This is a direct follow-up to my previous post about why modern superheroes are inherently incompetent and designed to stay that way. I felt I needed to scrutinize the cracks in the foundation, so to speak, before I get around to discussing the stuff build on top of it. That will help make the discussion in this post more relevant and concise.
Even without the context of my previous post, it’s not hard to understand or even acknowledge that so many superheroes are inept, irresponsible, and incompetent at their jobs. Their villains always escape. Their friends/lovers/parents always die/suffer. The world they want to better never changes. It’s a flaw in the system as much as it is an exercise in futility.
Now, I’d like to take a step back, acknowledge the forest from the trees, and offer a solution of sorts. As I’ve done with other issues, I don’t just like to point out flaws. I like to offer viable solutions. Those solutions may not be practical or possible at the moment, but I try to make sure that the concept is sound.
I’d like to apply that method to superheroes now. By that, I mean I’d like to create a guide of sorts that helps establish the tactics, strategies, and ethics of being a competent, effective superhero. I say this knowing that it could never work in any comic book or major movie. This is mostly just an exercise in the actual pragmatics of superheroes.
First off, let’s establish some guidelines for a prototypical hero that would utilize these tactics. In order for them to work, they have to meet a certain criteria. Here’s a quick list of what that may include:
The goal of the hero is to reduce crime, confront injustice, and undermine corruption
The hero has a concerted interest in protecting as many innocent people as possible
The strategy in question cannot rely on the use of certain superpowers, although the use of superpowers can help supplement the strategy
The strategy is equally usable by male, female, and alien characters
The hero in question is willing to operate in a manner outside the framework of traditional law enforcement
The hero in question is willing to cross a certain set of moral lines, but only to an extent
I’m sure there are other ways to refine and supplement this list, but for now, this is what I’ll use in devising my strategy. In order to ensure that its applicable, heroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and Daredevil must be equally capable of implementing it.
Keep in mind, though, that some heroes have goals that go beyond just administering justice. Characters like Superman and the X-men have other goals, some of which goes beyond justice. I’ll save those goals for another post. For now, I intend to focus on the traditional superhero goal of justice and countering evil.
In order to formulate this strategy, it’s also important to acknowledge a few unpleasant truths that would make Superman and Captain America cry. By that, I mean that the strategy cannot, for practical means, rely heavily on ideals. This is supposed to apply to the real world and, unfortunately, the real world is extremely unforgiving when it comes to ideals. Just ask Bernie Sanders.
So if we’re going to create a strategy that operates in the real world, we must make sure it accounts for the eccentricities of human psychology. It must utilize caveman logic and pass the Simpson filter. It can’t be too concerned with the nuts and bolts of people and why they do the crazy things they do. It must focus exclusively on results.
Does your brain hurt yet? Are you wondering if I’m asking you to contemplate dry water, a one-handed clap, or a decent Fantastic Four movie? Bear with me because there is a strategy that checks all these boxes. It’s a strategy I came up with thanks to two books, “Freakanomics” and “How To Fail At Everything And Still Win Big.”
I’ve read both these books over the past few years and I’m a big fan of their style. They dig deep into the hidden intricacies of how the world works and challenges readers to think about how doing things in new and novel ways. Seeing as how I have the kind of imagination that links robots with a dominatrix, they fit my unique mentality perfectly.
For the purposes of this discussion, I want to cite an article that the authors of “Freakanamics” wrote a number of years ago on terrorism. Basically, with a gross negligence to the high emotions that come with terrorism, the authors used their understanding of economics and human behavior to come up with the most cost-effective way to conduct terrorism. What they came up with was pretty damn terrifying.
My general view of the world is that simpler is better. My guess is that this thinking applies to terrorism as well. In that spirit, the best terrorist plan I have heard is one that my father thought up after the D.C. snipers created havoc in 2002. The basic idea is to arm 20 terrorists with rifles and cars, and arrange to have them begin shooting randomly at pre-set times all across the country. Big cities, little cities, suburbs, etc. Have them move around a lot. No one will know when and where the next attack will be. The chaos would be unbelievable, especially considering how few resources it would require of the terrorists. It would also be extremely hard to catch these guys. The damage wouldn’t be as extreme as detonating a nuclear bomb in New York City, of course; but it sure would be a lot easier to obtain a handful of guns than a nuclear weapon.
Think about that for a moment. If terrorists used a tactic like this, how much fear and dread would it inflict on our daily lives? If those terrorists were even marginally competent, then it would be even scarier. No matter what we did, we would dread that we would be a victim and it wouldn’t be entirely misguided.
This is where “How To Fail At Everything And Still Win Big” comes in. That book talks heavily about how stress and uncertainty affect people. It also teaches on how you can use that to your advantage. It makes painfully clear that the human brain is an irrational device with faulty wiring that hasn’t been updated in 200,000 years. If you’re going to influence it, then you might as well exploit those quirks.
With these two principles in mind, we can formulate a strategy for our prospective superhero. If utilized, then the criminals, villains, and future threats they face will either be defeated, deterred, or nullified.
The hero operates in complete secrecy, working at night or under a different identity. If the hero uses a uniform, then that uniform must not be identifiable or have some sort of stealth feature
This first part of the strategy is simple and not entirely new. Characters like Batman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles utilize some form of stealth. They operate in the shadows and generally avoid being seen.
Some heroes are even more well-equipped than others. Characters like Solid Snake from the “Metal Gear Solid” video games utilize a stealth suit that utilizes camouflage. Characters like Mystique can shape-shift into looking like someone else. This makes it easier for them to utilize this tactic, but someone as resourceful as Batman could use it just as well.
However, there’s room for improvement.
The hero must not have an identifiable name or make themselves known to the media in any way or coordinate with the media. They must, at all costs, avoid creating an identifiable persona
This is where Batman, Spider-Man, and pretty much any hero with a publicly-known name fails. The issue isn’t the name itself. The issue is that by having a name and having some kind of media exposure, they create a tangible, identifiable target.
From a practical perspective, that’s a big problem. That means enemies, be they a mugger or Lex Luthor, have someone they can target and identify. Entire teams of enemies, like the Legion of Doom or the Sinister Six, can rally around a common enemy. That makes enemies stronger and no strategy can succeed with that.
The hero must conduct detailed surveillance on villains and criminals, know their crimes and how they connect with others, and focus on those who are high in rank and influence
This is another tactic that most heroes already use to some extent. Batman is probably the most well-known. He uses his detective skills to determine who is a threat, how big a threat they are, and how to go after them. Other heroes, like the Avengers or the Justice League, generally have some type of monitoring system to determine pending threats.
This strategy requires the kind of extensive intelligence and understanding that someone like Batman could appreciate. When Batman determines that someone is a big threat, he’s almost always right. Any hero using this strategy must have similar certainty. Knowing the threat is the first step towards actually defeating it. That’s just a basic rule of war.
The hero must defeat their villains/enemies/criminals by making them disappear without a trace, either by killing them and destroying the body or by sending them into a domain from which they can never escape
This is where the strategy conflicts with nearly every major hero, especially the Batmans and Supermans of the comic book world. For the most part, the heroes avoid killing. It’s seen as an ideal. Taking a life is seen as morally abhorrent and for good reason.
However, that moral absolution ends when those same villains, such as the Jokers and Green Goblins of the world, live on to torment again. Despite defeating these villains multiple times, the heroes never do anything to end them. They try and try to lock them away in a prison cell, but they just keep escaping. From a moral standpoint, the suffering those villains inflict is on the heroes’ shoulders.
For most heroes, this means killing is unavoidable. It’s the only sure-fire way to ensure that a villain is never a threat again. For more resourceful/powerful heroes, there are other options like shrinking them to the size of atoms like Ant Man or sending them into the far-distant future, as Superman did with Doomsday.
However, it’s not enough to just kill a villain or enemy in this instance. Superheroes have killed before. Some, like the Punisher, kill a lot, but it still backfires in the long run. Why is that? Well, that’s where the next part strategy comes in.
The hero must make sure that nobody knows the villains they kill or disappear are dead, must never take credit for their disappearance, and must do everything possible to disconnect themselves from the villain
This is where even the brutal tactics of the Punisher fail. It’s also where the Freakanomic strategy comes in. The problem with the Punisher’s harsh methods isn’t that they’re harsh or that they result in a lot of killing. The problem is that they give the villains another rallying cry.
The Punisher’s enemies knows he kills. The Punisher usually likes to make clear that he’s the one who killed their associates. While this may shock and horrify some of them, it also has the effect of rallying them against a common enemy. Whether someone is a criminal or a hero, giving your enemies a common threat to rally behind is always a bad idea.
This is why the Punisher’s methods often fail in the long run. Criminals may fear him, but they know he’s responsible. The threat they’re up against has a face. There is a target for them to direct their fear and anger. This means that the criminals and enemies of the hero know who to fight against and in the long run, that never works out for the hero.
The hero must make sure that the villains, their allies, and their enemies don’t know why others are disappearing and must never make themselves known. Most importantly, they must make sure the villains are free to make wrong, misguided decisions
Here is where the methods of Scott Adams intersect with “Freakanomics.” In “How To Fail At Everything And Still Win Big,” Adams constantly talks about how people are at the mercy of their caveman brains. When they’re uncertain or anxious about something, they’re prone to making bad decisions for bad reasons. Make too many of those decisions and you tend to doom yourself to failure.
With this method, the hero must make sure that the villain is free and able to keep making those decisions that will ensure they defeat themselves. This is why it’s so important to make sure that the villain never knows that the hero is even fighting against them. They can’t have a mask, a costume, or a symbol to rally against. If it’s one big unknown, then their irrational caveman brains will do the rest.
The Norman Osborns and Lex Luthors of the world will start making up their own targets, irrationally lashing out at what they think is the source of the threat. The hero, for the most part, just needs to sit back and watch it unfold. Let them attack their rivals, make new enemies, and falter under the pressure. So long as they don’t know who or what they’re fighting against, their paranoia will eventually work against them.
In the long run, the villains will lose. They’ll end up dead. They’ll get caught. Most importantly, from the hero’s perspective, they’ll never know who to blame or why. That’s a scary thought, even for a hardened criminal. Nothing scares people more than the unknown.
The hero must never seek any kind of recognition, adulation, or compensation for their deeds
This is the final part of the strategy and, arguably, the most important. The problem with characters like Batman and Superman are that they want to be symbols. They want to be recognized for their efforts. Practically speaking, that’s a mistake.
By being symbols, they give their enemies a clear target and something to rally around. No matter how good the hero is at their job, they still make themselves a target. No matter how many villains they defeat, more will emerge and more will know who to fight.
Remove that symbolism. Remove the recognition. Remove the masks, costumes, and iconography of a hero and suddenly, the world of villains is very scary. They don’t know who to fight. They just know that by doing what they do, they could disappear without a trace and never be heard from again.
That’s more terrifying than any torture or punishment because their caveman brains will fill in the blanks with the worst they can conjure.
This caps off my official perfect superhero strategy. To date, no hero in a comic book uses these tactics and for good reason. If it were a comic book, it wouldn’t be very interesting because the outcome would be too final. The hero would be too competent and that’s just not very interesting.
Remove the need for sales, lunch boxes, and porn parodies and imagine how this strategy could work. Say there’s a superhero that wants to take down organized crime. Say that hero has the power of Superman or the Flash. Using their abilities, they quickly locate the top level bosses and associates of these criminals and just make them disappear.
There’s no body. There’s no trace. There’s no police report. There’s no trial. They just disappear. Not knowing who to fight, the criminals start attacking others they think are responsible. When they don’t know who, they just pick random people they think are enemies.
This makes them more enemies, both from other criminals and law enforcement. No matter what they do, anyone who becomes a boss just disappears and they don’t know why. As a result, nobody even wants to be a crime boss anymore. The organizations just collapse on their own. Criminals still disappear, ensuring even low-level criminals have an incentive to stop. In the long run, the hero accomplishes what they set out to do.
It works with criminals. It works with those who are corrupt. It exploits the quirks of human nature, but also relies on the traits that make us function as a species. Again, it’s a tactic that I doubt any major heroes with movie rights could ever use. However, if they really do care about results, then this is the best way to go. Spider-Man should take notes.