‘Ten, twenty guys getting mowed down at a time,’ says the mobster Grotto (McCaleb Burnett) in Drew Goddard’s Daredevil, episode 2×02, describing the actions of Frank Castle aka the Punisher (Jon Bernthal). ‘And with precision, you know, tactically. Every hit was like some kind of Seal Team 6.’
What does Grotto mean by ‘precision’ here? He isn’t just describing the Punisher’s marksmanship. And it’s not the hero’s personal superpower, in the vein of eminent colleagues like Green Arrow or Hawkeye, as Frank Castle is known to have no preternatural abilities.
What really matters about the character’s precision isn’t that he always hits the bad guys, but that he only hits the bad guys. In the entire second season of Daredevil, which he spends spraying machine-gun fire over half of New York and engaging with armies of policemen in the line of duty, he never once kills an innocent person.
‘Nobody got hurt that didn’t deserve it,’ declares the Punisher himself in episode 2×03, when debating his methods with Daredevil (Charlie Cox). If this ability can be rationalised as a superpower, then it bears the distinction of being the only universal one: every single superhero shares in Frank Castle’s very particular ‘precision’.
Batman is the specialist. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), we see him swooping into two different skyscrapers which are swarming with private guards, hostages and a SWAT team. Both times, he manages to disable everyone without a single person being killed. How does he do that? ‘Because I’m Batman’, goes the recurring joke, except we know it’s not just Batman.
Superman (Henry Cavill) is blamed for all the poor civilians crushed under the falling buildings at the beginning of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) . But all of the damage we see is done by alien ships and projectiles, never by a wayward punch or a kick or a sneeze by the Man of Steel.
But it doesn’t end there. Even notorious bad boy Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his wildly aggressive ‘daughter’ Laura (Dafne Keen) manage to go through the entirety of Logan without accidentally killing a bystander. Same bad boy, too, and same precision for Deadpool.
Sure, at times they threaten to hurt the film’s extras, and there’s plenty of fodder getting killed by being associated with the heroes, whenever the bad guys swoop in and take out whoever happens to be in the way (in less progressive times this used to be a frequent fate for so-called ‘women in refrigerators’). Further, let’s not forget about all the innocent people taken down because of the superhero’s inaction (hello, Ben Parker).
But this doesn’t change the thing: a superhero is someone who never accidentally kills an innocent person by an action s/he starts him/herself. He or she never shoots a gun or an arrow or a laser or a missile that ends up in the face of someone who didn’t deserve it. The only exception I can think of is the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in Captain America: Civil War (2016), who deflects a bomb into a building — such a shocking paradigm shift, in this universe, that it triggers the titular civil war.
So what’s with this precision? Heroes in thrillers, war films, science-fiction and horror films have been known to accidentally kill the wrong person. Why doesn’t this happen in the superhero genre?
There may be more than one answer to this question, but one particularly useful way to explain this narrative phenomenon across the board is to look at the particular moral reflection that informs the superhero genre — all the way from its earliest history.
Supernaturally strong people in colourful tights may be an invention of the 20th Century, but the exercise of representing human beings unbounded by physical limits is as old as story-telling itself. We sometimes forget that the heroes of Greek mythology were similarly characterised by their supernatural abilities, but Hercules holding up the sky is not that different from Superman lifting a skyscraper. Here’s a casual line from the oldest superhero story in the West, just as a reminder: ‘[Diomedes] caught up a mighty stone, so huge and great that as men now are, it would take two to lift it, nevertheless he bore it aloft with ease unaided.’ (Homer, Iliad, V).
Strength aside, one thing that classical and modern heroes have in common is the narrative meditation which they encourage. In both cases, super-natural abilities are used by the author as a device to explore the relationship between the individual and the social collective s/he inhabits.
Contemporary superheroes have continuously evolved — since their inception almost 100 years ago — less in terms of their powers and more in terms of their relationship with the law. Batman started out in the late ’30s as an agent extraneous to the legal system, then became fully integrated within it as a (very public) auxiliary police-man in the ’60s, and eventually fell out of its graces again from Frank Miller onwards.
Spiderman was sort of OK with the law, but policemen were at his throat because of the twisted aspersions by the Daily Bugle newspaper. The opposition here is still between the individual and the collective, but the latter are represented directly not by the law but by the media (the jury having transformed into ‘popular opinion’). Other Marvel superheroes were similarly legal outcasts (the X-Men) or integrated within some synecdoche of the law, such as the military apparatus (Captain America).
The tension between the individual and social law is at the heart of all the best and most complex stories in this genre. Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, Watchmen (1986) sums up the superhero problem as a matter of agency, asking the reader whether s/he is prepared to accept the pursuit of greater good (and its bloody sacrifice) if it’s done without the collective’s knowledge or consent. Nolan’s The Dark Knight reaches an especially memorable conclusion on the contradictions of superseding social law (‘You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain’).
Now, classical heroes were also traditionally represented in a clash between the individual and society, but their conflict usually involved a final sublimation: the hero got to imprint his/her values onto society, but the price s/he paid for it was usually death or terrible mutilation. The genre in which these stories were told now goes by the name of tragedy.
Unlike Hercules, Achilles or Jason, modern superheroes more often come from tragedy than move towards it, and they are in any case incapable of a similar narrative resolution. This comes down to a number of reasons, including the fact that they exist in a suspended time continuum which doesn’t allow them to age or die (or if they die, it’s usually revocable).
But one of the most pertinent reasons behind their inability to reach aesthetic relief is their ‘precision’. This universal superpower was never bestowed upon the Greek heroes (Hercules killed his wife, Oedipus his father, Ajax committed suicide just for accidentally slaughtering animals, and so on). When applied to contemporary narratives, this device has the unfortunate effect of abrogating moral complexity, chaining its protagonists to a broken premise that defuses tragic (or for that matter non-tragic) sublimation before it happens.
To illustrate the argument, consider how the premise of ‘precision’ would affect the moral debate surrounding capital punishment. An argument in favour of the death penalty must rest on the compromise that there will always be a number — however small a number that may be — of innocent people wrongly convicted and executed. Anything else would mean investing the state with infallibility, which is not even utopian, just delusional.
And yet, that same delusion is at the heart of every moral conflict within the superhero genre. The apparently mature and subtle debates between Batman and the Joker, or Daredevil and the Punisher (or whoever else you care to name) are gutted of their moral and critical significance because they rest on this false premise: they set up an infallible individual against a fallible legal system. In the real world, where we are no less flawed than the systems we create, that’s actually more implausible than people flying and shooting lasers from their eyes.
The assumption of the hero’s infallibility — rendered ubiquitously as his or her ‘precision’ — is so widespread and rarely allowed exceptions that we might as well dub it directly ‘the superhero fallacy’. It’s worth calling out and challenging this fallacy, the same way that we challenge other narrative clichés, if we ever want to see this genre really mature.
Greek heroes posed their questions and gave us an answer, one that was terrible and beautiful and illuminating all at once. Modern heroes flail in the metaphorical dark, able only to ask the question, and cursed by their own inhuman precision never to contemplate our economy of failure.