Following the general trope with Silver/Golden Age Superheroes' relationship with society, law enforcement, and government we can get the following:

  • Superheroes may or may not work directly with law enforcement (officers, detectives, DAs, etc)
  • Superheroes, for the most part, aren't part of government and do not answer to the government
  • Superheroes apparently, to some degree, can enforce the law and this seems to be societally acceptable (even often directly praised by the press)

I'm going to extend this trope a bit further and limit it:

  • Superheroes' secret identities may or may not be known to law enforcement (answers should account for both possibilities).

As a further constraint for this question and to produce quality answers, the setting should be considered semi-grounded, and thus be far, far more so realistic that is typically seen in DC or Marvel comics. Answers should take into account a realistic society filled with realistic people. Likewise, historically, superheroes have been people with all the flaws that comes with being a person. Society would have developed around this.

This isn't science-based (some liberties can be taken), but answers shouldn't handwave any problems with magic or pseudo-science.

How can these traits be explained collectively?

  • $\begingroup$ So you are asking for reasons these traits would be allowed for enhanced people? $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b Right, how could this be acceptable. Answers can approach it by defining superhero history/culture, coming up with changes to laws, specific problems society faced, any combination thereof, etc. Creative and mundane answers alike would be acceptable. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ How exactly does the realism part apply to the superheroes' personalities? Most people, given superpowers, would exploit them for their own gain rather than serve as altruistic crime fighters. $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Kys Well those who exploit it to break laws would likely be labeled as criminals. As to legal use, feel free to include mention of that impact on 'superheroes' images if you wish. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ It might be worth looking into the show My Hero Academia. In that world, 80 percent of the world has superpowers, (some mundane as being able to pull your eyeballs out) and a hero are a job with an agency that work long with regular law enforcement. $\endgroup$
    – Vernian42
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 14:27

5 Answers 5


Golden Age superheroes were vigilantes. This makes them criminals. While they may have muscled out malefactors their activities were illegal. The Comics Code cleared up their collective act. That's comic book history.

If we lived in a world where people with super-powers were commonplace, the main question is how would they use their super-powers, and secondly how that those uses affect law enforcement. To consider this, let's assume there are a wide range of super-powers and this can go well beyond the super-powers normally depicted in superhero comics, movies, TV shows, and fiction.

Firstly, there will be many supers whose super-powers are unsuited to either law enforcement or criminal activity. For example, super salespersons, super-models. super-politicians, super-athletes, super-firefighters, super-doctors and super-nurses, super-actors, and super-scientists. Most of these supers can make money and enjoy more comfortable and successful lives using their super-powers to further their careers.

Secondly, there will be supers whose super-powers are better suited to law enforcement. For example, super-strength, invulnerability, x-ray vision, super-hearing, and super-stamina. Supers like these could also work as body guards, secret service agents, night club bouncers, security, and in the military. These super-powers can also be used for criminal activity.

Thirdly, there will be super-powers that very naturally lend themselves to use for criminal purposes. There are often other possible career paths for this type of power - for instance, gainful employment in the more sinister type of government agencies that do things nobody wants to own up to - but they are easily (and sometimes most naturally) used for criminal purposes. For example, death-touch, emitting lethal doses of radiation, teleportation (ideal for theft and burglary in addition to its less nefarious uses), total mind-wipes that leave victims mindless vegetables, and hurling energy-bolts in the kiloton and above range (whose only real use otherwise would be military, where the whole idea is that because you have it, you never have to use it).

Supers who possess the third class of super-powers may not wish to embark on a life of crime, not automatically, but it would be so easy to stray.

In a world with many supers and wide varieties of super-powers not all of which will be used for crime or law enforcement supers will have become commonplace. For reasons of public safety, supers will be registered. Their names and identities will be recorded and maintained on secret registers. Some supers may operate openly and be on publicly accessible registers especially if they used their super-powers commercially. Zippy Couriers Uses Only the Best and Fastest Super-speedsters for Parcel Delivery! Go Zippy!

Supers employed in law enforcement will have the usual benefits of gainful employment. Steady income, expenses to replace damaged uniforms, pension plans, legal recognition, and retirement benefits. Plus the opportunity to work with other supers and enjoy collegiality. Police and law enforcement supers will have to deal with criminal supers.

Super-powered criminals will do what criminals have always done. Gain wealth through violence, the sale and distribution of illegal goods, services, and substances, and the ability to coerce ordinary citizens to their will and contrary to the law of the land.

In many ways a world with supers working on both sides of the law will be similar to our world without supers, unless there is a large number of supers with super-powers capable of making major causes to the social and political order (like blasting cities off the map with a single glance), but there will be a major difference between those with super-powers and those without. But that moves into the area of social and cultural differences and is outside matters of super-powered crime and law enforcement.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I have a hard time thinking of any super power that could only be used for criminal purposes. After all, crime is often an activity that in other contexts, is perfectly legal. What's the difference between a mugger, a repo man, and a sheriff seizing property at gunpoint pursuant to a court order for nonpayment of a fine? $\endgroup$
    – Ton Day
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 18:48

Both the heroes and villians are mob bosses.


  • Keep control in their territory, makes sure order is kept and the people are more or less free so long as they obey the hero's sense of justice.
  • Have various underlings, either lesser heroes ("sidekicks") or other loyal agents. Some of their agents may be policemen who are loyal to the hero.
  • Respect other heroes for the most part as respectable
  • Some work with the law enforcement to keep order. others work outside of it, clashing with the police from time to time. This also affects how well the identity of the hero is known. The hero only reveals to the police what he feels they need to know.
  • Some are less respected by the police and occupy a grey area between hero and villian. They still uphold order, but they are disliked by the police and/or people.
  • Hero's "protection money", given by the local citizens, keeps them protecting the area from villians. This is a difference between romanticized superheroes, who either happen to be millionaires or magically support themselves financially and save the world at the same time.


  • Have a bunch of loyal cronies who flock to them because they are rich, powerful, and influential. The more powerful the villian, the more minions they have generally.
  • More frequently clash with other gangs, including other villians. Also clash with the police who attempt to crack down on their crimes.
  • Have little respect for law and order, use their powers selfishly.
  • May have a secret identity, simply known as the leader of a certain gang. Or he may be well known but still uncatchable.
  • Also collect "protection money", but through extortion.

The difference between this setup and the romanticized hero/villian interaction mainly lies with the hero. The villian still behaves generally the same, robbing people blind and abusing their powers. The hero, rather than being motivated by altruism is also financially interested in the citizens. The hero though, mainly lets the people go about their business and does not extort them as much as villians. This "lesser evil" in turn makes people willing to hire heroes rather than be forced to pay the villian's excorbiant fees (and then still be robbed). Businesses that refuse to pay for a hero are not protected and soon hit by the villians' gangs. In this way, the hero is not actively looking to grow his territory, but is willing to protect anyone who pays his gang for their services.

  • $\begingroup$ ...Highly unique. I like this take. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Commented Aug 16, 2016 at 19:07

There is a problem with your question which is at the heart of many misunderstandings about law in the US.

Citizens can do everything and more that the police can do, because the government is beholden and made up of the Citizens.

If you watch a police officer and they do x, you can do x too. The difference is that they have licenses and government issued warrants and such that allow them to do a few more things legally than you. It's not because you couldn't go through the same processes and get those approvals, but because part of those checks are an insurance to everyone that procedures have been carried out to make sure these things are on the up and up and they are held accountable.

Let's take Superman or Spiderman. They are not breaking any laws when there is a bank robbery and they intervene. They are well within their legal rights to do that and being that the cops would see how useful and helpful this is they'd work with them. They are government agents, because that's how the US is, but you mean they are not official representatives. I don't see that as an issue. There is no reason that they have to be official reps and this goes into the 3rd point...

Everyone can arrest someone else, etc. You, as a member of the US citizenry have the ability to arrest people, ie. detain people when they have commited a crime. Just like the police. The difference is in how much leeway we give the police on this matter, because it is illegal to detain someone forcibly. Both you and the police can be sued and criminally charged if it is shown not to be justified, but the police can get away with it longer, simply because they have a more reasonable argument that it is justified, given it's their job.

What IS vigilantism is more akin what Batman does (though you can debate it, but we're just going for simplicity sake). Batman looks for clues, enters into peoples' property, and actively starts situations with people who are possibly criminals.

I don't know how far Detectives can push to enter property and such because I haven't looked into it, but let's say you can get a license to do that. The primary difference between what you as a citizen can do and what the cops can do is start a situation. The police can go to a wherehouse that has criminals in it, bust in and arrest everyone. You cannot. However, if police bust in a place and start arresting people you can help. Likewise if you hear or see something going on you can interfere.

The primary reason that "Heroes" are not welcome in the real world is that they don't have infrastructure, cause more problems than help due to this, and are generally less easily held accountable through the insurrances we have created. If real Superheroes started appearing you have to extend some of the assumptions of a police officer doing their job to the Superhero, such as detaining people for longer.

The main issues are really augmentations that you might have to make to certain things, such as can Superman ever really be a Vigilante? Remember, what makes a vigilante is initiating the situation without seeing or hearing a justifiable reason to interfere. Superman can hear everything. Superman can naturally see through walls. Is it illegal for Superman to bust into a warehouse where victims are being held? What if there is a gun pointed at them? A cop wouldn't know. A normal person wouldn't know so to them the answer is that they can be vigilantes, but if they did it it would be illegal, but if Superman did it it wouldn't under our laws, because he saw it.

What about people like Cyborg? They don't just have internet access, they have a direct access to the signals that are floating in the air and he naturally decrypts them without any special thing going on. You need warrants and such to do this type of stuff, because you wouldn't "normally" be able to see/access that stuff and it is presumed "private", but Cyborg does it without thinking. Is it then not illegal for him to have such access?

What about someone that could time travel, but not interfere except in the present or could read minds? Where does their justifiable interference stop? Where does them "seeing" things stop. If I can see you're entire history from the moment your born till present and know the crimes you have commited and all those type things, as our laws are I would be 100% justified interfering at any point in your life that I so desire because you're the one initiating the action from my perspective and I have reasonable cause to stop and arrest you.

On the other side of the spectrum you have to establish whole new rules of the concept of escalation of force models. Superman as a hero is under no danger from the average citizen, but just about any action he takes is clear a level of force that would probably lie outside easily definable boudries of force. On the other hand, an evil superman, when is deadly force reasonable? Superman can kill you with a punch from the other side of the Earth before you can unholster your gun and discharge 1 round, and it wouldn't even be lethal to him. Does that mean then that any interaction with Superman that there nothing that you can do (with normal weapons/actions) that would ever be considered illegal?

Those type of boundries would probably be established along with the extension of presumptive abilities of police onto Supers. But other than these modifications to current law every point you made is perfectly within the legal bounds of civilians today. It's just discouraged due to various accountability and safety issues.

Also, as far as the idea of Superheroes in general not working with police/military. I find that harder to believe in most cases if we're talking abilities in line with x-men and lower tier heroes, because working with the police as part of the police would just be, overall, better due to infrastructure, support, public scrutiny, economics, etc. Superman doesn't need that and working "with" the police would slow him down. Batman has that through an elite selection and training program + money. Nightcrawler, Rogue, Jubilee, Mystique, Cyclops, Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man, etc do not. The issue there is then 16 year old Peter Parker, bit by radioactive spider and gets all these powers that can be very useful, but he's 16, so he can't join the Police/Military, but he certainly won't be sitting around doing nothing with his powers, so what do you do with him?

After a while what you really will end up getting is that you'll get training facilities and powers as being a natural part of your medical records, and perhaps licenses for using powers of various types in public and you might get a society that is quite a bit different in certain aspects, for example, clothing. People might go the route of "you can't use your see through anything vision under any circumstance unless you're doing x" or they might realize they can't control that and to try to would be anti-freedom and as a result wear less clothes, because what's the point if random people can see through it anyways.

Hope that all helps to answer your question. It's not really a special development that would happen to make a society act in the way that you're talking about, because our society already acts in that way. Its just not apparent cuz we don't have Supers running around (for the most part... I mean have Zombie-esque type people in Florida and that's pretty Super)

  1. Superheroes may or may not work directly with law enforcement. This can be explained by saying that superheroes must be classified, categorized and organized. While this may cause tensions, it is what would be required for governments to let them work on their own. Another solution is for the superheroes to unite as a freelance, independent, 'charity' company.
  2. Superheroes, for the most part, aren't part of government and do not answer to the government. This is very difficult to explain, but the only solution is to do it the way Hancock does it. They simply refuse to allow themselves to be arrested. Like a parent feeding their kids vegetables, it doesn't matter what the kid (or in this case, government) wants, it matters what's good for them.
  3. Superheroes apparently, to some degree, can enforce the law and this seems to be socially acceptable. Again, going back to the first part, while they do not need to work with the government, they will need government recognition. The answer to the first point also applies here. Enhanced people who want to become superheroes must be recognized as members of the law to enforce the law.
  4. Superheroes' secret identities may or may not be known to law enforcement. There really is no way to explain this. They will need 100% to let the government know who they. They don't need to let the general populace know who they are, but the government does need to know.
  • $\begingroup$ The thing about the fourth is that while the law enforcement may, indeed, need to know, that still gives them no way to force the super to tell them. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 1:36

There are many different paths your setting can take, especially if it takes inspiration from other fictional settings. Options for super-powered people can include:

  1. Joining the military/government (ex: Metal Gear Solid): Super people with powers for combat or working with military equipment (technopathy,mind reading to see what the enemy will do next, etc.) may join or be recruited by the military and government agencies. These super people could be seen as valuable and assets to any fighting force, allowing them to be recruited and treated well. They may even be put into certain positions of government that fit their talent if they do especially well and their powers help with their jobs.

  2. Can Enforce Laws To Some Degree With Citizen's Arrest (ex: Early DC Comics): Superheroes may not work with the government or military for whatever reason (maybe to guarantee their identity remain secret or a fear of government corruption), but they may still be able to fight crime and arrest people. Many people talk about superheroes being vigilantes and while for some superpowers this is true, that is not true for many.

Vigilante: a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate. -Oxford Lexico

Now, the difference is that many superheroes still follow the law and work with officers to protect the people. Batman and Superman in earlier versions of their comics operated under a form of law where they could perform some version of citizen's arrest: a rule where a person can arrest someone committing an active crime. Any citizen can do it and the main difference is that a person performing it can only use it as an excuse if they are dealing with an active crime, which is what many superheroes do. Unlike a vigilante that wishes to replace law enforcement, these superheroes use their abilities to work with law enforcement. They help to perform a citizen's arrest, then go home.

3.Vigilantism or Crime: Some super humans might become vigilantes and take the law in their own hands or join criminal organizations. Some might even, if they play their cards right, become heads of a criminal organization or a local militia that patrols a community for justified (i.e. local law enforcement is owned by criminals, so the people need to enforce it properly) or unjustified (i.e. racist militia that harasses minorities). They may dress in traditional superhero garb or be more subtle.

  1. Normal life: Finally, some super humans might just live a normal life and use their abilities/skills to do relatively normal jobs.

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