What do Spider-Man and Superman teach us about criminal justice?

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By Joel Wish on

Lessons in law from the pages of comic books


From the archetypal ‘Golden Age’ comic book hero, to vigilantes that work outside of the law’s boundaries, comic books help to form debate about how society can tackle crime.

With great power, there must also come great responsibility.

The never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.

These quotes, from Spider-Man and Superman respectively, are just some of the many inspirational messages taken from Marvel and DC Comic books.

One lesson can be learnt right here: if you have the ability to act, then make sure your first thought is to help society. You don’t have to be faster than a speeding bullet to know that if you can stop something bad from happening, then do it. This presents an interesting dilemma when super-powered individuals take this responsibility further and test the parameters of the law.

Since their creation over 75 years ago, comic books have presented a debate about how crime is a problem and how to solve it. Comic book stories commonly feature individuals that have developed special abilities or experienced a life-altering event that makes them want to pursue justice.

Take Batman for example. After the death of his parents by a random street mugger, he embarks on his own personal vendetta against crime:

I made a promise on the grave of my parents that I would rid this city of the evil that took their lives.

Stories over the years have featured him saving countless lives showing the potential of one man to reduce and deter future crime without official police powers.

Heroes’ pursuit of villains often means breaking the law as devotion to justice outweighs their devotion to law. Characters like the Punisher, Wolverine and Daredevil exist to show much more ruthless and hardline methods of retributive justice. These vigilantes, or simply anti-heroes, act more aggressively as the judge, jury and, at times, executioner of crime. They are fixed on tackling the most serious crimes with the viewpoint that justice has not and cannot be achieved in the legal system and there is the “expectation that only they can do what the law cannot”.

Within UK law, there are rules of self-defence that allow for a man to use reasonable force in order to protect himself, another or his property. There are even complex laws surrounding a citizen’s arrest where a regular civilian may arrest an individual who is committing, or he reasonably suspects is committing, an indictable offence. Although sympathy for civilians using a lot of force varies between courts, the scope of what they see as “reasonable” is limited. Equally, there is a bizarre and unnecessary due process when undertaking a citizen’s arrest that further limits one’s actions when tackling crime.

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By contrast, comic book vigilantes use excessive, and at times lethal, force when neutralising criminals. This isn’t self-defence — they purposefully look for the trouble.

With his distinctive skull insignia and array of lethal weaponry, The Punisher would not care what crime he commits under the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 or whether he commits straight murder. The punishment he deals is what he believes matches the severity of the crime.

In one particular scene, he is shown actively hunting down and murdering a drug lord. No defence in law can excuse his actions, yet readers can sympathise with him and the lengths he’ll go to achieve retribution for the public. It would appear that he is not only fighting serious criminals, but a legal system that outlaws his behaviour. His actions don’t belong in a civilised society, but should the courts accept that there is some moral, lesser evil necessity in what he does?

Comic books continually address the tense balance between vigilantism and the law. Should the general populace be allowed to volunteer to protect the public without any risk of consequences?

The 2013 Superior Spider-Man stories further the idea of the people taking control of criminal justice when the local government is powerless. He forms an army of like-minded citizens to rid the city of a dictatorial mafia:

Is it wrong to use every possible advantage against ruthless psychopaths who would slaughter innocents by the dozen? Of course not.

Vigilantes here then aim to create popular justice and social control to undo the law’s shortcomings.

Comic superheroes largely aim to support the justice system through their voluntary efforts, however, their very existence could be an implied attempt by the writers to undermine the work of legal authorities. In these fictional universes, crime floods the streets, terrorism threatens the world and prison breaks are a common plot point effectively demonstrating that the legal authorities are powerless to deal with the crises.

To an extent, the superhero’s raison d’être could be rooted in the police’s inadequacy in dealing with major crime. Superhero teams like the Justice League and the Avengers have taken power themselves, and are accepted as the higher power of law enforcement. They offer hope of a more radical solution supporting the notions of vigilante justice if the end result of saving innocent lives justifies the means of breaking laws.

Despite this, they have no democratic backing to take such power. They are not subject to any checks or balances like a normal division of the executive nor would UK ministers have any power to make the superheroes accountable under any code of practice. In a public law sense, our government may be totally powerless to control and regulate such individuals.

What is evident in the stories is that superheroes and the police work within an uneasy alliance of mutual co-existence. The police as a peace-keeping force are rarely taken seriously. This must echo some lack of faith in the criminal justice system.

A widespread dissatisfaction with criminal justice transcends the pages of comic books. Justice is, in reality, becoming more expensive, and less attainable following legal aid cuts. Equally, the means of punishing crime is often questionable — certain sentences seem disproportionate (tariffs for life sentences, for example) and the amount of people in prison is increasing at an alarming rate. With regular scandals and inquiries, people lack faith in a police system where too many policemen are “overpaid, under-managed, of doubtful competence and, worst of all, of indifferent honesty and integrity”.

What the superhero offers is a wholly idealistic vision of how justice can be achieved. The retributive approach offered by comic vigilantes arguably offers a balanced response to crime and an effective deterrent. Surely criminals would be deterred from crime if they were aware of the potentially dangerous heroes protecting the streets?

It seems paradoxical that for heroes to do what is morally right, laws must be broken. This suggests that justice and law may not be working in tandem despite the fact that they should have the same goals. When we cannot trust the effectiveness of our own legal authorities, then should we be considering necessary evil approaches?

Joel Wish is a first year law student at the University of Exeter.


Wright, N, (2000), ‘The Classic Era of American Comics’, Carlton Books

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