be brainwashed by Apocalypse to be the horseman Death rather than allow Sabretooth take the role, since Sabertooth would have embraced the role rather than fought against the programming.
The House of M event radically changed Wolverine’s character, putting him in a situation where one of his old teammates, the Scarlet Witch, had the power to reprogram reality. Wolverine pushed for her execution based on what she might have done. When the Scarlet Witch erased the mutant gene and severely reduced the mutant population, Wolverine gave up on his altruistic methods and went back to killing. He led the secret mutant group known as X-Force in targeted assassinations, going so far as to kill a child for crimes that he might one day commit.
Things got worse when time travel became involved. After the death of Professor Xavier at Cyclops’ hands, Wolverine’s instinct when meeting a time-displaced version of Scott Summers was to try to kill the teenager. During the Age of Ultron event, Wolverine went back in time to kill Hank Pym before he had a chance to create Ultron. This had major repercussions in the Marvel Universe, since Pym had repeatedly saved the world before. Wolverine repeatedly abused the space-time continuum in an attempt to kill everybody that might be a problem, ultimately putting the entire universe at risk.
Wolverine began his comics career as a guy who wanted to get away from killing and become a better man. Unfortunately, the many trials and tribulations that come with superhero life took their toll on Wolverine and he descended into becoming an unrepentant mass murderer whose lack of consideration for the consequences of his actions nearly destroyed the entire universe.
To be fair, Tony Stark used to be very good at admitting that he had screwed up. Again, though, this is a guy who dealt with world-threatening events day in and day out for years. While I don’t see a specific catalyzing event for Iron Man, sometime shortly after the Avengers Disassembled event, he started taking extreme precautions to stop troubles before they started. This, naturally, led to many more troubles down the road.
The biggest moment in which Tony stepped over the moral boundaries came in the Civil War event. Seeing that the government was about to make life a living hell for his fellow superheroes through the Superhuman Registration Act, Iron Man decided to get as many superheroes as possible behind the act to make life easier. This in and of itself was not a bad idea, but the lengths he went to enforce the new law was morally repugnant.
Rather than use his position as one of the premier superheroes, a billionaire industrialist, a technological genius, and a guy with many government contacts to adjust the registration act, Tony geared up for an all-out war against those who did not step in line. He also took things even further by using scare tactics in which he mind-controlled the Green Goblin into attempting a political assassination. With the help of Reed Richards, he set up an extra-dimensional prison where violators of the act were locked away without being read their Miranda rights or given any sort of due process.
Stark eventually won the superman civil war and found himself in a position of even more power. Being rewarded for his totalitarian tactics was probably the worst thing that could have happened, since it led Tony to believe that if he thought it was right, it was indeed right. He and his fellow superheroes shot the Hulk into space, and then tried to kill the Hulk upon his return. This only made the Hulk angrier, and he nearly destroyed New York City in the process. Even as the Hulk was being dealt with, one of Tony’s own contingency plans nearly went awry and sent the entirety of New York into the Negative Zone. But despite these mistakes, the day was saved and Tony continued as the director of SHIELD.
Thanks to nobody questioning Iron Man, the Secret Invasion event led to a number of casualties and the eventual appointment of Norman Osborn to a position of power. In order to protect the secrets of his friends from Osborn, Tony was forced to fry his own brain, which wiped his memories of everything from the lead-up to the superhuman civil war on. While this act was noble and earned Tony the forgiveness of many heroes, he still defends his actions during the Civil War event, even though he doesn’t remember his reasoning for them. He has also shown a propensity to questioning himself less and less, which led to such events as the Hood getting the Infinity Gems that he and his fellow heroes had been (poorly) hiding. He also played a key role in Avengers versus X-Men, wherein his attempt to defeat the Phoenix led to the separation of the entity into five different hosts, all of whom went mad with power and took over the world. Nonetheless, the event ended with the good guys winning, and Tony Stark got a lot of the credit for that despite the fact that his intervention prolonged the battle and endangered many lives.
The biggest problem with Iron Man is that in recent times he has very rarely been called to the carpet for his mistakes. While he used to doubt himself at times and question his motives, he has become more and more blindly sure of himself. The fact that he is so often hailed as a great hero by the rest of the superhero community means that he is less prone to question himself, and one can only hope that he doesn’t follow this cycle straight to the annihilation of the entire Marvel Universe one day.
You would think that of all the Marvel superheroes, Captain America would be a beacon of light. That might have been true once, although the ethics of bringing an underage boy with him onto the front lines during World War II still remain a strike against him, but in the modern age he has fallen prey to the same bad judgment and mental instability that other superheroes have.
In Captain America’s case, he seems to want everything to be as simple as it was when he was smashing Nazis. This has led him to go extremely overboard in a variety of different events. The biggest example of this would be during the Civil War event. Cap fought on the anti-registration side, trying to keep the government from licensing superheroes. Instead of operate as a vigilante and avoid conflict with the law, or go to Washington, DC and try to use his political connections to change the law to something less totalitarian, Cap immediately acted as though he was joining up with the French Resistance in the fight against Hitler. This led him to make direct attacks against the pro-registration side in the middle of populated areas, killing many innocent bystanders. While Iron Man’s side was hardly acting like angels in this conflict, Cap took what might have been a reasonable line of objection and turned it into an escalating conflict that tore apart New York City.
Later, when Steve Rogers temporarily abandoned the title of Captain America and became the newest leader of SHIELD, he shifted too far in the opposite direction. Pushing for rehabilitation of many old foes, he swept some serious charges under the rug, including acts of treason by Victoria Hand and General Thunderbolt Ross (aka the red Hulk). That his faith was more or less rewarded is secondary to the fact that he basically established that you can literally attempt to overthrow the government on national television and face exactly zero legal charges. (For those not in the know, the red Hulk teamed up with the Leader and several other major supervillains in an elaborate scheme to overthrow the governments of the world. It culminated with the red Hulk breaking into the White House on national television and declaring himself the new leader of the United States before being beat down and captured by the real Hulk. Less than one month later, rather than facing treason charges and a possible death sentence, he was instead an active member of the Avengers thanks to Steve Rogers’ intervention.)
Steve Rogers seems to work in two modes, and both suck equally at what they do. As Steve Rogers, he is far too forgiving in times of diplomacy, allowing people who have literally tried to destroy the country he is protecting an unlimited number of chances. When he dons the Captain America costume, he becomes a bull-headed fool who tries to solve every problem with his fists. Nowhere was that more obvious than in Avengers versus X-Men. With the Phoenix coming to Earth to possess Hope Summers, Cap had the chance to speak with the X-Men and work out a reasonable course of action. Instead, he showed up in full battle gear with a regiment of Avengers behind him and attempted to kidnap a teenage girl. This, naturally, led to a massive fight that ultimately led to the temporary overthrow of all world governments and the deaths of many innocents.
If there is any pure good guy in the Marvel Universe, you would think that it would be Captain America. Instead, he’s a bull-headed fool whose subconscious longing for the glory days has led to many world-threatening crises and the pardoning of some of America’s greatest enemies.
So there you have it. Superheroes are bastards. Sure, we know that a lot of this stuff stems from bad editorial decisions and idiotic attempts to drum up sales, but viewed from within the fictional universe it is very obvious that the life of a superhero is too much strain for a psyche to handle. Inevitably, the hero snaps and his delusions and misconceptions lead to events that threaten the world many times over.