As you’ve probably heard, the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film apparently includes a surprising plot twist. The first part of the film is a standard super-powered beatdown between the title protagonists, with various other heroes (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Bouncing Boy) throwing power ring blasts and invisible planes and grimly decolorized angst from the sidelines.
But, in a shocking turnaround, after all the rubble is rubbled and the civilians have fled to their civilian hovels, Superman and Batman suddenly realize the whole exercise was futile and stupid. So they fly off to fight mosquitos.
Or, OK, possibly not. But! If superheroes were real and superstrong beneficent aliens from outer space who somehow looked exactly like Henry Cavill, the best thing that alien could do for Earth (besides parading around shirtless) would be to go out and hunt down some disease-bearing insects.
Superman’s heart is in the right place, but the guy’s plan to save humans is and always has been superdumb.
Thwarting bank robbers, or saving working class dudes from a collapsing oil rig equipment, or even fighting vigilante psychopaths dressed as flying rodents—obviously, all of those things have their place, and I don’t want to judge anyone by their hobbies.
But if your altruistic alien goal is actually to preserve human life and reduce human misery in some sort of comprehensive way, mosquitoes are really the best place to start.
According to the World Health Organization, malaria killed some 600,000 people in 2012. Three-quarters of those deaths were of children under 5—exactly the sort of innocent victims superheroes love to save. And there are many more people infected with malaria who don’t die but become seriously ill—as many as 200 million, according to WHO numbers. And now, of course, we have the Zika virus as well.
With Superman’s superspeed, supervision and heat vision, it seems like he could track mosquitoes down one by one and still eliminate them all in a few months. That would avoid ecological damage from draining swamps, and, of course, once the mosquitoes were gone, the benefits would compound year over year. After a decade you’d have saved millions of lives, reduced the suffering of billions and saved probably trillions of dollars — money that could go instead to improving lives in countless other ways.
Meanwhile Batman could be using his super-duper tech and remorseless vigilante focus to fly about the world perpetrating wild dog vaccination.
If Superman and Batman want to do good—if they’re heroes—why do they spend all their time slugging villains and each other rather than fighting mosquitoes?
You don’t need a superbrain to know the answer to that question. Who wants to watch two hours of Superman and Batman squishing mosquitoes? “Do you bleed, tiny deadly insect? Oh, gross, now I’ve got insect guts on my Bat glove.” It lacks a certain pizazz. Nobody wants to watch that.
And it’s not just on the movie screen that nobody wants to watch that. Superman and Batman aren’t real, but their brand of heroism is popular even with folks who don’t wear tights. Just think about the humanitarian dialogue around military intervention. “I believe we should not stand aside while this dictator murders his own people,” President Obama said in justifying the 2011 bombing of Libya. Qaddafi was a supervillain, and the reigning superpower spent $1.1 billion to kill him.
A billion isn’t very much in comparison to other American interventions—but still, if you’re stated goal is to save lives, is a billion dollars best spent dropping explosives on people? What if the U.S. had decided not to bomb Libya and had instead given the money to the WHO for polio eradication?
What if President Bush had done that with Iraq? “Saddam Hussein is a threat to his own people…and just to show him how much we value human life, we’re going to give a trillion dollars to prevent unnecessary mortality from disease! Plus, as a bonus, by not invading Iraq we’ll avoid a couple hundred thousand combat-related deaths. Win-win!”
Presidents never say that sort of thing for the same reason Superman doesn’t primarily use his heat vision as a bug-zapper. Because for presidents, as for superheroes, saving lives isn’t really the point.
Instead, the point is action. It’s defeating villains in a spectacular and photogenic way. Superpresidents want to look good, and looking good involves exercising power in a manner that is visible and violent. Or, alternately, superpresidents want to increase their power, and they do that by draping power in the mantle of goodness. Either way, the good and the violent are conflated such that you can’t even see goodness without violence, and violence itself becomes a kind of positive good. Heroism, through a super transformation, is defined by killing people, rather than by saving them.
Superman and Batman don’t fight mosquitoes for the same reason that we spend hundreds of billions on defense every year. Saving lives is boring. Violence is fun. So just pretend your violence is saving lives, and you can call yourself a hero while still enjoying yourself. That’s what superheroes, and superpowers, are all about.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.