Of Marvel And Morals

Feb 22, 2017

Marvel heroes like Captain America serve as inspiration for an examination of moral struggles.
Credit Andy Roth / Flickr via Creative Commons

The battle between Marvel heroes in the recent blockbuster hit  Captain America: Civil War provides an opportunity for two Illinois State University professors to delve deep into the psychology of morality in the Marvel universe -- as well as our own. 

While fighting super villains and saving the planet from certain destruction, Marvel superheroes like Captain America and Ironman are faced with a myriad of moral issues. The complexity within such issues makes compelling entertainment, but it's also a great place for non-superheroes to begin an examination of moral questions.

Eric Wesselmann and Scott Jordan are professors of psychology at ISU.  They recently teamed up to write a chapter for Captain America Versus Ironman: Freedom, Security, Psychology from Sterling Books.  It's one of a series of essay collections that looks at the psychology behind popular culture.  Both Marvel fans, Wesselmann and Jordan eagerly focused on the moral systems within the superhero realm.  

Eric Wesselmann (l) says Doctor Strange is his favorite marvel character, while Scott Jordan (r) likes Captain America best.
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT

"What are their roles as heroes, what are their responsibilities to the people they're protecting? It's not just fighting the villain and then going home to have a coffee," said Eric Wesselmann. "When they fight, there's collateral damage. And that's a big thing that they struggle with in the Civil  War story arc."

"The federal government wants them to register with the government as superheroes," explained Scott Jordan. "Tony Starke as Ironman sees this as a necessary next step for superheroism.  And Captain America refuses.  He takes seriously the risks and suffering of the heroes and considers the Registration Act as sort of betrayal of the commitment that people like Captain America have given to the culture. To put this in a contemporary context, we're dealing with issues of security right now in our culture.  And the advantages of these comic books is that people who are reading this sort of material suddenly get fairly engaged in this conversation in a fairly deep way, I'd argue. They might see the parallels to contemporary social issues.  I think that's extremely valuable."

Moral complexity drives the drama in Civil War, and in our own lives. "We are constantly navigating these different roles and different expectations that others have for us and we have for ourselves," said Wesselmann. " One of the thrusts of the psychological view of morality is that when we adopt a moral framework, we begin to treat is as if it's intuitive and a given.  SO no moral discussions need to be held because this is right and this is wrong.  And that's something everybody does, regardless of their world view.  But life is not that simple.  And what happens when we inevitably run into a conflict where we have to do something or say something  that conflicts with our values? Or we endorse two values that conflict with one another? We call that cognitive dissonance."

Wesselman and Jordan note that in Civil War, the reader of viewer and learn from the mistakes of the superheroes. "The characters can serve to remind the American public about what our democracy is," said Jordan. "Which is a struggle among values, instead of among right and wrong. I sense a certain collapse into binaries in our culture politically in the past 30 years, and the revitalization of a respectable struggle among values wouldn't be a bad thing.  It's kind of ironic that the moral struggles I see in this comic book are much more sophisticated than the rhetoric I hear in the nightly news. those who are bashing comic books may want to do a rhetorical comparison."