Supervillains & Solitary Confinement
*This article contains potential spoilers for Arrow, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, Daredevil, The Flash, Jessica Jones, Legends of Tomorrow, Suicide Squad, Supergirl, Thor: the Dark World, and the Wonder Woman 2011 pilot*
With Zach Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice premiering earlier this year, the remaining big superhero films of the Spring/Summer season release schedules are Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: Civil War and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Civil War happens to be based on a comic wherein the United States government seeks to control their nation’s large unregulated and unregistered super-powered population, requiring all with super human abilities to either have a public identity and proper training of their powers or face imprisonment an extra-dimensional prison. Suicide Squad is based on multiple incarnations of incarcerated supervillains working for the United States government on incredibly dangerous and easy to deny super-secret black operations with the promise of reduced sentence time. Now what these films plan to add, drop, or adapt can only be squinted at through various trailers, but regardless both works are, either in surface or subtext, about the means for incarcerating criminals and as not only these films but other live action productions of Marvel and DC Comics material present these subjects in a very uncomfortable light.
Now before we continue, it’s only fair to address some of the obvious. In talking about works derived from superhero comics, it’s obvious that the reality of our world does not meet one where Viking gods, sun-powered aliens, and World War II super soldiers are a dime a dozen. If every issue of Batman turned into a court room drama dictated over the course of months if not years to make sure Joe Chill gets a just trial and fair sentencing, there would be a lot less time for gratuitous tie-ins and overpriced event comics. However, it does become a little awkward when the subject of civil rights in the arrest and punishment of super criminals is frequently brushed aside for the sake of drama or ignored outright.
One of the most condemning takes on arrest comes in the form of the unaired Wonder Woman television pilot from 2011. The story follows Wonder Woman in her fight against businesswoman Veronica Cale, whose latest venture is the testing of a dangerous performance enhancing drug. Wonder Woman tries to expose Cale for who she is but is often rebutted by the authorities due to a lack of clear evidence. There is a scene which has Wonder Woman torture a suspect for information. It happens in a hospital room where her suspect in seeing treatment from wounds she inflicted on him earlier in the episode. Before Wonder Woman begins, she even calls attention to her Lasso of Truth which varies from being a lie detector to forcing people to answer any question asked without harming the subject. The hospitalized man says he has legal protection which Wonder Woman dismisses before his screaming is heard throughout the hospital and the immediate commentary is given by an officer of the law who just shakes his head in disappointment. The episode itself points out the serious civil liberties being abused by Wonder Woman in both this scene and many others. The finale has Wonder Woman break into Cale’s drug manufacturing facility guarded by a group of men using the same drug. She continues to brow beat her way through the severely outclassed henchmen and finishes the fight against a seemingly ordinary non-drugged up guard by throwing a pipe through his neck.
Needless to say, it’s a disturbing forty minutes but what compounds this is how the pilot’s perspective seems to align itself with Wonder Woman’s methods entirely. There’s never a moment where the hero questions what she does. In the numerous times the legality or morality of her actions are pointed out, all Wonder Woman seems to do is shrug and continue right on her way. Although the project never went to series, the Wonder Woman pilot is in the most honest of DC Comic’s current live action roster and their sketchy treatment towards criminals.
About a year ago, a number of articles started circulating in reaction to The Flash‘s first season. The issue was over how the Scarlet Speeder dealt with a slew of super-powered humans (dubbed meta-humans) who had received abilities from a particle accelerator experiment gone wrong (the same which granted the Flash his own powers). Many used their new found powers to rob banks, get revenge on individuals who wronged them, etc. making for convenient villains of the week. However, once they’d been defeated the only place deemed safe enough to store these people who the Flash and his team deemed too dangerous to be contained by a conventional prison cell. Their solution is to store them within parts of the very particle accelerator which created them. For unexplained reasons the accelerator’s pipeline features a number of small cells which dampen meta-human powers. Where viewers started raising questions was how the show failed to address the legality of this or the villain’s quality of living. The entire Flash team, Barry Allen, Cisco Ramon, Caitlin Snow, Joe West and many others are imprisoning these people without any form of trial or sentencing and keeping them in an underground secret prison. To compound this includes both Barry Allen and Joe West being active police officers during all of this and neither present qualms over kidnapping and holding people indefinitely.
Mentioned less is the treatment of the imprisoned supervillains or lack their of. The cells are small and don’t seem to feature anything to imply bedding, a means to use the bathroom, a means to clean themselves, or even change clothes. The show never implies these people are allowed to leave, and that’s a concern as that implies the what the Flash team is subjecting their enemies to solitary confinement. Dr Sharon Shalev, in her research for the Mannheim Centre for Criminology, defines solitary confinement as “confinement where prisoners spend 22 to 24 hours a day alone in their cell in separation from each other.” This means of criminal punishment is severe and can have serious effects ranging from low levels of anxiety to self-harm and suicide. Shalev describes it as the most extreme legal penalty that can be imposed on prisoners second only to the death penalty. Although the Flash is but a work of fiction, it’s still very disturbing how complacent the show’s character are in this practice.
The heroes of The Flash are not even implied to feed their own inmates save for an one deleted scene. Now it should be pointed out that in the beginning of The Flash‘s second season that an off hand comment by Cisco implies the heroes are working with the proper authorities to build a meta-human wing of the local prison, Iron Heights. However, there are still people being locked up in the pipeline in subsequent episodes. What’s especially troublesome is that out of all the villains to be incarcerated, the only one to be let out is Hartley Rathaway, the Pied Piper, which only happens as an unintended result of the Flash’s time travel to set Rathaway on the course towards redemption.
This reckless treatment of super criminals isn’t confined to just the Flash. It’s a common theme in Arrow. In the current fourth season, one of the subplots includes Andy Diggle, brother to the series’ supporting character John Diggle. When in Oliver’s captivity, Andy is given a small prison cell with no bedding or bathroom as well. The Flash and Arrow‘s sibling series, Legends of Tomorrow, which features superheroes traveling through time to battle an immortal amoral warlord, the protagonists still manage to make this happen. In one episode, the team imprisons fellow Legend, Heatwave in a small square cell with no bed or toilet. Even Supergirl, which frequently subverts tropes commonplace in other shows and movies and places value and unity and trust, has this. In Supergirl‘s case, the main villains of the show tend to be escaped alien prisoners from Krypton’s penal system who are rounded up by the secretive government agency, the Department of Extra-Normal Operations. While the legality of confining extraterrestrials is flimsy, the DEO also expresses no concern about imprisoning American citizens like Maxwell Lord.
That’s more than enough harping on the pathos of DC Comics, let’s take a look at who Marvel Studios has addressed this situation. As of yet, the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t really run into this problem. Most of its film villains tend to be killed, either by the hero or circumstance. With the matter of heroes killing is a different subject, the few times villains are defeated and subdued, they’re often turned into the proper authorities. At the end of The Avengers, Loki is turned over to the legal authority of Asgard. It’s later shown in Thor: The Dark World, that Loki’s treatment while imprisoned is relatively comfortable. He’s given a bed, food, even books to keep himself busy, not to leave out his incredibly spacious cell. To boot, it’s within eye shot of other members of the Asgardian penal system, allowing for some form of socialization.
In Marvel’s two current Netflix ventures, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the heroes are supposedly more realistic.In Daredevil’s case, he often hands criminals over to the New York Police Department who handle them from there. In it’s second season, the audience sees the villain Kingpin and his treatment behind bars along with the Punisher. Obviously the American prison system is far from ideal, but the fact of the matter is is that they do have authority when dealing with the sentencing of criminals. That’s where Daredevil’s sibling series, Jessica Jones, differs. The major conflict of that series is Jessica trying to capture and contain the supervillain Purple Man, who has the power of mind control which he uses to terrifying ends. With such an immense power, Jessica does not trust handing him over to the police and devises her own prison cell to contain him.
This is where Jessica Jones proves itself different from other brands of self-styled super jailers. The series does an unromanticized version of the kind of imprisonment The Flash depicts on a weekly basis. Jessica Jones holds Purple Man in a sound isolation tank and tortures him with electrical shocks in an attempt to force a confession for his crimes. It’s unpleasant, ugly, and horrific. While Purple Man is nothing short of a monster in his actions and deeds, the show makes it ambiguous if Jones is in the right. She and some of the other characters may agree with this method, but there are others who don’t and point out the inhumanity of this scene. This manner of treating people is horrible, and the Purple Man is horrible, but whether or not its justified is not stated and left for the audience to decide.
The reason I started on this article was due to a few seconds of footage in Captain America: Civil War‘s trailer. It shows what appears to be a prison designed for super-powered criminals. Single prisoner cells with limited space, a bed, with no visible toilet. Honestly, that is somewhat concerning territory for a franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe to head towards. I have doubts that is the intention. The Captain America films have so far been the highest in consistent quality film series under the Marvel umbrella and if The Winter Soldier is any indicator, Civil War as a film will likely side against preemptive and hard handed measures against supervillains. One of the more infamous plot points of the Civil War comic is the creation of an extra-dimensional prison for individuals with super powers. If the treatment of prisoners is brought up in the film, I hope that the film and the audience are aware to it.
The issue of prisoner treatment and solitary confinement are vastly complex and ongoing dialogues within spheres where they might have actual real world implications. Regardless, what are deemed suitable means for superheroes to treat criminals is reflexive of what we as a culture deem suitable for actual criminals. I’d hate to think we live in a world where we don’t see criminals as human beings but instead problems we can lock up in a pipeline and be done with. I would like to open the subject to a larger dialogue and hear what others have to say. While rarely ever nuanced, comics do address the treatment of criminals and their lives after incarceration ranging from the reformation of villains such as Hawkeye and Black Widow to Starman‘s Bobo Benetti to various versions of Suicide Squad to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet. I realize it’s not the most comforting or enjoyable subject to talk about, but these are important questions that we owe ourselves to ask.