Letters : Staff : 2007 : To the Staff 04/05/2007

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Date: May 4, 2007
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From justini87

I recently read your article on the true moral decision involving Marvel's Civil War. I agree that in theory, the pro-registration side is correct. On paper, there isn't much of a case against them. However, registering with the government and becoming subject to the authority of SHIELD requires some degree of trust in the proper application of that authority. SHIELD has been many things over the years but not since the days of the original Howling Commandos has it been trustworthy. I think there is more than enough reason to believe that a hero becoming an agent of SHIELD is subjecting themselves to severe manipulation and possibly betrayal.

So yes, Spider-man should not be Spider-man if he's not willing to subject himself, and his loved ones, to certain risks. However, that requirement does not mean he should be a slave to an organization that has been shown to be less than reliable.

Yes, I realize this classifies SHIELD as the American concept of the corrupt authority, that doesn't stop it from being true in this particular case.

Thanks for the article and for reading this email -Justin Parris

Hi, Justin. Andrew Miller here. Thanks for writing.

I agree that SHIELD's track record is awful: Deltite infiltration, corrupt rogue factions in the Savage Land, and on and on. Not surprising, really: it's an international paramilitary, and in a comic-book universe that means it will always conceal dark exploitation behind a mask of benign paternalism. That's a trope that comic-book writers always return to eventually. Or American comic-book writers, at any rate.

(And, I've since learned, Japanese manga writers, too, though they're reacting to a different set of historical and cultural circumstances.)

Anyway. You argue that it's unreasonable to demand, as Tony Stark did, that superheroes like Spider-man submit themselves to an institution one can reasonably expect will abuse the power it gains over them. In the abstract it's hard to deny it.

But let's leave the abstract and go into the particular. Just how might SHIELD abuse its power over Spider-man? A few possibilities suggest themselves: they might have him fight some battles and not others. We've seen something like this in Ultimate Spider-man, where Peter is manipulated (in a very different way) into fighting crimes perpetrated by the Kingpin's rivals, to the Kingpin's ultimate benefit. Or maybe SHIELD would compel him to use methods he would rather not use, like lethal force. We can think of other examples if we try.

But what these examples have in common is that they depend on Spider-man being ordered to do things that he would find morally wrong. It is then, and not before, that resistance becomes appropriate. I could approve of Spider-man defying authority and breaking the law if the law is unjust. But I don't think the law is unjust, and initially neither did he. In the West, with our Christian and Hellenic traditions, there's a strong philosophical commitment to the idea that obedience to one's conscience trumps obedience to the law. If and when Spider-man thinks the law is making an unreasonable demand, he should resist, but not until then.

But the point of Civil War, and of the little essays I wrote on the subject, is that the Registration Act wasn't making an unreasonable demand, and thus flouting the law was inappropriate. Peter should have registered, which he did. And when SHIELD began making unreasonable demands of him-- like forcing him to aid and abet extraordinary rendition, gulags, and curtailment of due process-- he should have resisted, which he did.

Was he giving SHIELD a dangerous amount of power over him by submitting to its just and legal demands? In retrospect, he certainly was, but that's what the best Spider-man stories illustrate, from Amazing Fantasy #15 on: doing the right thing can be costly and painful. With great power comes great responsibility.