Do Superhero Movies Make Us More or Less Fearful of Transhumanism?

The short answer: Superhero movies are far more inclined to make us fearful of transhumanism.

The long answer: Think about the superhero movies that you enjoyed or really got into. Now think about how that hero became a hero. The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, and even Hellboy are the result of science gone awry. Iron Man and Batman are the result of exceptional, unfathomable wealth, talent, and dedication being impossibly found in a single human being. Super-Man and Thor aren’t even human beings. The Watchmen are a team of crazy people allied with a deity. The X-Men are mutants whose continued evolution is both unexplained and terrifying, resulting in a genetic race war. The overall message is simple: The odds of anyone becoming super are next to nil, the odds of you becoming super are worse than zero, and the human cost of becoming super is horrific and unavoidable.

Now look at a movie like Limitless or Gattaca or Frankenstein. What is the cost of overreach? Insanity, genetic castes, and abomination. Even an extremely science friendly show, Star Trek, has episodes critiquing efforts at enhancement, be it cybernetic or genetic. The video game series Deus Ex involves nano-augmentations, but takes place in a society so dystopic and broken that it makes most conspiracy theorists’ worries seem downright minor. Overall, entertainment tells us enhancement is dangerous.

I can only think of two mainstream positive portrayals of enhancement: Ghost in the Shell and Mass Effect. While the lead characters (both of whom are female, I might add) are both genetically enhanced and cybernetic, they are not the only ones. Civilization is enhanced and augmented in the worlds of Ghost in the Shell and Mass Effect. The cybernetic heroines are merely great individuals among enhanced peers.

Superheroes stand alone, or at least stand apart, from society. Their abilities and strengths are so far beyond that of the average human that they are burdened with an obligation to become heroes. That’s what Spider-Man is about: With great power comes great responsibility. A super-villain is someone who shirks that responsibility and either neglects or abuses their powers. And since there are often hundreds of villains for every hero, what does that tell you about how we perceive enhancement in general? Superheroes, in general, portray enhancement as a gift for the few, usually by accident, and often with negative or amoral consequences.

Yet that is why I’m quite excited for Captain America. Captain America is just a human being with every attribute maxed out. Granted, the procedure only occurs once, but that requires the unbelievable narrative trick of committing the only knowledge of the process to the mind of a single individual who doesn’t write it down and is shot to death right after the first experiment is a success. Not only is Captain America the best example of how enhancement might really look, but the enhancement is also both deliberate and occurs under the guidance of “the good guys” (i.e., USA! USA!) and works without any horrible, evil side effects. And Captain America’s main enemy is the Nazis. You know, the monsters who carved the word “eugenics” into the fear receptors of every decent person for half a century. He fights them. Captain America embodies good, voluntary, planned enhancement versus evil, coerced, chaotic Nazi eugenics.

Do superhero films make us have a negative opinion of enhancement? Yes. Is there a chance that the Captain America film will change that? My suspicion is that it won’t hurt.

Kyle Munkittrick is a master’s student in bioethics at New York University and the program director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Category: Q&A


One Response

  1. Daneel says:

    When I first tarted reading the article I thought you were going to comment on some new research or at least make an empirical argument. Personally, I’m not persuaded by this kid of logical argumentation that doesn’t take into account the psychological side of human nature.
    You make some good points, but I’m afraid that you may be cherry picking examples and/or highlighting only partial aspects of those heroes.
    In X-Men, for example, Xavier is hopeful that mutants can be constructive members of society and I don’t know many children (or adults) that wouldn’t like to have those powers. I think a better argument would be that X-Men (and this applies to other examples as well) shows us that technology and power are nor intrinsically good or bad, but can be used for good or misused for evil. That, I could argue, is exactly what we need. A public that knows that morality and ethics are as important as technology to build a better world. As Bertrand Russell put it: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge”
    On the other hand, the main themes of some of your examples are not human augmentation. X-Men has, in my mind, an obvious message if tolerance as also does Mass Effect (as an aside, the player can choose if the main character is male or female).

    Anyway, my main point is that in order to answer the question in the title you need to perform psychological experiments. Highlighting some aspects of some series is not very persuasive, in my mind.

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