Torture seems like one of those issues that should be fairly cut-and-dry in terms of morality. Most people on the streets, if asked, would likely say they’re opposed to it on no uncertain terms. Now, if you asked about “enhanced interrogation,” you might get an entirely different answer, but I’m not talking about a strange gray area, I’m talking about shooting someone non-lethally until they give you information, or breaking fingers until they tell you what you want to know, or threatening to drop them off of a building unless you’re told exactly WHERE ARE THEY? I’m talking about torture in comic books.
Superheroes don’t kill. That is a sentiment that has painted most of the modern era of comics (and obviously exceptions exist) but very few seem to have a problem with committing bodily harm either for the purposes of gaining information or even as revenge. From Batman threatening with gadgets or even his own fists to Rorschach breaking fingers to even our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dangling crooks off of roofs to find out where their bosses, not only is the practice all over the place, but it always works. But like so many things in comics, this brings up a whole host of questions.
The first is, of course, for a group that keeps such a strict moral code as letting maniacs like the Joker or Lex Luthor run basically unchecked (Dick Grayson even jokes about how easily Joker escapes Arkham in the oft-cited Hush), superheroes in general have very few compunctions with inflicting grievous bodily harm to get information. It seems like as long as you don’t kill them, doing literally anything else to a villain or criminal is completely justified regardless of guilt or innocence.
When Black Mask tortured Stephanie Brown to the point of near death, it was one of the most controversial, despicable things in comics at the time. People were horrified, enraged, and with good cause: this professional criminal had tortured a young woman nearly to death essentially to get his kicks and with the tangential benefit of trying to get information. But no one bats an eye when the Atom is slowly enlarging in a villain’s head to torture information from him.
Another issue arises when this practice always works despite reality working quite differently. Now of course, comic books aren’t reality, I understand this, but it’s also a problem across most of pop-culture from comic books to movies to TV to videogames. When a guilty-pleasure cotton candy show like Burn Notice has to be the one that points out that torture is unreliable, I call that a red flag. When confronted with physical trauma, or even the threat of it, people will often just say whatever they think the torturer wants to hear, true or not, as long as it makes the pain stop. Books have been written on this subject, and most professional interrogators will tell you that torture is a great way to get faulty intel.
A twist on this trope was actually used to great effect in The Dark Knight. Batman enters an interrogation room and essentially bounces Joker from one wall to the next until the cackling clown gleefully gives Batman a situation in which he can only save one person. What Batman doesn’t know is that he’s been lied to because the madman is essentially impervious to pain deceives Bats into not only rescuing the “wrong” person, but creating Two-Face in the process. Torture failed him utterly because the victim (weird to call Joker that) was as unreliable as the methods. The argument is often brought up “What if torturing one could save the life of thousands?” but I would counter with “What if torturing one costs thousands their lives when the bomb squad shows up at the wrong location?”
We hold superheroes to a higher standard than normal people, and even most normal fictional characters. There is something gloriously noble about someone gifted with either extraordinary abilities or means using those for unselfish practices, but when a trope like this, which at the end of the day is borne out of laziness and not wanting to show what it ACTUALLY takes to extract information from someone, becomes so much the norm that episodes of 24 are literally introduced into debates about torture happening at the highest ranks of United States government, it may be time to reanalyze and rethink exactly what we’re letting our heroes get away with.