Why does Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. exist? I’m not asking from an entertainment perspective, but from a real-world, we-have-to-live-with-supers perspective. Why have a top-secret organization mostly staffed by mundane people in a world constantly threatened by super-human beings? That doesn’t seem like the brightest idea ever. Though SHIELD’s mandate is a bit vague, the general impression of the organization is that it literally serves as a shield; a protective wall of agents and gadgets and the occasional powered individual standing between the world’s mundane population and the ravages of superhuman powers.
The idea there is that humanity at large needs a a protective force outside the law when dealing with superhuman threats. Notice I say ‘threats’ specifically. For heroes who follow justice, the law has teeth (remember The Incredibles?). But I’d like to argue that humanity doesn’t need a protective force.
Too often, humans are portrayed as being helpless in the face of powered individuals or psychotic rich villains. And I suppose part of the appeal of superheroes is that in reading about them, we can abdicate our responsibilities to an extent. As normal humans, we don’t have any obligation to face off against something far more powerful than us, and we can just watch the supers duke it out, right?
Wrong. Even if that were true, how often do you see a superhero stick around to clean up after themselves? That’s left to the mundane humans on the ground, several thousand of which have probably already died in the crossfire. If the mundanes have to clean up, why can’t they try to prevent the mess in the first place? Something as simple as having a well-positioned sniper with a bit of forewarning can turn the tide of any battle, and battles among supers are no exception.
I’d like to put forward Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law as a good example of the principle of mundane responsibility in action (spoilers ahead). The villain of the story is so immensely powerful, even among the powerful magic-users of the world, that our protagonists can’t hope to take him down on their own. Instead, they choose to involve the mundane police force. They distract the villain long enough for the constables to arrive and subdue him by sheer numbers.
That, to my mind, is a more accurate portrayal of mundane humans in the context of super-human powers. Once properly informed and equipped, mundanes can be more of a threat to supers than even other supers can be.
So the next time you decide to have your hero tear up your Metropolis in a knock-down-drag-out fight with the villain, pause and consider: how can the people of the city be of assistance? Is there a mundane vigilante or two along the lines of Punisher or Daredevil you can bring in to ‘help’ your hero by killing his opponent? (And what would that do to your hero’s self-esteem?)
Whatever you choose to do, bear in mind that the mundane people of your world don’t have to be helpless. They can help, hinder, or even kill super-human characters. Your mundanes are bored and tired of being ignored. Give them something to do next time a villain’s in town.