Sunday 14 April 2013

Modern day superheroes – agents of retribution?

What makes a superhero different from the everyday human being? Is it just that they look different – tight suits made of spandex, capes, masks, cool gadgets in utility belts! OR is that they have powers and abilities far beyond the normal human experience? Perhaps instead it is because they seem to consistently pursue justice, defending the helpless and fight to overcome evil?

A superhero definitely seems to be defined by all these qualities – but more recently, modern day superheroes (think Batman in Dark Knight and those who make up the Avengers) seem to be further defined by their fearless devotion to justice which will sometimes even override their devotion to the law. Often we see in popular culture that the central concern for superheroes has been the inadequacy of the law to provide justice and the resultant need for an exceptional figure to remedy this. The superhero thus becomes the vigilante – defined by a desire to provide adequate retribution for criminal wrong-doing.

Acting where the law does not, and speaking in the name of the community the superhero separates the guilty from the innocent and punishes where it is due, resting on the ‘just dessert’ notion where individuals should be held responsible and accountable for their acts.

What do you think? Do you think we, as human beings, naturally desire justice in a retributive, ‘eye for an eye’ way? Do you think the law is inadequate to provide justice? 

Feel free to comment below or email me your thoughts:

For a full version of my argument see: C. E. Sharp, '‘Riddle me this…?’ Would the world need superheroes if the law could actually deliver ‘justice’?' (2012) 16 (1) Law Text Culture 353-378. 


  1. Spidergirl198029 May 2013 at 06:06

    Hi Cass. Very excited about your new blog!! I think its interesting that some of our superheros actually commence their vigilante style of seeking justice, not originally from a desire to see justice upheld within the wider community or the protection of the innocent/vulnerable, but by seeking revenge for a wrong committed against them personally. For example, the murder of a parent by a notorious villain. Where does seeking justice end and revenge begin?

  2. In the societies that these hero’s inhabit, the law is only an adequate mechanism in providing justice for members of the social elite. Due to the financial and personal investment involved, the legal system excludes meaningful participation of the lower classes, actively preventing natural justice from taking place. I think it pays to remember that the world of the superhero is based largely on the perspective of an American; their experience of the civil legal system and their place in the social order. Though embellished, the foundations of societies like Gotham, often mirror issues facing the American legal system, particularly those such as lack of funding, legal consistency between jurisdictions and minor corruption*. Such problems have naturally bred contempt for the law itself. Creators of superheros such as Batman, present a possible outcome to this situation; increased threats to public safety and the eventual need for vigilante justice. The necessity of retributive justice in the fictional world can be related back to the American system of capital punishment; as justice often means the death of the offender and their associates. The number of American jurisdictions practicing capital punishment (32) still outweighs those who have abolished the process (18)*, and indeed the punishment has recently experienced a surge in popularity in the face of a number of large scale and heinous crimes. The implementation of the death penalty is similar to the ‘vengeance’ undertaken by the superhero, with the punishment designed to inflict suffering and humiliation on the offender. No one is suggesting here that the actions of American authorities that administer the death penalty amount to the (sometimes) extreme torture inflicted on offenders by comic book heroes, but the connection remains valid in the face of punishments including the electric chair and lethal injection. As a result, one may argue that humanity’s natural desire for retributive justice is tempered by the legal context that exists in the country one inhabits. Whilst those existing in American society may be able to feel a sense of familiarity and possible acceptance towards the retributive justice administered by superheros, those reading and watching from another society, like Australia, may consider that method of justice to be fanciful and anarchic.

    *American Bar Association, ‘Funding Justice: Strategies and Messages for Restoring Court Function’, (Report, National Centre for State Courts, 2012) 7.

    *Death Penalty Information Centre, States without the Death Penalty

  3. Samantha Rigney22 May 2014 at 03:40

    Based on your article and my own notion of what justice is I think the vast majority of the population equate ‘true justice’ with retributive justice, that being the idea of an ‘eye for an eye’ and someone getting their just deserts. We are preoccupied with the idea that one should be punished proportionately to the crime they have committed to restore the victim and the offender to the appropriate positions relative to each other.

    The downfall of this ideology is that people have a tendency to confuse retributive justice with revenge. Unlike retributive justice, revenge does not satisfy the principles of proportionality or consistency and tends to be driven by personal hurt and anger, which leads to excessive punishments and perpetuates the cycle of offenders. One should not seek revenge and become a victimizer but should instead let the law run its course and hope that, in doing so, justice will be served. It should be up to the court system to carry out such retribution as they possess the training and knowledge to effectively bring offenders to justice, punishing them by imprisonment.

    This issue is explored in the television show Arrow where Oliver Queen realizes that murder is not the best way to achieve justice after his best friend, Tommy Merlyn, explains to him that engaging in murderous activities in order to punish the offenders makes him just as bad as they are. Oliver comes to the conclusion that the he can operate alongside the law by catching criminals and handing them over to the authorities where they will be tried and sentenced accordingly.

    In relation to your second question, I don’t believe the law is inadequate in achieving justice but I do think that society has misunderstood that definition of ‘true justice’ and what this may consist of. True justice can be more than just retributive in nature, it may also be restorative and must be obtained in a way that is procedurally fair for both the victim and the offender. It is the public’s perceived failure of the law and law enforcement agencies in achieving true justice that provides the basis for the superhero mythos. Society needs someone, regardless of whether they have some special power or ability, to take the law into their own hands and fulfil the community’s natural human quest for retribution.

    As you have said in your article, it our conception of true justice as being retributive justice which causes us to believe that justice is not served in the superhero narrative unless the ‘bad guy’ has paid for what they have done with a punishment that is proportional to the crime they have committed. Perhaps the law is inadequate in satisfying society’s definition of justice because it is not solely retributive in nature and thus is not always capable of meeting our expectations in relation to ensuring that offenders receive their just deserts.

  4. I find superheros to be a really interesting representation of the law in popular culture. Superheros exist outside of the law but generally remain working with it and fill the gaps that law and law enforcement does not or cannot cover. Superheros can often act as judge, jury and executioner in that they conduct their own investigations, apprehend the criminal and mete out punishment themselves or hand them into authorities who appear to punish them without further investigations or trial. It is this notion that makes the superhero genre so appealing; justice is swift, exciting and the decision maker is seen to be infallible because of their super powers and position outside of and beyond the law and society.

    As K Weaver discussed in her comment above, the superhero often exists in a world where the legal system is failing, through corruption or stretched resources (which reflects issues in our society) so they fulfil a necessary role in crime detection and prevention as well as ensuring that the form of retributive justice, eye for an eye, that is so desired by society, is handed out. The superhero can provide this retributive, almost revenge like, justice that the legal system cannot due to ‘rule of law’ and other constraints.

    Further to this, I feel superheros act as symbols for society; by taking away their humanity through masks, costumes and caps that protect their identity, they become something more than mere law enforcement or even vigilantes, their image and name become something synonymous with justice, good deeds and the law. It is this role that gives superheros such power, “to err is human”, they are very rarely wrong and so provide a role model and aspiration for wider society; criminals fear their wrath, school children want to be them and everyday citizens idolise them, they make society want to be better and emulate their heroes. In this way, superheros reflect the objectiveness that law is meant to encompass as well as its wider purpose, superheros lose their humanity so as to be better serve the public just as the judicial system is meant to put aside subjective and emotional considerations and make decisions based on objective facts and the law itself. Superheros quite closely reflect the legal system but superheros are in a position to hand out retributive justice that the legal system simply cannot; humans naturally seek revenge and equal dealings, so “an eye for an eye” philosophy reflects these baser instincts and desires which may explain why this genre is so popular, we want the good guys to win but perhaps most of all we want the bad guys to lose.