If you have not yet watched the Netflix series Jessica Jones, you should definitely check it out. Like so many of the excellent shows available nowadays, it isn’t so much about superheroes as it is an engaging and provocative study of human behavior. You miss out on an awful lot of excellent drama if you are not open to the genre.
In this storyline, Jessica Jones (who is as unenthusiastic about her super-strength as she is about everything else in her life) is stalked by a sociopathic guy named Kilgrave who has the ability to compel anyone do anything just by telling them to. Look at Kilgrave the wrong way and he is likely as not to tell you to put your head through a wall. And you will. Really piss off Kilgrave, and he might tell you to chew off your own foot, and you would, despite the pain and horror and revulsion.
Clearly an awful guy. But what would you do if you had Kilgrave’s power? Would you use it for good?
I could imagine grand ambitions. In the morning I’d order my way into the boardroom of Exxon-Mobil and suggest politely that they reinvest every cent of their profits into green alternatives to fossil fuels. In the afternoon I’d stroll into the U.S. Congress and tell them to cut the military budget by 75% and invest that money in social programs and infrastructure. Then maybe I’d end the day by dropping in at the United Nations to direct the world powers to dismantle every nuclear weapon in their arsenals.
Would that be an abuse of my power? Or would it be my right and duty to use whatever talents and abilities I have to make the world better? Superman faced this dilemma in “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.” He reluctantly decided to gather up every nuclear missile in the world and toss them all into the Sun.
Some agreed with Superman. He was the only one who could rid the world of the nuclear threat so it was his obligation to do so. But even many of those who agreed with his goal were nevertheless outraged by his actions. Just because you have power, they argued, doesn’t mean it is acceptable to impose your will on others. And what, his critics asked, would Superman decide to impose upon the planet tomorrow in the name of protecting us from ourselves?
I for one admit that I would definitely descend from Superman to Kilgrave very quickly. Oh I’d start off innocent enough. I’d use my mind-control power to nudge people into doing the right thing, like “You should apologize you know” or “let that nice old lady have your seat.” But where would I draw the line? Is it so wrong to say “hey you, pick up your cigarette butt and throw it away properly.” Maybe it would teach those litterers an even better lesson if I said, “hey you, pick up your cigarette butt and eat it.”
If given his power, it would probably not take very long before I turned into Kilgrave incarnate. I’d like to think I would not order anyone to eat off their foot, but hey, that’s hard to guarantee until one actually has that kind of power.
And the fact is that all great fantasy is allegory. In the real world, some few people do actually have extraordinary power and influence. There are real individuals, like Lex Luthor, whose superpower is wealth and corporate resources. They have the Kilgrave-like power to compel most anyone to do most anything. They may start out innocent an well-meaning enough, like Superman, using their gifts to do what they think is right. But like Lex Luthor, how long before the superpower of wealth turns otherwise ordinary people like the Koch Brothers into real-life supervillains, imposing their will on everyone?
Maybe what the comics teach us most profoundly is that superpowers are something we simply cannot risk in the real world.