So this is going to be a bit of a big one. I’m jamming together a number of thoughts on super heroes I’ve had over the years, in the first of a short series of articles/editorials on them I want to do. Without further ado…
It’s a running joke how much collateral damage super heroes cause during their escapades, and how little punishment or even censure they receive for it, even when they aren’t even battling super villains or some other threat. So much has been written about it that I don’t really have much to add. However, I am interested in discussing collateral damage when it comes to superhuman interactions with the government. Generally speaking, super heroes in comics obey the law and defend society because they’re good people, just people, or just really into revenge/ fame/ the lifestyle. However, in Marvel’s excellent Supreme Power, which is their take on the DC universe, Hyperion, the Superman equivalent, eventually realizes that he doesn’t need to obey the law, and just starts doing whatever he wants. The government responds by issuing a smear campaign against him, ruining his reputation with the public and many of his relationships, though they promise to fix everything if he comes back to the fold. Hyperion responds by blasting an enormous crater into the arctic, and telling the government that they’re going to fix things regardless.
This relates to some questions I’ve been thinking about for a while. When a superhuman has the ability to single-handedly fight against the government on their own, and only abides by the law and cultural expectations by their own will, how much latitude do they get? If they decide they don’t care to pay taxes, would the net gain from attempting to force him be worth the collateral damage that would likely occur? Probably not, depending on the income level of the superhuman. If they’re poor or middle class, almost certainly not. If they’re rich, hypothetically it might be worth it, but that assumption relies on the idea that rich people pay squat when it comes to taxes. (Warren Buffet pays about the same amount as his secretary.) How about if they decide that they don’t care to participate in a monetary economy, and just start taking whatever they feel like? Well, in that case, there would need to be some sort of constant calculation balancing the costs of the goods and resources being taken, and the costs in collateral damage that would result from trying to stop the superhuman. It’s not just a simple profit margin calculation, either. You’ve got to take into account public opinion as well, and make decisions like repressing news of the superhuman stealing, or setting up a fund to reimburse those who took losses, or trying to publicly shame the superhuman. On top of THAT, you have to calculate how any good the superhuman does balances with their crimes. Do they regularly protect the world from meteors? You should probably overlook their habit of stealing and crashing sports cars, then.
What about when they begin hurting people, though? Then it gets damn tricky. Assuming there aren’t other superhumans willing to take on a superhuman who is a great defender of the world, but also casually kills people who piss them off, how do you make that call? I’d like to think that that would be too far, but… governments, courts, and corporations can and do regularly put a cost on human lives and suffering.
Shifting things a bit, what about superhumans who can’t overthrow society on their lonesome? Someone on, say, Spiderman’s level? It would seem to make sense to apply a similar rubric, which in the lesser superhuman’s case would give them much less latitude in their actions, though still much more than the average person. (Not rich people, though. I’m pretty sure rich people already operate under a rubric like this). However, potential gains from studying the source of their superpowers or conscripting them into the military likely far outweigh any collateral damage caused by capturing or killing them. This can potentially extend towards even mightier superhumans. Remember the old Hulk storylines where General Ross constantly hunted Banner/ Hulk? Yeah. Of course, that was a personal vendetta as well, so that’s not an exact analogue, unless I can somehow mesh in 19th century whaling economics as the military industrial complex as well.
To boil everything down, there is an eventual point at which it makes more fiscal sense to let a superhuman do whatever they want than to try and take them down. The collateral costs, both in lives and money, simply grow too high. Of course, this is all contingent upon the government in question approaching the situation in a logical and consistent manner, and being able to repress their pride when necessary, which is possibly more of a stretch than superhumans existing.