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Should Superheroes Use Torture to Get Information?

Most superheroes refuse to use lethal force, but should another line be drawn?

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.

Pictured: Less than ideal
Pictured: Less than ideal

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.

Pictured: Friendly
Pictured: Friendly

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.

Pictured: A great way to get at least two bystanders killed.
Pictured: A great way to get at least two bystanders killed.

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.

89 Comments

Avatar image for daddy_xero
Edited By DADDY_XERO

why should murderers, rapists and those who want rule the world for all the wrong reasons get away with everything?

fight fire with fire

and first.....for what its worth

Avatar image for csguterres
Edited By csguterres

Jack Bauer would say yes!

Also, in the Golden Age the heroes used to kill their enemies. Even Superman.

Avatar image for darkxseraph
Posted By DarkxSeraph

Yeah, but these are supposed to be heroes, in most cases. People who are examples of morality and 'we won't sink to their level.' Some heroes? Completely in their character: punisher for example. Wolverine. Even Batman and Daredevil use psychological and sometimes outright physical harm to get information... but what is the next step? Having Superman use heat vision to burn off layers of skin from a man to get answers? Having Wonder Woman choke people to unconsciousness over and over with her lasso to get information? Point is: some characters this is fine with because it is in the character to do it. Others? Should never cross that line.

Avatar image for mk111
Posted By mk111

I think it depends on the method of torture. Some are acceptable, and some aren't.

Avatar image for madeinbangladesh
Posted By MadeinBangladesh

YES.

Avatar image for moywar700
Posted By moywar700

Why not use WW's lasso of truth?

Avatar image for judasnixon
Edited By judasnixon

Someone must of just seen Zero Dark Thirty.....

Avatar image for brandonbonito
Posted By brandonbonito

It was a little awkward when in Arkham City, Batman would get the information and still knock the criminal out in a very dramatic way. Very cool in a video game, not sure how it would appeal in real life...

Avatar image for roboadmiral
Posted By roboadmiral

As a blanket approach, no pain isn't a good means of intelligence gathering. Applied in the right amount, in the right way, with the right questions, it can be very effective. Whether a character does this, should vary by the character. The likes of Batman, Wolverine, and the Punisher shouldn't bat an eye at breaking someone's wrist if they think it appropriate. Superman and Flash, unless pressed with an extremely dire situation, not so much.

Avatar image for newcomicguy
Posted By NewComicGuy

I would vote yes. There are a few exceptions I guess but sometimes you just have to go the extra mile.

Avatar image for jorgevy
Posted By Jorgevy

what about telepathy, etc....

people don't discuss those things but that's an invasion of someone. still lots of heroes do it to get info

either, as I see it, lifes are at stake, and sometimes the only way to get info fast is through less than likeable methods. but that's when it comes to super heroes, because they can indeed save and fix things/situations.

the use of these methods by regular law enforcement is much more debatable and I won't go there since this is a super hero website not a political one.

Avatar image for outside_85
Posted By Outside_85

If they want to maintain a moral high ground; no.

Avatar image for bob808
Posted By bob808

yes they should

Avatar image for mbecks14
Posted By Mbecks14

Interrogation? yes. Torture? No.

There's a line of brutality that separates the two. Batman beating up a guy asking questions is one thing, but should the Justice League keep a hostage, starve them, and use mental and physical pain to extract information? No.

So my vote is a strong no to superheroes using torture. But as some other people were pointing out it would be more in-character for some heroes like the Punisher to use torture, because they're not really "superheroes."

Avatar image for mbecks14
Posted By Mbecks14

In the comments here there seems to be a general lack of understanding what "torture" is.

Avatar image for circularlogic
Posted By CircularLogic

I would say most of the torture is psychological. Ignoring the Dark Knight trilogy, most of Batman's torture is psychological. Sure, he dangles people off of roofs, but that's about it. He puts in the fear without any of the potential damage. In the Dark Knight Returns, a criminal cuts himself in an artery. Batman didn't throw a punch, he just explains how he has to be given information if he wants help. I have no problem with tricks like this, since it's more using mind over matter, the illusion of brutality instead of actually causing harm.

On the other hand, I highly disagree with actual, painful torture. But, thankfully, most of the books I read either don't include it, or paint the perpetrator as either an anti-hero or as morally bankrupt. Of course I don't have a problem with Rorshach breaking fingers, because that's how the character is written, and he's not presented to us as a center of morality: we're not supposed to use him as an example on how to behave

Avatar image for necrotic_lycanthrope
Posted By Necrotic_Lycanthrope

@judasnixon:

Only difference is that was a real event that lead to the death of a psycho who danced around bragging about wiping out Americans.

Here is about SUPERheroes. They may be human, but since when could an average Joe take Mjolnir to the face and laugh afterwards?

Avatar image for jacobgabel
Posted By jacobgabel

@DADDY_XERO: I was tortured for almost 3 years by the FBI and their friends only

because 85 years old man, Roland Sibens(chicago) convinced them that I

am a terrorist. I was tortured for working on my prosthetic legs in

the basement. I done absolutely nothing illegal or wrong. They thought

that in theory it is possible to hide bomb in them. They saw an

opportunity to get famous, so they were trying to torture me till I

sign their insane story. They tortured me using more than 100

different torturing methods and trust to me waterboarding is not how

they torture nowadays. I dont know where to find justice.

I think that after 9/11 things got out of control. Freedom fighters

became tyrants. In 1945, most Germans had an opportunity to learn about Nazis death

camps. I hope that one day American citizens will get chance to learn about people

like me, who were tortured with no reason for years.

Avatar image for Pokeysteve
Posted By Pokeysteve

Punisher needs more article time here. I'd like to see Joker laugh his way out of having his nads hooked up to a car battery. God I love Castle. Anyways. In comics, I'm all for torture. They're all breaking the law already so why not take it a step further and get some Intel.

Dexter has it right though. Confirm guilt and then do your business.

Avatar image for nightfang3
Posted By NightFang3

@mk111 said:

I think it depends on the method of torture. Some are acceptable, and some aren't.

This.

Avatar image for the_stegman
Posted By the_stegman
This is why all hero teams should have  a telepath on board.
Moderator
Avatar image for veitha
Posted By Veitha

OF course they should. And they should kill, too. Even their own sisters lol

Avatar image for nightwing28710
Edited By Nightwing28710

Hugging villains and giving them cake is an effective way to get information.

Avatar image for trevel8182
Posted By Trevel8182

Listen if there not gonna kill the villains to save thousands of lives they can at least torture the villains to get information out of them that could save thousands of peoples lives.

Avatar image for nightfang3
Posted By NightFang3

@Pokeysteve said:

Punisher needs more article time here. I'd like to see Joker laugh his way out of having his nads hooked up to a car battery. God I love Castle. Anyways. In comics, I'm all for torture. They're all breaking the law already so why not take it a step further and get some Intel.

Dexter has it right though. Confirm guilt and then do your business.

I think he would just laugh it off and say "Turn up the juice", like in that Batman: TBATB episode.

Avatar image for hyenascar
Posted By hyenascar

@DarkxSeraph: @DarkxSeraph said:

Yeah, but these are supposed to be heroes, in most cases. People who are examples of morality and 'we won't sink to their level.' Some heroes? Completely in their character: punisher for example. Wolverine. Even Batman and Daredevil use psychological and sometimes outright physical harm to get information... but what is the next step? Having Superman use heat vision to burn off layers of skin from a man to get answers? Having Wonder Woman choke people to unconsciousness over and over with her lasso to get information? Point is: some characters this is fine with because it is in the character to do it. Others? Should never cross that line.

Despite a very new idea of "heroes" not killing or doing these things, heroes have always killed. Ever since Beowulf, the first Hero, heroes have killed. Greek through WW II stories. You could make a huge list of the last decade alone.

Now, for those trying to use morality in the conversation. Morality is a loose set of ambiguous principles that would have to be agreed upon by an entire populous, It's difficult to have a couple of people with similar morals let alone a whole group. It's the reason why their are so many sects within a religion.

A Vegetarian might think it's immoral to eat animal. Abortion, gun control, any of many sexual issues, all are very divided in what we think is immoral. Wouldn't it be immoral to let hundreds, thousands or even several people die because you don't like the idea of torturing someone.

So morals, just like common sense, is an overused word that is an abstract idea with no definitive answer. I'm not sure you can use the word in trying to describe why a " hero" should or shouldn't kill or torture.

Avatar image for phaedrusgr
Posted By Phaedrusgr

It depends on the type and the application, but in general I'm not into torturing unless it's absolutely necessary. Furthermore, you have to define what's a torture for you, since interrogation is a psychological-mental torture (unless anybody thinks it's a game of questions and answers).

Avatar image for dj1107
Posted By DJ1107

Should heroes use torture methods? umm No. No they shouldn't. Isn't that why we all hate Cry for Justice.

Avatar image for theblueangel93
Posted By TheBlueAngel93

Really, I think, it depends on who it is you're interrogating, what information you're trying to get from them, and how quickly you need this information. When you're simply dealing with some punk or thug, I would expect fear and intimidation being pretty effective, but when dealing with someone like the Joker...that's where things may need to be taken to more extreme measures. But the point is that the same method isn't going to work on everyone, especially if you're dealing with someone who knows you better than most, like Batman/Joker, Superman/Lex Luthor, Captain America/Red Skull, etc.

Avatar image for tximinoman
Posted By tximinoman

Yes, of course, the whole point of being a superhero is making things that normal police can't. Torture is a great way to get information, and it's not like they are psychologically torturing anyone, they just break a few bones and beat their asses a bit (nothing that they won't normally do to stop them).

Avatar image for cmaprice
Posted By cmaprice

If we've learned anything about physical torture, it's that in real life it's grossly ineffective, regardless of the baseline ethical issues.

Avatar image for nappystr8
Posted By nappystr8

I want torture as far away from my comic books as possible. The whole point of superheroes is that they are supposed to be better than that. Even if it wasn't a question of morality, why do you need to break knuckles when you can read minds, use a lasso of truth, use x-ray vision, or turn invisible? Now there are certain anti-hero characters like Punisher, or shady government organizations like Checkmate or SHEILD in which torture might make sense to the story, but even there I don't think good writers generally play those scenes out as if the methods are the right thing to do or even justified. And even with those types of characters, I find it much more interesting when they find other more intellectually stimulating ways to collect intel.

Avatar image for nappystr8
Posted By nappystr8

@NightFang said:

@Pokeysteve said:

Punisher needs more article time here. I'd like to see Joker laugh his way out of having his nads hooked up to a car battery. God I love Castle. Anyways. In comics, I'm all for torture. They're all breaking the law already so why not take it a step further and get some Intel.

Dexter has it right though. Confirm guilt and then do your business.

I think he would just laugh it off and say "Turn up the juice", like in that Batman: TBATB episode.

Absolutely agree. The Joker has shown many times in my opinion that no amount of physical pain is going to break him. He'd let himself die just for a punchline. That's the problem with torture in general, it may or may not work on common cooks, but people with an ideological imperative: people like terrorists, suicide bombers, or in the case supervillians, are not likely to turn their back on their entire life's work just because someone plays a little metal music at high decibels or starts removing fingernails.

Avatar image for reignmaker
Posted By Reignmaker

Don't do anything Jack Bauer wouldn't do. That's basically my standard for heroes right there.

Avatar image for nappystr8
Posted By nappystr8

@hyenascar: Hero is also a completely subjective and ambiguous term. Some people consider Osama Bin Laden to be a hero. Without morality, you don't have a hero. Sure what constitutes morality may vary from culture to culture or even person to person, but that does not make it meaningless. In this case we are talking about superheroes, men and women of the modern world who wear bright colored leotards and have no legal authority, not warrior heroes from centuries old civilizations like Beowulf or Odysseus (and while these characters certainly had no problem killing, torture is a very different issue which they may very well have opposed). In the context of what Marvel and DC have built as a model for what a hero is, killing and torture are not acceptable.

Avatar image for lb70145
Posted By lb70145

No, why torture when yo have Telepaths?

Avatar image for goddamnironman
Posted By GodDamnIronMan

Well I know Telepath heroes won't have to......

Avatar image for mbecks14
Posted By Mbecks14

@CircularLogic said:

I would say most of the torture is psychological. Ignoring the Dark Knight trilogy, most of Batman's torture is psychological. Sure, he dangles people off of roofs, but that's about it. He puts in the fear without any of the potential damage. In the Dark Knight Returns, a criminal cuts himself in an artery. Batman didn't throw a punch, he just explains how he has to be given information if he wants help. I have no problem with tricks like this, since it's more using mind over matter, the illusion of brutality instead of actually causing harm.

On the other hand, I highly disagree with actual, painful torture. But, thankfully, most of the books I read either don't include it, or paint the perpetrator as either an anti-hero or as morally bankrupt. Of course I don't have a problem with Rorshach breaking fingers, because that's how the character is written, and he's not presented to us as a center of morality: we're not supposed to use him as an example on how to behave

Well said!

Avatar image for mutant_god
Posted By Mutant God

Heroes: No

Vigilantes: Yes

Avatar image for stmichalofwilson
Posted By StMichalofWilson

@csguterres said:

Jack Bauer would say yes!

Also, in the Golden Age the heroes used to kill their enemies. Even Superman.

This

Avatar image for themess1428
Posted By TheMess1428

Joker picture caption correction: 1 and a half people. lol

Avatar image for mastercodex
Posted By Mastercodex

It's really dependent on the heroes morals. There are a lot of anti-heroes that use torture methods, but people with high enough morals shouldn't really ever use torture methods themselves because it takes them towards that path of EVIL

Avatar image for savagedragon
Posted By SavageDragon

@cmaprice said:

If we've learned anything about physical torture, it's that in real life it's grossly ineffective, regardless of the baseline ethical issues.

This is totally true. Back in the Salem witch trials in 1600s Americas hundreds of women and men outright admitted to Witchcraft, Black magic use and all sorts of made up junk. Were they witches, sorcerers or warlocks? No they were scared and in pain and they would do or say anything to have it stop. That is just one of hundreds of examples proving torture or "enhanced interrogation techniques" like water boarding in ineffective and flat out wrong. In comic books "super heroes" should stay far away from torture in order to keep themselves well super in every way. Anti heroes can do what they please as the story permits.

Avatar image for herx
Edited By Herx

No. They shouldn't. Intense and heavy psychological interegation yes, hell that's what batman does making the criminal think not "whats he doing to me now" but the more terrifying "what can he do to me?". fear of an unknown act is more affective than acting upon something. Plus in the comic medium we want our superheroes to be superheroes and that means not beating your enemy to a pulp, and in some cases to death, for information. It means showing their villains that they won't stoop to their levels, they won't use their tactics they'll get the information things the more difficult way because in the end it's the way that allows them to sleep in the night knowing that they never crossed that line between being a hero (a symbol and role model) and being a vigillanty (taking to law into your own hands as you think that the current system doesn't work = putting a perminant end to crime with killer methods). Stories involving tourture by heros has been done before, and what did we get out of that? DC killing of Lian Harper (a long supporting child character) off panel in a story she wasn't even in, a relapsing drug addiction for roy harper and the killing off of many B/C-list characters just "be cuz wez cna". It made people hate those characters (plus lets not forget the wall-palm stupid idea of having the atom, Ray Palmer, use the same method which his mad wife used to kill sue dibney in identity crisis of shrinking down and crawling into the brain cavity of a suspect and then slowly grow causing cranial and brain trauma.)

Characters have been shown to have other ways of optaining the truth, be it simple detective work, telepathy or wonder womans lasso of truth. Super-heroes should never resort to torture, as if they do the villains have won.

Now characters who aren't super-heroes, police officers, science fiction soldiers, millitary personell, spies, star fleet officers etc. they can as they don't lable themselves as superheros but members of other organiztions which may abhoure the use of such methods but who straggle in that grey area of good and bad and who have to decide if it is the ends that justify the means of the methods used which justify the person (you known the deeper stuff).

Avatar image for feargalr
Posted By feargalr

Depends on the sitch

But yes, always even when not looking for information, sometimes it's the best way to get aggression out.

Avatar image for c2thaj
Posted By c2thaj

Now I have the intense want to commission a drawing of Captain America waterboarding a terrorist.

Avatar image for powerhouse1122
Posted By powerhouse1122

Yeah why not? These guys deserved it. You would feel that way if ur finally s victim to these criminals.

Avatar image for dondave
Posted By dondave

@mk111 said:

I think it depends on the method of torture. Some are acceptable, and some aren't.

QFT

Avatar image for slade_wilson
Posted By slade_wilson

@DarkxSeraph said:

Yeah, but these are supposed to be heroes, in most cases. People who are examples of morality and 'we won't sink to their level.' Some heroes? Completely in their character: punisher for example. Wolverine. Even Batman and Daredevil use psychological and sometimes outright physical harm to get information... but what is the next step? Having Superman use heat vision to burn off layers of skin from a man to get answers? Having Wonder Woman choke people to unconsciousness over and over with her lasso to get information? Point is: some characters this is fine with because it is in the character to do it. Others? Should never cross that line.

Not the best example using WW. It is the Lasso of Truth for a reason.

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