Last night I was up late watching Super Friends on DVD. (These aren’t the depths I’ve sunk to while Ashley is on vacation — it’s pretty much my normal routine.) I was passively enjoying “Rokan: Enemy From Space” when something Superman said made me sit up and pay attention.
Rokan is a flying dinosaur from Krypton with diamond eyes that shoot yellow lasers. He survived the planet’s explosion (incredibly), and crossed the vastness of space (more incredibly) to eventually arrive at Earth (what the fuck can the odds be for that?). After Rokan wrecks a few small towns and lays eggs all over the world which hatch into destructive Rokan Babies, Superman suddenly hits on a brainstorm: Rokan is from Krypton, and therefore vulnerable to kryptonite. Batman turns a dial on the omniscient computer in the Hall of Justice, and the computer (which Superman apparently programmed to have his voice, the arrogant prick) estimates that a kryptonite asteroid weighing thirteen billion tons would be sufficient to kill Rokan and his babies, or at least chase them back into space.
This show is based on 1970s DC Comics continuity, so there are continent-sized kryptonite asteroids floating just above Earth’s atmosphere ripe for the plucking. Before Wonder Woman can jump in her invisible jet and fly up there to lasso one, the computer chimes in with this crucial addendum: the kryptonite asteroid needed would be so big that just having it on the planet will probably kill Superman. Jayna the Wonder Twin, wielding her considerable authority, immediately vetoes the plan. But Superman wags his finger, and says:
“Not so fast, Jayna. We’ll decide this the same way we decide everything — the greatest good, for the greatest number of people!”
So the Super Friends are utilitarians? Not just that — they are hardcore, Libertarian-Party-membership-card-carrying, John-Stuart-Mill-reading consequentialist motherfuckers. Superman’s “greatest good/greatest number” line is the popular summary of the Greatest Happiness Principle, verbatim.
It’s not so troubling in the Rokan episode. Superman potentially sacrificing himself to save the entire planet from flying monsters from Krypton is a no-brainer, standard issue superheroism. But would every choice faced by the Super Friends be so cut and dry? On a Saturday morning cartoon show, sure. But what about in real life? Yes, for the sake of having something to write about, I will transfer this premise from a ludicrous 70s animated comic book adaptation to reality.
Let’s say the threat isn’t flying dinosaurs vulnerable to kryptonite. Let’s say Lex Luthor appears on the Troubalert and informs the Super Friends that he has just superheated the Moon into a massive ball of glowing magma, and it will be crashing into Texas in the next few minutes, because he has decided that the Austin music scene just isn’t enough reason to put up with the rest of that fucking state. Batman turns that dial on the computer, and it quickly informs everyone that if Superman flew in circles really fast above the Atlantic Ocean, the massive resulting waterspout would be enough to cool off the molten Moon, which Supes could then nudge back up into its orbit, saving the day.
“But hold on just a goddamn minute,” says Aquaman from the far end of the room, raising his hand.
The rest of the team turns in surprise, wondering how the hell Aquaman got inside, since they voted to revoke his security clearance a week ago.
“I peeked at Robin’s access code when he punched it in last week,” Aquaman says before they can even ask. “Also, whipping the Atlantic Ocean into a giant waterspout will obliterate one of the largest ecosystems on the planet and kill all of my friends and family down in Atlantis.”
Batman turns the one useful knob on the computer again, and the computer tells everyone that the molten Moon crashing will kill 20,000,000 Texans, while emptying the Atlantic Ocean to douse the Moon will kill 20,000,000 Atlanteans. (It will also kill billions of aquatic organisms, but not being human, they don’t count.)
Faced with such a difficult decision, and with time running out, Batman turns that dial one last time. The computer is finally overwhelmed by the extraordinary demands placed on it and blows up. Superman whips out a piece of paper and a pencil, sits down and carries out some hasty felicific calculus: The numbers of people affected are equal, as is the certainty of the consequences — one way or another, 20,000,000 people will die; many of the Texans killed would die quickly, incinerated in the impact of the molten Moon, while every single one of the 20,000,000 Atlanteans would die agonizing deaths, suffocating like fish out of water; the median age of the population of Atlantis (Aquaman happens to know) is substantially younger than that of the population of Texas, meaning that the surviving Atlanteans would have longer to enjoy their lives than the surviving Texans; the dominant religion of the Atlantean people is one of morality and compassion, while Texans are predominantly Southern Baptists, viciously xenophobic and eager to justify all applications of the death penalty and disenfranchisement of homosexuals; Austin, Texas is one of the only creative outlets left in American country music, while the most popular music in Atlantis is a shrill, brutal noise that sounds like Mariah Carey being sawed in half while playing a sitar; Texans wear cowboy hats, which look incredibly stupid, but not as stupid as the going rage among Atlanteans: 80s retro; the loss of Texas would be devastating to the American economy, whereas the death of everyone on the underwater city of Atlantis won’t affect our wallets a hell of a lot.
Supes double-checks his arithmetic, carries the one, etc., and concludes that it’s Texas that must be saved. He takes off, whips the Atlantic Ocean into a gigantic waterspout and flies it up into the path of the falling superheated Moon. In a few seconds, the Moon is cooled and solid, and Superman pushes it back up safely into orbit. Twenty million Texans live to spit tobacco juice another day. Twenty million Atlanteans asphyxiate in the absence of the water they need to breathe. Sea level dips drastically worldwide as waters from the planet’s other oceans flood in to refill the Atlantic, conveniently covering the twisted corpses of the residents of Atlantis so the rest of the world doesn’t have to see. In time, most of the water scooped up by Superman returns in the form of rainfall, and the oceans gradually return to their previous levels. To the grateful millions in the Lone Star State, and pretty much everyone else who wasn’t in Atlantis, the Super Friends are heroes. They have once again saved civilization.
But did they really do the right thing? Maybe we should ask Aquaman.