Why Must Superheroes Punch Bank Robbers?

I fondly remember the very first Marvel comic that I ever bought as a little kid. It was a Spider-Man comic. But this post isn’t about that.

The last comic I ever bought

Let’s instead start with the very last Marvel comic that I ever bought. It was Annihilators issue 4, published December 2011, written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. At the time this was the end of the comic books set in the cosmic corner of the Marvel Universe. It was Abnett and Lanning’s second limited series in a row with a cosmic focus, having been immediately preceded by 2010’s The Thanos Imperative, which in turn had been written to wrap up the storylines started in two ongoing titles that had been cancelled in early 2010 for low sales: Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy.

By 2011 I had long quit collecting Marvel’s superhero books. The cosmic books were the only ones of interest to me. I was still buying a couple superhero titles from Image comics, but that’s a story for another post. In any case, the superhero stuff from Marvel seemed stagnant. Endless cycles of regurgitated storylines and meaningless shakeups that would occur whenever a new creative team would come aboard a title, only to have all that development undone with the inevitable changing of the guard when that creative team moved on. It all felt so pointless.

The cosmic books were different. For one thing, the creative team was stable. Between 2007 and 2010 Abnett and Lanning had been the only writers on both Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy. In fact, the storylines in both those books picked up from the aftermath of another story written by Abnett and Lanning, 2006’s Annihilation limited series, which featured the heroes Nova and Starlord as they attempted to stop the “Annihilation Wave," a vast interdimensional army led by the villainous Annihilus, which was threatening to sweep across the galaxy, bringing chaos and ruin. Typical save-the-world type stuff, yet very well executed.

Annihilus (from Marvel)

But it was more than the consistent high quality of the writing and uninterrupted clarity of creative vision that kept me reading Marvel’s cosmic stuff. It was also that, despite the fact that these were silly science fiction stories set in outer space, the cosmic books made sense, because -- and we come the main point here -- Marvel’s more “grounded” superhero stuff certainly did not.

And honestly, it hadn’t made any sense to me for quite some time.

I was talking to a guy the other day (just a kid really) who was saying how he hated all the Spider-Man movies lately, because they increasingly deal with magic and aliens and interdimensionality. And he wished that they would keep Spider-Man as a more grounded, earthbound superhero. A hero who fights street-level crime like Daredevil or Punisher or Batman. And I can see his point. Spider-Man does seem like a fish out of water in magical or cosmic storylines. Not to knock the merits of a good fish-out of-water scenario. It’s a useful storytelling device for a reason.

From Sony Pictures

But I have to disagree. In fact, I feel the exact opposite. I am increasingly uncomfortable with fiction that depicts superheroes as champions who protect the hapless public from street-level crime. There’s something that makes me squirm whenever I read a comic about a superhero taking down a bank robber. I mean, I know that exact situation is practically a required component of the Spider-Man mythos at this point. The whole elaborate set up where Spider-Man interrupts a bank robbery, makes a few witty quips, punches a few thugs in the face, and then leaves them strung up in his webbing for the cops with an attached note that reads: “Courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!" It’s so routine, it’s practically color-by-numbers at this point.

But it makes me feel queasy. Like, in real life do we really feel like bank robbery has gotten to be such a problem that the police aren’t equipped to handle it? Is society in a place where we require vigilante justice to protect us from masked robbers and safe-crackers? If a person were to suddenly and inexplicably find themselves gifted with strange and wonderous power beyond that of your average mortal, would putting on a mask, assuming a code name, and fighting street thugs be the next logical move? Would that truly be the optimal way to use your new powers for the benefit of humanity?

There’s lots of reasons why vigilante justice is a bad idea, not the least of which is the police don’t appreciate it. Despite right-wing arguments that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, evidence does not support this. I recall the incident in 2018 at Riverchase Galleria in Hoover where police arrived at the scene of a reported shooting and killed an armed man, only to later discover that the man they shot was not the suspect, but rather an armed civilian who drew his gun in pursuit of the actual shooter. The police officer who killed the armed civilian was naturally cleared of wrong-doing in the incident. But so much for vigilantism as a way to tip the scales in favor of law and order.

No, the police seem well equipped to deal with street criminals. They don’t need or appreciate help from people trying to be heroes. Indeed one huge issue with police is that they are not positioned in a way to stop anything but street crime. Police are completely ineffective as a means of controlling corporate crime. Or financial malfeasance by multinational banking institutions. Or wealth inequality. Or the slow erosion of our democratic principals by a correct justice system. All these real world problems have led to the diminishing of the American middle class and an rapid increase in poverty.

There is a well-established correlation between poverty and crime. And the fact is, the police are designed as a defense against the symptom, not against the root cause. When you look at crime as a product of poverty, it’s hard to take seriously any comic book which presents the ideal role of a superhero as being to assist the police with the problem of street crime. That’s why I gave up on superhero comics and was down to reading only the cosmic-themed comics. Until late 2011 that is, when Marvel unceremoniously put the axe to their cosmic titles. And that’s when I stopped reading Marvel comics entirely.

So you can imagine my surprise in 2014 when the Guardians of the Galaxy movie hit theaters. “Didn’t they cancel that comic for low sales?” I thought. But the Marvel movies were doing well, so Marvel Studios took a chance on one of their more obscure properties. And to the surprise of many, it paid off.

The comic Guardians of the Galaxy was also relaunched, but sadly with a new creative team. Brian Michael Bendis was now the writer. And the new comic…it wasn’t fantastic. Ignoring the previous continuity Bendis without explanation brought back both Drax and Starlord, who had been killed or presumed dead during the previously mentioned Thanos Imperative limited series. I suppose Bendis wanted the comic team to include all the characters from the new movie for the sake of synergy. Oh yeah, Iron Man also joined the cast because, I don’t know? He was well-established in the cinematic universe, so -- more synergy? As I said, the comic wasn’t great. I took a pass on it.

But back to Marvel’s superhero comics and why they don’t do it for me. Given the state of the world we live in, the idea of superheroes existing primarily to help an overwhelmed police force against endless hordes of criminals and robbers… it just seems so misguiding and uninteresting.

Daredevil versus Kingpin (from Marvel)

In fact all of the famous street-level comic superheroes work best when they are not fighting street thugs. The best Daredevil stories are where he is going against the Kingpin, a crime lord who presents himself publicly as a legitimate business person. The best Punisher stories are where he is taking out corrupt cops. The best Batman stories are where he is serving as the brains for the Justice League, using the other heroes with actually superpowers as the muscle to execute his plans.

So yes, I don’t care if all Spider-Man stories from now on revolve around themes that are magical or cosmic or interdimensional. Let Spider-man forever play the part of the fish out of water, because frankly he’s a good choice for that role. And besides, given the rise in wealth inequality in the world today and the correlation between poverty and crime, I don’t care to read any more stories where Spider-Man punches yet another bank robber.

I’d much rather read a story where Spider-man punches a banker.