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We ought to applaud ‘real-life superheroes’

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith says that Catholic teaching offers support to the self-styled superheroes fighting crime from Yeovil to Seattle

By on Thursday, 26 January 2012

The self-styled superhero Phoenix Jones (real name Benjamin Fodor) speaks to reporters (AP)

The self-styled superhero Phoenix Jones (real name Benjamin Fodor) speaks to reporters (AP)

The concept of the superhero is one that is surprisingly familiar. Everyone has heard of Superman, Spiderman and their less plausible brethren. Superman, the first of the breed, dates from 1932 and is such a successful character that he is known even to those who have never read a comic strip, or indeed been to a cinema, which are the two media through which he has captured the imagination of an age. Presumably invented for children, he succeeds equally with adults.

A harmless piece of entertainment, Superman stories can also be the vehicles for serious themes. Superman himself has been subject to literary and cultural analysis by people as eminent as Umberto Eco.

Spiderman, who dates from 1962, has also made the leap from comic book to screen, and to my mind repays careful theological study. Like Superman, he seems to be a Messiah-figure, Christ-like in his dedication to the service of others, and prepared to sacrifice himself for the general good. Spiderman is an exemplar of what theologians call oblative love.

Both Spiderman and Superman have supernatural powers, which perhaps points to humanity’s desire to see miracles.

But what about real-life superheroes? These are people, like you or I, quite lacking in supernatural powers, who dress up in superhero costumes, masking their true identities, and who tread the mean streets at night looking for those who might need their help, and, of course, fighting crime. So, for example, in the town of Yeovil you might meet “Shadow Ninja”, a real-life superhero (or RLSH as they more snappily term themselves), who could get you out of a spot of bother if you need his help. RLSH’s have their own organisation and have been featured in media reports around the world.

What can we make of the phenomenon of men dressing up in silly costumes and patrolling the streets in cities across the United States and Europe, looking for trouble, or hoping to prevent it?

The first reaction might be to think that these people have simply read too many comic books and seen too many films, and that their nocturnal habits reflect the same excesses that one might spot at a Star Trek convention or (just to be fair) at a Jane Austen conference. Fandom can be taken to ridiculous lengths.

But one should not rush to dismiss this form of vigilantism. Just as the character of Superman draws on religious precedents, the RLSH phenomenon calls to mind the knight errantry of the Middle Ages (or what we assume to have been the knight errantry of that period).

In fact, there probably never was a time when knights set out on adventure, frequently obscuring their identity behind a visor, seeking out those in distress whom they could rescue, and seeking to right wrongs. The legends of the Round Table exist in a never-ever land that resembles no society that has ever existed. There never were people like Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival who dedicated themselves to the service of damsels, or the poor, or who went on quests. But – and this is the key point – there was a time in English history when the ideal of such knight errantry was deeply appealing.

But what have the knights errant of the High Middle Ages to do with the RLSHs of today? Just as the people of Edward III’s time found inspiration in the Round Table legends, today’s people have found inspiration from the popular cultural figures of our own day such as Superman and Spiderman. The comic book and film characters have given people the language they need to express a longing that is constant in the human heart, namely to do good, and to feel the thrill of adventure in doing good.

But a note of caution is necessary. The world of Superman and Spiderman, though superficially like our own, does not in fact exist, and the RLSH of today lives in a rather different world to that of Peter Parker and Clark Kent. Aren’t social problems on the streets better left to the police?

And here of course we get to the nub of the question, and an indication of why the RLSH movement is so quintessentially American: who should deal with problems on the street, the power of the state or ourselves? In Seattle, for example, a RLSH called Phoenix Jones, masked from head to toe, confronts drug dealers in nasty neighbourhoods and has on occasion faced them down. By confronting them and not being intimidated by their threats, he has forced them to move on.

Again, in the notoriously sleazy Washington Square in New York City a RLSH called Dark Guardian (real name Chris Pollak) dresses in stab-proof garments and shines a powerful torch into the faces of drug dealers and yells: “This is a drug-free park!” Of course the police should be doing these things, but do we really want to live in a society where everything is the responsibility of the police and nothing is left to ordinary citizens? Surely the police should be there as a last resort and the real enforcers of good behaviour should be all of us?

One enters morally questionable territory were the RLSH to use force. Some are armed with Mace and Tasers, and in a society where there is a right to bear arms this may be acceptable. Their use in self-defence is, from a Catholic point of view, also acceptable, provided the force is proportionate to the threat to life and limb. But in Britain those who engage in self-defence often end up on the wrong side of the law; it is worth noting that Catholic teaching is far more liberal on this matter than the restrictive law of the land.

Moreover, even dressing up in a costume in Britain, never mind carrying a weapon, could be construed as threatening.

One fears that in Britain shining light into the face of a drug dealer and shouting at him might be deemed a criminal offence. But if this is the case, the law is lopsided, and not in the favour of the victim.

  • Tux

    Alexander, this is utter rubbish.  First off the real life super heroes are not acting in this way for the good of mankind.  They act this way because they have an unhealthy greed, a greed which consumes them, a greed which dictates their very existence.  You see, these people need to feel power over others.  If they really wanted to help they would volunteer for the police.  Of course they would be refused because they would fail the psych tests.

    I have personal experience of these people.  To the point where they have called my office, have my address, my childrens names.  All this information is kept in a database for all members to see.  They are obsessive about acquiring information to the point they believe they are working with the secret services.  They have called places of work, schools and colleges, parents and family members.  They even contacted my friends sister after he died from an aids related illness to check he had in fact really died.

    This group call themselves the JLU or Justice League Unlimited, headed by a severely delusional man, Gene Turnbow he uses the alias Kalel Venkman.  He himself has publicly stated he would shoot a teenager for coming to his door.  They run a propaganda website called krypton radio.  With this they attempt to worry people into thinking they need a pretend hero.

    I am sorry, but I totally disagree with your views.  Please google the above and see for yourself how sick these people really are!

  • Mikethewarangel

    well i agree with you in a way tux, but if we look it in there ways, what would it be, would it be like [ hey look at me i am wearing a cape and mask, fear me] or would it be the one way to show everyone that they are here to try to keep the streets safe and reasons for the masks are maybe the only way to tell children, that we can do good things, that there are still heroes out there and not all of them are in masks, doctors, firemen, police, soldiers, lifeguards, well that´s just that, i think,

  • Masked

    I can agree with Tux! These men and women are very horrible, and deluded. This Justice League Unlimited is actually a criminal organization more than it is a group of Super Heroes. These men, and women are ex felons, who pretend like they want to do good just so that they can feel better about each other, and feel as if they have power.

    I have had previous experience with these ‘members’. From what I understand, and saw for myself, most of them are fat, and never actually go outside. They only stay inside and pretend to protect the people, just by sitting at the computer and eating ice cream, chips, and bagels all day, along with drinking milk and eating cookies, and reading their favorite comic books.

    Another observation is that most of them are ugly, and have AIDS or HIV or any other type of STD such as herpes, or crabs, or even lobsters. 

    In my conclusion, these guys are bad bad bad. Thank you for reading.

  • Parasum

    “Superman, the first of the breed, dates from 1932″

    ## Shouldn’t that be 1938 ? Or not ?

    “But one should not rush to dismiss this form of vigilantism.”

    ## That is exactly what one should do. Vigilantism is out of place in a civilised society, because such a society will be ruled by law rather than allowing intervention by irregular & self-appointed persons. Vigilantism & vendetta are signs either that society is still not full civilised, or that it is decadent. A healthy society can’t be ruled by actions based not on equity but on whims. It’s understandable that a half-grown society like the US, with its tradition of lynch law, informal justice, & tendency to shoot first and ask questions later should have a liking for the extra-legal righting of wrongs – but shouldn’t we be able to do better than that ? There is nothing to be said for vigilantism – that it is understandable, and excusable, does not make it just. 

  • Levi

    Uhhh…

    I will decline to address Mr. Tux’s completely baseless, overly-generalized ramblings, but I would like to point out two very important things to remember when discussing the subject of RLSH:

    First, there are two different kinds of RLSH- regular RLSH, that is, people in costumes who go about giving food and stuff to homeless people, and generally just walking around, and genuine crime-fighters who seek out crimes and criminals to report them to police, and to intervene if necessary.

    Second, neither of these two sub-groups qualify as “vigilantes.” Anyone who says so obviously has no idea what a vigilante is. A vigilante is a person who goes out to implement is own form of justice, disregarding the law. People like Phoenix Jones and his crew, the Rain City Superhero Movement, do not do this. They are more like an extreme form of “good Samaritans.” They see crimes, report them to the police, and intervene if necessary. They would be vigilantes if they did not call the police, used excessive or lethal force, or otherwise broke the law. Since neither Phoenix Jones nor the NYI do this, they are not vigilantes, and what they are doing is completely legal.

    The infamous pepper spray incident involving Phoenix Jones was a a result of an overzealous police officer and uncooperative witnesses. No charges were filed against Mr. Jones, and one of the victims involved stated that the man had saved him from a “potential beatdown.” However, other RLSH have voiced the opinion that Jones should have been and should be more cautious, and may have accidentally escalated the incident through his use of pepper spray.

    But the fact remains: Phoenix Jones and his crew are NOT vigilantes, and neither are the NYI nor any other RLSH.

  • bt

    I have to admit I was startled to read this article and recognize someone from my neighborhood.  Yes, Phoenix Jones in the picture operates in Seattle where I live and his pictures have made the newspapers here.  Frankly, there is enough crime here that a few superheroes could certainly help things.

    Oddly the Seattle Mayor and the Washington State governor (and she a Catholic) are in favor of legalizing marijuana.  Given the breakdown of marriage in our country, the lack of support of marriage by our politicians, the lax attitude on drugs by our civic leaders, and the lack of moral leadership in our leaders, one wonders if we may soon have problems that even superheroes cannot surmount.  Thank goodness we can still pray.

  • Charles Martel

     Vigilantism is quite understandable in a society that has lost any moral underpinnings, and in which the state and the police have lost any concept of the common good.

  • Mark Holloway

     Tux’s ramblings on the JLU and its leader are rubbish as well, no such event ever took place, and the only reason he posted here at all was to try to take the opportunity to try to smear somebody’s reputation.