My favorite superhero story is Alan Moore's (and later Neil Gaiman's) Miracleman. It's become a bit of a cliché to describe this kind of story as an exploration of "what it would be like if superheroes existed in the real world," but Miracleman rises above some of the pitfalls that such stories can fall into by unabashedly devoting itself to its utopian themes. By the conclusion of Moore's story, the eponymous hero directs his energies not to apprehending petty criminals or foiling dastardly plots, but to actually making his world a better place. In Miracleman 16, the book's heroes remake the world in their image, ending war and famine and granting superpowers to all who desire them. It's become popular to refer to the series as Marvelman, the title under which the first few chapters were published before a certain publishing company took issue with Eclipse's use of the name. But I prefer to call it Miracleman, because by the time Moore wrote his conclusion, and especially during the later Neil Gaiman issues, the word "Miracle" takes on a key role in the story's world. The superhero creates an Age of Miracles (not Marvels) because he is a god, a redeemer, the founder of an earthly paradise.
Miracleman is hardly the only story in which superheroes create a perfect world. Interestingly, though, these stories inevitably blur the line between utopia and dystopia—the Squadron Supreme brainwashes their friends and enemies alike; the archvillain of Watchmen baptizes his new age of world peace in innocent blood; the heroes of Warren Ellis' The Authority are perhaps the definitive flawed messiahs. Generally, the stance of these stories is that the superhumans, in remaking the world, rob ordinary humans of their free will. But despite this criticism, the nagging thought remains: if superheroes truly cared about justice, would they allow famine, poverty, and war to exist?
In their recently-completed Justice League saga Justice, Jim Krueger, Alex Ross, and Doug Braithwaite give voice to the "utopian problem" of superhero stories. In #4 of the 12-issue series, Lex Luthor declares his intention to solve the world's most persistent problems, and challenges his world's heroes on their negligence:
"But we're also wondering why they never tried to do what we've been doing. Why they never attempted to use their powers and abilities to make this world a better place. I believe that their inaction is as criminal as those felonies we went to prison for. Preserving the world and not daring to change it means keeping food from the hungry. Keeping the crippled in wheelchairs. Bowing to the status quo of human suffering. And still, they call us the villains... Sure, the Justice League may save us all from a giant alien starfish in the middle of the ocean from time to time. But they save us only to send us back to our old lives. Back to our bills, back to our useless jobs, back to our suffering. If they were really the heroes they claim to be, they'd save us from those same lives as well. They're the monsters, really, to have allowed things to go on the way they have.
In light of this challenge, the villains set out to create a utopia: Captain Cold creates icebergs that bring water to deserts. The Toyman builds prosthetic limbs for landmine victims. In short, the villains step up and do what the heroes of the DC Universe have refused to do: solve their world's problems for good.
A similar idea forms the starting point for Warren Ellis' forthcoming series Black Summer, which takes a highly politicized approach to a similar idea. In this series, a 20-page preview of which was released earlier this month, a superhero kills the president and demands that the American people rebuild their government. In an essay in the preview issue, Ellis explains the extrapolation from costumed crimefighting to political assassination:
"If we invite or condone masked adventurers to fight crime outside the law, do we get to draw a line where they stop? Condoning their activity is much the same as giving them carte blanche to fight crime wherever they perceive it to be... If a self-identified crimefighter lives in a country where a President can be said to have prosecuted an illegal war and therefore can be said to have killed a great many people in the enactment of his criminal enterprise... What does that masked man do?"
Ellis' essay is remarkably similar in tone to Lex Luthor's critique of the status-quo-upholding superheroes of the DCU in Justice. Crime, justice, and legality can be quite difficult things to define, and so why wouldn't (or shouldn't) beings as powerful as Superman fight the greater ills of their world as well as the lesser?
Of course, later issues of Justice reveal the sinister motives behind the villains' plan. But regardless of the flaws of the messenger, Luthor's question remains valid: Why don't the heroes fight for true, lasting justice? Why do they permit suffering to go on when they could eliminate it? Sadly, Justice doesn't provide a very satisfying answer. In the closing pages, Batman asks us to imagine "a world transformed," but doesn't give an explanation for why he hasn't already made it a reality.
The prosaic reason for the lack of true change in the DCU involves publishing schedules and audience accessibility—the world the superheroes inhabit needs to be readily understandable by new readers; the imaginary world must match the real world up to a point. More importantly, a true superhero utopia would lack drama, and the imperfections of these universes makes room for the conflict that the stories require. (Admittedly, Gaiman's Miracleman issues challenge this last argument). Most of the stories of superheroes taking over their worlds are standalone stories or limited series. But these concerns have been worked into the metaphysics of superhero universes: if Superman exists, there must also exist supervillains powerful enough to keep his world at equilibrium. While reading an issue of Spider-Man a few years ago, I realized a certain absurdity in the ease with which superheroes are able to find petty crimes to fight. In Spider-Man's New York, an hour of web-slinging will reveal muggings on every streetcorner, car chases in Times Square, and a handful of broad-daylight bank robberies. Our world simply isn't like that—there's much, much more crime in a superhero universe than in the real world. They have powerful protectors, to be sure, but they also have far more danger to protect against. Between Spidey, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, I'm amazed Marvel's New York has any crime at all—perhaps it's more stupidity than evil that leads to the aforementioned daylight robberies. The good of superheroes is counterbalanced by the evil of supervillains. New York will always have the Fantastic Four, but Latveria will always have Dr. Doom. Superman reigns in Metropolis, but Black Adam is king in Khandaq. Superhero worlds are not utopias because their evil is strong enough to limit their good.
For more on the religious aspects of superheroes (including Miracleman), see chapter 6 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier.