Did the philosophers die with the Greeks and Romans? In truth, the discussion of abstract belief systems is generally frowned upon in the course of everyday life. Yet vocalize those same ideas through exciting and relatable characters, and they become much more palatable to the average person. So perhaps society has merely found a new profession to carry the weight modern-day philosophy: writers.
In the third issue of Captain Atom, “Divine Intervention,” writer J.T. Krul continues to develop a superhero who is as much a philosopher as the product of a nuclear experiment gone wrong. And through this character’s voice, he explores the moral dilemmas of being not only a superhero, but also a god.
In the past, Captain Atom’s powers were generally limited to flight, super strength, and the ability to absorb and shoot energy blasts. In this incarnation, however, the hero can also transform molecular structures, a power that introduces its own moral dilemma. When a young woman overdoses on prescription pills, Captain Atom extracts them from her body through a glowing light. Here, Krul presents the hero’s conflict: “Is it even my place to interfere? To save people from each other? Save them from themselves? Where do I draw the line?”
This meditation on the boundaries of being a superhero is actually quite old. Superheroes readily save people from villainous attacks or natural disasters, but often hesitate to get involved in greater issues of war, famine, and disease. The reasoning behind this is typically ethical: superheroes must lead by example and allow humanity to solve its own problems.
Yet in Captain Atom, Krul offers a fresh, less idealistic perspective. His hero asks “if there is a master plan,” is he “part of it or working against it?” The question raises not only a spiritual issue, but also foreshadows the potential for Captain Atom to do as much harm as good. And this tension escalates as Krul portrays Captain Atom as disconnecting from humanity. God-like and flying high above the earth, the hero describes his existence: “My world is in between the one everyone else lives in. Here, I’m alone.”
Immediately after saying this, however, Captain Atom is confronted in Libya by the Flash, another hero-god for whom time also loses meaning. In an arresting full-page image, the Flash picks bullets out of the air as nonchalantly as if they were flowers he picked on a Sunday afternoon stroll. In fact, Williams’ character art effectively conveys the difference between the two: while the Flash crackles lively like an electrical storm, Captain Atom appears lost and dissipating in a blue haze.
Thus far, Captain Atom’s monologue has been exclusively internal. And although his pontification can be insightful, it has left little room to develop him as a character. By incorporating the Flash, however, Krul has wisely offered a partner for debate and a foil to bring out the personality in Captain Atom.
The Flash is hesitant to have Captain Atom around, because the Justice League (themselves a pantheon among superheroes) views him as “unstable.” Exuding Cold War paranoia of nuclear fallout, the Flash says that Captain Atom should be “on lockdown… safely tucked away.” The two go back and forth about the potential danger until Captain Atom is overwhelmed and childishly retorts, “I’m not an idiot. If I was leaking radiation, I’d quarantine myself.” Based upon this reply, Krul elevates the threat in Captain Atom to not only a possible radiation leak, but also the hero’s emotional instability and even hubris.
And thus “Divine Intervention” presents a modern philosophical lesson, articulated through the voice of flawed character. Near the end of the issue, certain events transpire that make Captain Atom feel even more isolated. He asks, “So what am I? An alien? A monster?” Krul, however, has already answered this question clearly. Captain Atom is a philosopher, and in turn, Krul is a true writer.