Overcoming the Status Quo:

Wonder Woman, Superheroes, and the American Criminal Justice System

In this three-part series, I explore where superheroes fit into popular conceptions of criminal justice in the United States, and the potential for Wonder Woman to help improve those conceptions.

This week, I look at the state of superhero media, Wonder Woman, and criminal justice in the United States.

A Slim Saturation

If the box office numbers alone are any indication, the vast majority of us love the lively expansion of superhero media.  Speculation about oversaturation and decline is decreasing, and it is not because of the all-powerful marketing machine that is Marvel.  As the success of Guardians of the Galaxy proves, superhero films and the notions of what they can be are only scratching the surface.  For decades, only a handful of superheroes were well known to mass audiences, and now, virtually overnight, it seems, not only do the “big leaguers” have chances to shine, but audiences also know the name Rocket Raccoon.  Our options seem limitless, and the times seem very perceptive to what superheroes, with all of their angles and quirks, can say.

This reception is exhilarating.  There’s nothing like watching these protagonists fly toward justice in so many different ways.

But—are they so different?

How varied are our options, really, and what does that say about our times?

The reality is that superhero movies, like any other genre, largely focus on one major element to serve as the backbone for their stories.  Where romances focus on the beginnings of relationships, superhero films focus on fighting and defeating bad guys.  A precious few have considered the next steps in the process—what happens after the bad guys are caught.

I don’t mean busting out of prison!

The nature of how the bad guys are caught, and, more than that, the purpose of it all, is what interests me.  At the core of the superhero genre is one theme taken as a given—punishment.  Consequences.  Comeuppance.  And there seem to be two branches of this—imprisonment and death.  Most superheroes, as with most action protagonists, have evolved to operate from what can best be described as either a Batman or Punisher mentality, especially the Batman one—either dropping the bad guy off at the police station (Batman), or dropping the bad guy off a cliff (The Punisher).  The story ends there, and the villain, regardless of complexity, is forgotten in preparation for the next one.  There are exceptions to this of course, but those exceptions don’t often make it onto the big screen, and they certainly aren’t a major part of the American zeitgeist.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was the first superhero yarn to think beyond the status quo.  Bruce Wayne wasn’t just fighting costumed rogues in individual episodes, he was trying to better the city and better himself.  Yet for all of those films’ interesting reflections, the fate of the criminals did not factor into any of that.  The criminals in those films were purged from society just as much as the villains in any Punisher storyline.  In Batman comics, despite all of Bruce Wayne’s clear knowledge about criminal justice, he usually does not lend much direct assistance to the rehabilitation process.  He more often than not remains an observer.  While he does take a good amount of responsibility for his actions in general, he primarily focuses on containing actions on Gotham’s streets.

More importantly, the Dark Knight Trilogy hasn’t affected superhero movies with regard to the bigger picture in the least.  The majority of superhero films still go on pursuing the bad guy before being rebooted to do it all over again.  If our discourse as a culture were progressing more rapidly, this repetition of themes wouldn’t concern me as much.

But the word I most often hear to describe a superhero movie is “badass.”

Although there are good stories out there in a variety of media, American crime fiction, as a whole, does not seem very concerned with the bigger picture either.  The drama is more of concern than the goals of it—or the causes for that matter.  Perhaps the morals just don’t catch on very well.  By all accounts, the American criminal justice system doesn’t seem to be much improved from what has been portrayed in films like The Shawshank Redemption and …And Justice for All.  The system is simply how it is, and it is a scary place.

Sometimes I don’t even know what crime fiction is trying to say.  On the DVD of The Next Three Days, there is a short feature hosted by one of the film’s cast members.  While the movie itself is about a man breaking his innocent wife out of a system portrayed as assuming and all-powerful, the DVD extra only highlights real-life couples caught trying to break each other out of prison.  I felt like I was watching an episode of America’s Most Wanted that was missing the point.  Why does the DVD think we’re watching the movie?  Because we hope the main characters will get caught?

Regardless of the origins of the current media appetite for justice, it is very limited, because it is communicated from a very limited number of cultural perspectives, and the United States is certainly seeing the fallout from that.  The United States, like its superhero representatives, has increasingly been facing big questions as to the implications of its mainstream worldviews on justice.  The kinds of equipment procured by police, the amounts of Americans incarcerated, the privatization of prisons, the viability of negative reinforcement, and the progressions of crime statistics are all under the microscope.

Amid all of this, another superhero is gearing up to finally make her debut on the big screen—Wonder Woman.

I am an avid reader of superhero comics, but as a kid, I only read comics sporadically.  Most of my exposure to superheroes was through other media, and Wonder Woman’s appearances in other media in the early 1990s were very limited at best.  All I knew about her was that she wore an impractical outfit—more impractical than usual I suppose?—had an indeterminate number of powers, was tough, had magic stuff, and was vaguely lauded for her feminism.

People seemed to appreciate that last part the most, even if they couldn’t quite verbalize what it meant.  I appreciated it as well, but I didn’t find Diana herself to be interesting enough in terms of personality.  What did Diana think about justice?  She had a wise demeanor, but why was she wise?  I had no idea.  And the Justice League cartoon didn’t help me, because by the time it came out I was already off cartoons, mostly.

As the years passed, and my love for comics grew, I remained at about the same distance from Wonder Woman, but I became increasingly aware of the genuine love for her in the fan community.  Earlier this year, after being sick of all the fan films out there that were unable to define her beyond her vague, tough wisdom, I was determined to figure out what made her so cool before the Man of Steel sequel came out.

This led me to the trade paperback of Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman: The Circle, which immediately opened my eyes.  As Wonder Woman fans already know, this character presents a unique chance to open up something truly exciting for superhero media.  This character is firmly ready to fight for good, but always has informed, unwavering compassion backing it up, never losing sight of a larger goal of mutual peace and harmony.  She knows that to be realistic is to be objective, and she knows that to bring justice to those wronged means not letting those wrongs cloud her judgment.

Wonder Woman walks the paradox, being the hero that both victims and offenders need.

In The Circle alone, Diana engages both superintelligent gorillas and neo-Nazis, but never for one moment forgets the individuals under each surface, and always, no matter how awful her opponents’ actions or beliefs, ultimately shows them compassion, while never forgetting herself, the victims, and the bigger picture in the process.  Wonder Woman is as insightful as she is a good puncher.

Superheroes inspire countless people through wielding their gifts responsibly.  Wonder Woman is by no means a perfect individual, but responsibility is inherently part of her gifts—it’s not something she does with them.  This is what makes her gifts truly amazing.  Since her inception, she has been promoted as being wise as Athena, strong as Hercules, and swift as Hermes.  I’m going to leave the Aphrodite part out, and I’m going to ignore the fact that the gods of Greek mythology weren’t the most enlightened individuals around.  My point is the pitch has potential for what’s being discussed here.  Wonder Woman is even many steps beyond her people, the Amazons.

Superman and Captain America have their strength.  Batman and Iron Man have their tools.  Real-life law enforcement have both as well.  But even Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern, who wielded his gifts with the most altruistic of intentions, needed Green Arrow to give him some perspective, and although both Green Lantern and Green Arrow were ready to listen to one another and tried their best, the two of them together could have still used some help.  They were patches on a quilt.

Wonder Woman inherently has strength, tools, and perspective.

I continued to read several of Simone’s already-established stories, from Diana protecting the annihilation of a genocidal race of aliens by a vengeful Green Lantern to Diana fighting to keep her very soul from being lost in an overwhelming void.  Even in Diana’s earliest, appalling appearances as an American World War II propaganda figure, she sometimes worked to help those generally labeled as villains—including her nemesis, the Nazi Baroness Paula Von Gunther—see something better and become productive members of society.  Wonder Woman did claim that her central philosophy was peace and harmony.

Sometimes, Wonder Woman has gotten through to those who do wrong to others.  It’s awesome, and it took me until adulthood to find out about it.

Wonder Woman very much lends herself to the similarly unknown real world in restorative justice, which focuses on finding opportunities to restore bridges within society by meeting with victims, offenders, and communities.  Restorative justice doesn’t let go of reality, and it doesn’t let go of a larger goal.  Like Wonder Woman, it learns, adapting problem-solving skills to each and every situation to help communities heal.  And it knows that not every single offender is an immovable neo-Nazi supervillain.

Media informs reality in many ways and vice versa.  It seems to me that Wonder Woman’s brand of justice can do leagues for American society.  That’s probably a pun.

However, as Winston Zeddemore would remind us, not only does Wonder Woman have the talent, but she does in fact also have the tools, to make her job easier.  While battling those who do harm to others, Wonder Woman has superhuman strength, as well as an arsenal of magical aids at her disposal, most notably, the Lasso of Truth.  Not only does the lasso force those caught within it to tell the truth, but it also, at least in Simone’s work, forces them to see the truth about themselves.  Superhuman strength and magic lassos are both very convenient things to have in persuading someone, at least in the short term.

I think the lasso is one of the only weapons of its kind in both the DC and Marvel universes.

So, can Wonder Woman inspire America to do better, as she was originally created to do (albeit in a misguided fashion)?  Can the American criminal justice system be more like Wonder Woman, even without the Lasso of Truth?

Do we accept the Joker’s vision for the world in The Dark Knight—that of a comic book—or do we accept one of improvement?

What is justice?  And what is harmony?

The Other Side of Arkham

As a kid, I always knew that Arkham Asylum mostly didn’t work.  But it took me much longer to connect the dots to the real world, and in terms of superheroes, I’m giving partial credit to the aforementioned Oliver Queen for that one, courtesy of the great Denny O’Neil.  It never occurred to me as a child that supervillains constantly escaping from prison revealed a significant flaw at the core of the prisons themselves.

In the real world, even without what’s gone on in Ferguson, Missouri, stories of the flaws in the American justice system run rampant.

There’s the case of Kalief Browder, a teen who was jailed for three years on Rikers Island, without being convicted, for a crime he didn’t commit (violent conditions in Rikers notwithstanding).  There’s Sam Mandez, who many believe to be innocent of a1992 crime.  He was sentenced to life in prison based on scant evidence in a tremendously poorly run investigation, and now he’s suffering from severe mental health problems that are most likely a result of spending the majority of his incarcerated years in solitary confinement.  His access to therapy has only been recently, slowly, improving, and this last point also seems representative of larger problems in the American mental health system as a whole.

Even when things are done by the book, how logical is the book?

There are a great amount of people out there guilty of committing terrible deeds.  Second and third chances for them is an issue in itself.  But there are also a great amount of people incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related violations.  In the book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that many drug laws—among others for that matter—in the United States are racially skewed.  Thousands of people spend years in solitary confinement—found by innumerable experts to be highly destructive to mental health—for many kinds of convictions.  There are a great amount of children who are given life sentences, and sometimes, even put to death.  The grand majority of people who do leave prison come back, and many of those who don’t return face challenges in building new lives.

Are so many Americans this hopeless, and is this the best the United States can do about it?

According to a police officer I interviewed who wished to remain anonymous, it is very difficult to generalize when it comes to the structure of the American criminal justice system.  There are elements working toward such goals as punishment, harmony, and business, and these elements are all constantly changing on a daily, case-by-case basis.

Jonathan Rodriguez, an investigative reporter for WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina, echoed this sense of difficulty in pinning down the essence of the justice system.  In his estimation, the status of the system depends on what people think it’s supposed to do.  “For some,” Rodriguez said, “its primary purpose should be to punish those who violate laws.  For others, its primary purpose is more about keeping harmony by simply removing those who violate laws away from society—punishment versus protection.  If I put it on a pendulum, based on what I’ve seen, I’d say we are definitely more punishment-driven.”

The police officer I interviewed told me, “General proactive police presence is the number one deterrent for crime prevention…Officers have to [consistently] put themselves in the problem, conduct investigations, and make lawful arrests.”  Otherwise, he said, localized problems will spread and grow stronger.

Yet American prisons are notoriously overcrowded.  Rodriguez has frequently heard from law enforcement that there are “so many people being arrested for minor charges that it fills the beds faster than they can fund new ones.  Plus the recidivism rates are so high, beds are filling up with the same offenders over and over again…there are more prisoners than there are prison beds.”

“The only strategies that I have seen in an effort to fix the problem,” my police officer said, “is that sentences for crimes are shortened drastically,” which, he told me, does nothing for anyone involved, and that, “An individual who is continually being reinstated in the system, with little time after each incident, does show that the system is failing,” at least for those particular individuals.

Incarceration, then, is clearly only part of the puzzle toward achieving a better world.  Most superheroes have a lot more to do in demonstrating that regard.  Sometimes we need to fight, but we always need to listen, to others and ourselves.

If a true Wonder Woman movie were released this year, would it be welcomed, or attacked?

According to Jacoba Rock, the Lead Forensic Social Worker at the Alternate Defense Counsel and a Professor of Social Work and Criminology at the University of Denver, progress has been made toward building greater harmony in communities here and there in America in the last 10 to 15 years.  However, she emphasized, a very potent, pervasive culture exists underneath the entire process, one of “moral addiction to punishment” and sometimes, outright greed.

Indeed, in the vein of the “moral addiction” concept, Rodriguez pointed out that many of the complaints he has heard from people have been based on how punishments are enforced.  “In particular,” he said, “when criminals do not fulfill their entire sentenced punishment.”

Rodriguez told me that authorities and the public are aware of benefits that can be found in restorative justice, but based on how he sees it, “the problem is effectiveness.  And when you’re dealing with criminals, the stakes are high.”

My anonymous source said that great progress is being made in addiction recovery, such as encouragement and funding of effective, long-term treatment for certain individuals, but it can cost between $35,000-$60,000 per person.  “The money aspect of rehabilitation is a complete limitation.  There needs to be alternative solutions put into place that can still produce the same results.”

“I don’t think that most criminal justice authorities know what restorative justice is or genuinely believe in rehabilitative strategies,” Rock told me, “and I think that much of the reason is because there have been so many ineffective and disingenuous failed implementations of these efforts.  Often times these programs do not get the funding they need—even though there is enough evidence to support that they reduce overall system costs.”

However, Rock did say that awareness is growing.  She said, “there are little pockets of change” for juveniles and adults, such as “mother-child prison programs, evidence-based practices (especially ones that involve families), early childhood education and violence prevention, community mental health programs, decriminalization of nonviolent drug addiction, de-incarceration of nonviolent offenders, community education and debunking fallacies of the criminal justice system, mounting support for the abolishment of solitary confinement, mounting support for treating children as children (and never as adults), and mounting support for the abolishment of the death penalty.”

Rock also cited Colorado Department of Corrections executive director Rick Raemisch working to cut back on solitary confinement.

There are also nonprofits such as the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition (with which Rock works), the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth, which pursue community engagement.  These organizations also support due process for young people in the system.

As of this moment, there seem to be many pieces in place that can both help and hinder Wonder Woman’s philosophies catching on more prominently to inspire the very powerful views at the forefront of American culture.

Check back with Sequart next week for Part 2 of this series, in which I explore further by looking at the relationships between the American criminal justice system and American communities, the role of the system in educating citizens, and the status of education in the system itself.

I will bring all of this together in Part 3 by looking at the roles of mass media and the citizens themselves.

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With a background in television production, film studies, and communication theory, Ian Boucher earned his Master of Library and Information Science at Kent State University to become a librarian to advocate for information literacy. He is fascinated with the stories cultures tell themselves, and writes about film and comics in that regard. Continue the conversation with him on Twitter @Ian_Boucher.

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Also by Ian Boucher:

Humans and Paragons: Essays on Super-Hero Justice

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  1. Very good article. Can’t wait for the rest of it.

  2. “In The Circle alone, Diana engages both superintelligent gorillas and neo-Nazis, but never for one moment forgets the individuals under each surface, and always, no matter how awful her opponents’ actions or beliefs, ultimately shows them compassion, while never forgetting herself, the victims, and the bigger picture in the process.”

    I’d love to see something like this from Gadot’s Wonder Woman.

    I was shocked at how “Guardians of the Galaxy” killed people in comedic ways. Yeah, they were “bad guys”, but they’re people, too, and I find that gets lost in the Marvel movies big time. It’s why I appreciated Superman’s reaction to killing Zod in “Man Of Steel”. It wasn’t played for laughs and it treated death as the serious thing that it is.

    If you have time, I’d recommend revisiting the JL and JLU cartoons. That’s my favorite version of Wonder Woman. But, I’ll also try to check out Gail Simone’s stuff when I get a chance.

    Thanks for your thoughts and interviews about the prison system in America. Great article!

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