We are still reading post-The Authority superhero comics almost exclusively. While Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA kicked off the Blockbuster Widescreen Era of superhero comics, the Warren Ellis/Bryan Hitch/Paul Neary/Laura DePuy The Authority took that sensibility and added on a subtle question of morality and heroism that remains unresolved. Granted, that question wasn’t introduced there, but it was popularised – it became an integral part of the superhero comic language after that point, floating to the surface now and then only to be smacked down because of the terrible implications. Here, it has risen again and shows itself in very different ways in Futures End #17 and Avengers #34. Basically, how far must a superhero go to save the world? How far before they stop being a hero and become a villain? Is there even a line?
Futures End exists in the postscript of those questions. The Nu52DCU went to war with Earth 2 like they were two countries, each armed with superhumans. One world won, the other lost, and, in the aftermath, the citizens of the losing world have been treated like the losers of war usually are. We have even seen many of their superhumans imprisoned with the subtext of ‘war criminals’ hanging overhead. Except, how can that be? That’s Mr. Miracle and Hawkgirl and all of the other Earth 2 heroes! They can’t possibly be war criminals! They can’t be the Bad Guys! However, when their interests directly conflict with the interests of the regular heroes we follow, someone must be in the wrong. We don’t know the whole story of what exactly happened, but it was clearly war between the two worlds. Heroes fought heroes. If everyone is a hero, no one is. Were they all villains then?
Without further information, it’s difficult to argue that
Superman Kal-El thinks so. However, that lengthy beard and his seeming effort to bring water to a desert in Africa suggests some sense of guilt and an attempt at atonement. Perhaps something even bigger: if this world is so important, so primary, that it justifies war with another and doing monstrous things to preserve it at the expense of that other world, then isn’t there a responsibility to improve the world? To make it worthy? That was another aspect of The Authority that was added after the first 12 issues. To justify the actions required to defend the world, you also need to make the world better. It’s a pulling in two directions, neither of which fall into the traditional definition of a ‘superhero.’ Of course, that’s part of why Ellis called the group villains. They slaughtered the enemy in the thousands, arguing that they saved more than they killed, and that made it right.
Cadmus Island is portrayed as a place of villainy, but is it? We don’t have enough information. These were the enemy in a war – a war between worlds. It is not unusual for enemy soldiers to be imprisoned (or worse) after wars and, given the scope of the war, who is the party charged with such a task? Will Cadmus still be evil if we learned that it is sanctioned by the governments of the world? What if the truth of the war shows the Earth 2 ‘heroes’ committing the sort of atrocities common in war? Futures End plays upon superficial cues in superhero comics to produce the desired reaction: heroes in costume in cells is bad; cloaked islands are bad; Deathstroke is bad. However, on the scale hinted at, larger questions of morality are in play that could easily skew the scenes we have already seen.
Take the final scene of Avengers #34 out of context and the Illuminati are monsters. They plan to (or already have) destroyed worlds. Captain America is rallying the Avengers to take them down before they can commit more acts of global genocide. However, taken within the context of what has happened in New Avengers to date, your reaction to Captain America may be very different.
His speech to Iron Lad, Kang, and Immortus before he returns to his time is very much a summation of the typically simplistic morality of superhero comics that exists on one side of the spectrum: he doesn’t weigh lives, he doesn’t choose the lesser of two evils, he just saves lives, goddamn it. It’s a very limited way of thinking, one that would kill him and his world, as we know. It’s hard to read his words in the larger context and see anything heroic about them. Instinctively, they feel right: that’s what a hero does! Except, what happens when the only way to save lives is to kill others? Technically, if Captain America is being honest about not weighing the lives of one group against another, shouldn’t he be in line with the Illuminati and be willing to kill those other worlds? To save his world, he must destroy the other. No other solution is available. Kill or die. That’s it. As a soldier, it’s a concept he should be far more familiar with – and willing to embrace. However, in trying to make Captain America Marvel’s answer to Superman, they have consistently shied away from that part of the character, even as DC has created scenarios where Superman must embrace the soldier mentality.
Captain America’s speech is a longing for the pre-The Authority days where these larger questions of morality were rare and contained to much smaller stories where the ending could be a vague “Did the bad guy jump off that building or was he pushed?” When saving lives meant punching the bad guy in the face and putting him in jail, not destroying other worlds. As the scale of the stories grow, the idea of what a superhero is grows less fixed, more fluid. Distilled, it seems in line with Captain America’s speech: they save lives, no matter what. I guess the natural follow-up question, where the real problems lie then, is: which lives? Because you can’t save them all when two worlds are at odds, willingly or unwillingly...
It looks like Superman found his answer; Captain America doesn’t have a clue.