Marvel Ethics


I typically have one show I choose to watch religiously on Hulu. My latest go-to has been Marvel’s “Agent Carter”. After watching the season finale yesterday, I realized the show could serve as a strong case about ethics.

As a spin-off for one of the characters in the Captain America film, the show depicts Agent Peggy Carter as a marginalized, government secret agent who must go behind the back of her agency in order to help the man she should be hunting – Howard Stark. If caught going on her secret missions for Stark, hoping to clear his name, Peggy could be targeted by the government as a traitor and spend the rest of her days in prison, or worse.

The YouTube clip depicts a preview for the episode in which Peggy’s secret is discovered by her agency and she becomes a wanted fugitive. Despite the fact that she has betrayed her agency in working as a double agent for Stark, to the viewer, Peggy is still the one righteous, ethical character. Why do we believe her to be so honorable and ethical?

Her ethical dilemma is one most superheroes encounter. The most ethical scenario would be for Peggy to be loyal to her agency, convince her other agents of Stark’s innocence and fight the bad guys alongside her government peers. However, as a marginalized female agent who is largely ignored and only trusted with secretarial work, she knows that convincing her agency of Stark’s innocence will essentially be impossible. By the logic of utilitarianism , in order to save the entire world from destruction (the Russian’s are after Stark and his weapons in order to take many lives), Peggy chooses to disobey orders, defy her boss, ignore her job description and the government’s wishes, all for the greater good. She may be risking her own life and happiness, that of her coworkers, and her boss’, but she is potentially saving millions of people from the plots of Russian terrorists, and saving Howard Stark’s life and happiness.

Superheroes are exempt from many actions the average citizen would find unethical. Peggy gets to lie and steal, as well as punch, kick, and shoot anyone who gets in her way. As the audience to this show and to superhero films, we accept these actions as being necessary. We commend the hero for hurting the “bad guys”, or anyone interfering with his or her job of saving the world. The hero’s actions are acceptable so long as they are for the sake of the majority, or society overall.

Suppose the superhero got it wrong and went after an innocent man? Or perhaps the hero’s good-intentioned actions hurt more people than did good? Do we write all these off? Do we still root for the hero? By the standards of dual consequentialism, we would. Superhero shows and films exemplify how some consequences can be ignored so long as the main consequence benefits the most people.

Featured image credit:  Marvel.com

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5 thoughts on “Marvel Ethics”

  1. Not always…there are Comics which actually discuss the ethic aspect of the hero. The Winter Soldier was exactly about that…about the lines one shouldn’t ignore in the name of protection. The Amazing Spider-man has a scene about “helping people” vs “vengeance”, which clearly draws a line and says that Spider-man shouldn’t be a hunter but a protector. And Peggy herself draws the line, too. She might investigate in secret, but she is still following the rules doing so. She doesn’t go around and kills people for “the greater good”.

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    1. (SPOILERS)
      I have not seen The Amazing Spiderman, but I definitely agree about Winter Soldier. In the film, Captain America has a Kantian philosophy which conflicts with S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury’s utilitarian approach. The Cap believes in doing one’s duty rather than evaluating all the long-term consequences to base current actions on. Fury would rather eliminate threats now, who may currently be innocent, for positive, peaceful consequences down the road, while the Cap believes it his duty to prevent the deaths of millions of innocent people, regardless of future consequences.

      I don’t think Peggy views decisions with quite the same black and white approach Captain America does. She seems to struggle with her decisions before taking action. In episode 1, Stark offers Peggy several reasons to help him. I believe Peggy may not have helped Stark, and become a traitor herself, to simply get fulfillment in her job at the agency or because it would be the moral thing to do if he is indeed innocent (Kantian approaches). I think she is ultimately convinced to help him in order to prevent Stark’s stolen technology from being used by evil-doers. She calculates that not helping Stark will do more harm than helping him will (utilitarian approach).

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  2. You make some really interesting points about the way we think of superheroes. I also think that it’s interesting to see the ways gender factors into Agent Carter’s mission. Being a woman, seems to force Carter to employ some more difficult and questionable methods, but also makes her seem less threatening to her enemies. Is Agent Carter considered a superhero without the cape and tights? Does she get the privileges that come with the title of superhero?

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    1. I definitely think the show does a good job of depicting the difficulties and advantages Agent Carter has as a female hero in the 1940s. I suppose “superhero” wouldn’t be the correct term for her though. To me, “super” implies super-natural abilities. Still, she is certainly a hero, and, no, I don’t think she gets the recognition many heros receive. By the end of the season, she is finally viewed more equally by her male colleagues. However, she does not earn any credit in the eyes of the government or society; the male lead takes this recognition.

      Have you seen the show? What do you think?

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  3. Superheroes are defined as characters who “saves the world” or “saves the day”. If we are using the utilitarian approach, both of these definitions show that superheroes are ethical, since their actions benefit the most people, because I guess you can’t get bigger than the world!

    However, when they are in a mission to save the world, they also kill a lot of people, and if you are watching a superhero movie, rooting for one of the bad guys to win and you see the bad guy being crushed by the superhero, I don’t think that you will be seeing the superhero as an “ethical” character. I think you bring up a good point when you say that “superheroes are exempt from many actions the average citizen would find unethical”, but I also think that it is a matter of perception, and who you are rooting for when you are watching the movie.

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