Book 565: Superhero Ethics – Travis Smith

With my vested interest in the multi-billion dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) (aka I see all of the films as they’re released) and my passing interest in the DC universe now Wonder Woman has made her powerful interest, of course I had to say yes when the publicist reached out about this book.*

After saying yes and reading this, I’m not sure I should have. There were some major flaws in this book mostly having to do with gender and misogyny. I don’t want to harp on about this, but that’s probably what this post is going to end up being. Smith chose 10 comic book heroes (first appearances): The Hulk (1962), Wolverine (1974), Green Lantern (1940), Iron Man (1963), Batman (1939), Spider-Man (1962), Captain America (1941), Mr. Fantastic (1961), Thor (1962), and Superman (1938), and pitted them against each other in an “epic” ethics battle. What’s the obvious thing about these ten heroes? They’re all men. [Want to skip this tirade? Skip 6 paragraphs down.

Ostensibly, Smith chose not to include female and minority super heroes because of the following:

“Trends in the culture and the counterculture also play a part in deciding favorites. Lately, some characters have gained popularity because we want to see women and people of color empowered. The perception of an overbearing political correctness, however, can trigger a backlash against those very efforts. If Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man, or Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, are to retain recognition as great new characters, the reason for rooting them on must transcend identity politics. Wonder Woman, for instance, is wondrous for reasons that exceed her womanliness.” (4)

And I get it, male superheroes have been much more widely marketed and adapted to film than female superheroes, but what the hell? Smith made an active choice not to include any female superheroes. He mentions in the introduction (11) that he chose Wolverine over Captain Marvel (1967). He talks about Wonder Woman (1941) and Jean Grey (1963) and yet excluded all females from the competition of which one we need most.

And I’m sorry, having to provide a synopsis of a character that has appeared in a movie or will be shortly in order to diversify your book is no excuse to exclude them. Jean Grey has now been in five separate movies portrayed by two different actors and appeared 11 years prior to Wolverine. Wonder Woman stormed the big screen to resoundingly stellar reviews in 2016/2017, had a TV show in the 1970s, and predates all but two of the male characters above.

However, I think there is a bigger issue here: toxic-masculinity. I tried not to read into the book too much, but the fact there were zero female characters included other than in passing comments, the fact that he makes the somewhat off-color comment about identity politics quoted above, and that he constantly refers to the masculinity (whether it’s physical, strategical, or intellectual) of his characters as strengths or assets and even dumps on anything remotely nodding to femininity is a HUGE problem.

“From today’s point of view, the wimpy Banner, untainted by toxic masculinity, is a good role model. Wolverine is utterly uncivilized, what with all the stabbing and slashing. But from the perspective of one primarily concerned with honor, what passes for civilization in modern times is shameless, base, paltry, cowardly, phony, and fickle. It is not something that would impress a manly man.” (29)

I get it: write what you know. However, don’t be obnoxious about it. Smith, according to his bio, has been reading comics since 1986 so he’s ready PLENTY of female characters. He does mention Squirrel Girl as being one of his favorites but writes her off as too quirky/lesser known. Perhaps there are some underlying personal issues around his own masculinity (hello nerd culture), but frankly as Shakespeare put it “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

[Tirade over – here are the parts that I did appreciate.]

This all being said, this wasn’t a bad book. Smith succinctly summed up why The Hulk’s films don’t do great and why he has to be in an ensemble (I promptly forgot but read the chapter). His dismissal/double elimination of Green Lantern and Iron Man from the competition pissed me off to no end. Why include them in the first place? You wrote the book, why not include two female characters that can hold their own? You wrote the book didn’t you?

He also highlighted what I assume is common knowledge to those who read the comics, but was an eye opener to me that Spider-Man (the Peter Parker one) represents many Jewish kids and their experience growing up in New York and Superman is basically a stand-in messianic figure. I was like WHAAAAAT?! And funny enough he explained WHY these are the case with pretty detailed examples (that he didn’t want to do for the women). And I learned a new word: animadversion. It means adverse criticism. (Thanks Merriam Webster!)

I found his ethical and philosophical arguments and references to be both relatable in that you didn’t have to know the ethicist or philosopher or their thoughts to know why what they said mattered. Smith did a great job of making complex thoughts and ideas approachable through these superheroes. The ultimate chapter, the crowing of the superhero whose ethics we most need actually surprised me. I felt that his reasonings were sound and yet the entire time I assumed he would go in a different direction.

Recommendation: Even though I had a HUGE issue with the lack of women in the 10 superheroes, I feel this is an interesting read. It takes 10 archetypal/stereotypical superheroes explains they’re strengths and weaknesses, pits them against their equal in various reasonings (locale, god like stature, intellectualness, etc.), and then explains why the superhero as a whole is more worthy of civilization modeling our momentum forward after that superhero. The chosen victor caught me off guard, because of how over-the-top his love/adoration/man crush was on another character, but it felt right when I closed the book.

*I received a copy of Superhero Ethics from the publicist in return for my honest opinion. No goods or money were exchanged.

Opening Line: “On schoolyards, in comic book shops, at movie theaters, and all over the Internet, people quarrel over which of our costumed crusaders is supreme.”

Closing Line: “The cape, however, is recommended. If you can pull it off.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)


6 thoughts on “Book 565: Superhero Ethics – Travis Smith”

  1. Wow, what a jerk. Reading his justification for leaving out characters who aren’t white and male has me fuming. As though the reason they’ve become popular have nothing to do with their identity? As though the fact that people are demanding more diversity means there aren’t other reasons to like characters who aren’t white and male aside from their identity? I realize I’m preaching to the choir, but my god, how infuriating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and that he’d choose a minority version of one of the characters that has changed identity, but no he gave that half-assed line about identity politics. Ugh.

      Liked by 1 person

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