The Urgency that Good Should Overcome Evil
All heroism is bounded in one dimension by the need to which is a response. The hero who crosses that boundary may be said “to go too far.” At the extremes, a hero might become a villain or a fool, who is to be judged, generally speaking, on a scale from tragic to comic.
The police officer who begins heroically but ends by needlessly doing permanent injury to a suspect might be tragic and a villain, for example. The knight who, after doing great deeds, eventually does only small ones and triumphs over them might become a comic fool. Some heroes are truly harder to fit on the scale. Achilles, for example, becomes terribly savage against the Trojans after the death of his beloved companion. His savagery would seem tragic or comic except that it is so very extreme and yet so ineffectual.
Superheroes are bound in this dimension the same as any police officer, knight, or demigod. Spider-Man, one may safely say, does not strike human criminals as hard as he punches his costumed foes who have superhuman invulnerability. He can do what needs to be done to stop a human criminal with his webbing and a mild use of strength. With anything more, he might destroy the criminal’s body, and I am certain that the friendly neighborhood web-crawler would not cross that boundary. It would be an irresponsible use of his power, that is to say, immoral.
A reader might ask whether the boundary that heroism does not cross rests at “doing one’s duty” or at “going above and beyond it.” That is, does heroism consist in answering “the call of duty,” and is everyone a hero just for doing what he or she is supposed to do? Or does heroism consist in going further? Is someone a hero only for doing more than what he or she is duty-bound to do?
I cannot make a complete answer here. I can only propose that duty is not the only sense of need. Doing more than duty binds one to do can be needed in another sense. There may be other senses, too—for example, the need for independence, or, as it may be, a feeling of a need for independence—which may lead a person to found a new and beautiful city or a new and beautiful, artistic or scientific development in a city. This founding may be a deed of heroism in an extended sense, because the need is so abstract—what salvation might the desire for independence bring except salvation, perhaps at best, from the confinement of human potential, unless it serves another need?—but it is a sort of heroism.
The dimension other than morality is personal. A hero, I say, commits to a deed in response to some dire circumstance. The need, whatever it is specifically, is a need for a good to arrive, a good whose arrival is the overcoming of some evil. The evil, at the very, very least, is the absence of that selfsame good. By acting, I say still, the hero forms his or her identity as a hero. Most heroes, in my opinion, commit only to the specific need of that circumstance. Their heroism forms within the bounds of that circumstance or however many circumstances in which they act heroically. They do not commit to what the specific need signifies, namely, the urgency itself that good should overcome evil. The one signifies the other, just as the heroic deed signifies the salvation by which evil itself is overcome, whomever—a god or someone else—may be said to do it. A superhero, by distinction, commits to the very urgency itself, and so the identity that forms in his or her heroism is unbounded by the circumstances in which he or she acts.
I acknowledge that the urgency may seem very abstract. The urgency, from my point of view, is not abstract at all. It is not concrete like specific needs that arise at some specific time and in some specific place; it is boundless because it beats in the heart of an extraordinary person—or perhaps, if the extraordinary person is right, even at the heart of reality. It beats therefore always and everywhere or at least as long as the person lives and anywhere that the person goes.
I acknowledge also that at the utmost any other hero might intend to respond to the boundless urgency. For the most part, however, heroes act for what is their own: honor, land, nation, beloved, kin, ancestor, god, and the hero’s response to the urgency in my view is for the most part unintended.