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The argument for superheroes to capture villains alive is that superheroes are already illegally operating as vigilantes and compensating for muggle law enforcement is all they are morally obligated. The burden of dealing with super villains permanently falls squarely on the justice system, not the the superheroes.

The more dangerous super villains are walking, talking weapons of mass destruction and threats to planetary security. They cannot be rehabilitated nor permanently killed. Keeping them in prisons and asylums that might as well be made of wet tissue paper only puts the public at further risk of mass death and destruction. The only reasonable choice is to permanently seal them inside personalized vaults with the most extreme safeguards to prevent breach (e.g. nuclear warheads), a la the SCP Foundation.

However, a world where governments did this would be a world where conventional superhero plots just can't happen. There needs to be a reasonable justification for why governments and the public at large are perfectly comfortable putting their lives and property at such risk every week.

(I originally asked another question similar to this one, but failed to take into account the unpopularity of the death penalty and superhero/villain immortality. When I changed to question to account for this, it ended up making the answers into non-sequitur. I decided that this question was sufficiently different that it qualifies as a separate question, but I really didn't want to because I had bad experiences with asking chameleon questions in the past. I leave it to the mods to decide.)

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    $\begingroup$ Before anyone VTCs this quesiton, please read the final paragraph of this question. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Nov 17 '16 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ you assume they can't be rehabilitated, there is no way to prove this. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 18 '20 at 16:29
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They do, or at least they try to.

Magneto in prison
Consider Magneto's plastic prison (image above) or the containment box for The Juggernaut when we first meet him in the X-men movies which completely immobilised him.

There are other equivalent cases where the containment is perfectly reasonable customised and secure for the person in question, but lacking against the attentions of, or simply being opened by, another equivalent metahuman. You cannot create a prison that's proof against the attentions of any metahuman, you can only focus it to be able to handle a small group or specific individual.

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    $\begingroup$ Took my answer. I was going to reference the super max prison from Young Justice where the villains even had special collars that suppressed their powers and could not be removed. Still was not enough to stop them. $\endgroup$
    – Anketam
    Nov 17 '16 at 14:00
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One of the tags you have added to the question answers both this and the previous question you asked: Ethics.

By not condemning Supervillians to a permanent "death" (actual death or effective by permanent isolation), your society is reaffirming its moral high ground over these despicable people who would put their own goals above that of the greater good.

The thing about Supervillians is that they (are supposed to, at least) represent what humanity would be if we were morally uninhibited and had the power to exploit it. Yes, there are Supervillians out there that are pure evil and everything they do is for the purpose of causing harm, but most of them are trying to achieve an aim which isn't necessarily bad in its own right, just requires doing to morally despicable things in the process. Things like wanting to rule the world (who doesn't want power?).

If you're going to lock someone up, you're basically saying "You are such that you cannot be part of our society". If you lock someone up temporarily, you're also saying "But we concede that some day you might be". If you permanently seal someone away, you're effectively condemning them to death. How many supervillians are actually immortal? How many of those actually immortal supervillians are ever actually caught?

You could also argue that, in an ideal situation, imprisoning someone for a heinous crime is showing mercy - you're giving them an opportunity to change, by being nicer to them than they are to you. Of course, the prison system in most if not all countries has warped beyond recognition of societal rehabilitation; people are more likely to be negatively affected by prison than positively changed, but a theoretical world could have a theoretically functioning prison system.

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Loki

Norse mythology gives a great example that more or less directly answers this question. For a long time, Loki was the black sheep of the family - a troublemaker, very often on the wrong side of things, causing nearly as much trouble as the good he got up to.

But many of the Norse gods' best feats, and greatest victories, were only possible specifically because Loki was a devious, cunning, backstabbing little trickster. It wasn't until he very clearly crossed the line in a way that couldn't be ignored (killing Baldur) that he finally got treated like the great arch-villain we think of him as.

Your super villains are eccentric, have very strong egos and personalities, and extremely vitriolic and bitter feuds with very important people - the super heroes, entire nations, etc - but are not completely 100% awful.

They will (say) frequently intervene in natural disasters. Sure, they might also take the opportunity to rob a few banks (hey, nobody's perfect), but they will also be directly responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands. When the stars are finally right and the Great Old Ones come, they're there trying to stop them, same as all the heroes.

But they're still villains. They (for example) cannot stand the heroes, or what they see as the hypocrisy of the world, or whatever, and so they will absolutely not be above (say) attempting to seize control of France when they don't like the outcome of the latest French election. Or even just showing up to blow up the new Stark Tower's opening ceremony, because frack that guy, I never liked him.

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    $\begingroup$ I love this answer. So many characters in so many literatures are just like that - villaneous, antagonists to the heroes, but integral in the plot to save the day. $\endgroup$ Aug 17 '20 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ Read the web-book "Worm". All people with powers had to declare, in writing, if they were hero or villain. Yet, against the really powerful threats, both hero and villain were required to team up to fight them. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Aug 17 '20 at 23:27
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Corruption

Define "villain".

We usually see heroes and villains with a simple, dualistic view that groups metahumans in one group or another. The "human" in "metahuman" however allows for a lot of grey areas.

During Marvel's Civil War storyline, Tony Stark (Iron Man), Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic) and Hank Pym (the original Ant Man) got multibillion dollar contracts with the government of the United States (it was also implied that they had it with multiple other countries as well), sometimes using Damage Inc. as a front, to fix property damage that they caused themselves. They also arrested people in their homes without a warrant, imprisoned them without due process - actually without any process at all, and brainwashed and conscripted some of the prisoners into paramilitary service. Some heroes to be imprisoned included Mathew Murdoch (Daredevil), Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Robert Baldwin (Speedball). Stark personally harassed the family of Peter Parker (Spider Man) and nearly had Parker killed on the spot once. Other heroes were murdered by Stark, Richards and Pym's forces.

Stark, Richards and Pym were doing all of this as a witch hunt against any meta human who would not disclose their secret identities to S.H.I.E.L.D. (which had become a de facto secret service for the US), or who would shelter or otherwise protect anyone with a secret identity.

So who are the villains, and who are the heroes?


Funny thing - a couple months after answering this, I started watching Amazon's The Boys. The series itself is the best response to this question. The government would not only grant super villains immunity from the law, it would also spend billions hiring them to do all sorts of jobs.

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If we can put them inside "personalized vaults with the most extreme safeguards to prevent breach" permanently, we can do so temporarily.

We can do so in proportion to their crimes, just as we do for non-powered people. There are two main practical reasons for this.

  1. Having two punishments for a crime, one if you happen to have powers, one if you don't, alienates those who have powers by treating something over which they have no control as a reason to treat them worse than those who do not have powers. It encourages them to regard normal humans as their enemies. Even heroic characters may be alienated by this treatment and perhaps insist on creating their own, parallel justice system. (Voluntarily gaining powers and then using them in crime can be treated as an aggravating factor.)

  2. If you permanently lock away any supervillain regardless of whether it would be a life sentence for a non-powered person, you encourage supervillains to fight to the death. The smallest chance of freedom is worth the risk because of the severity of the consequence of surrender. This is a problem even now with normally powered criminals. (Alas, some supervillains will fight to the death to avoid three months in jail, just as some normal criminals do. We can only optimize.)

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Answer is the sucide squad. The government keeps them locked in vaults but every now and them the need to pull the out and have work in classified missions for the government. This gives them an opportunity to escape. So every now and then one the prisoners escape while on a mission. Since the mission is classified it's covered up by the government. An official story of there of escape from prison is fabrcated

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Supervillains level up upon termination.

Whatever power system your world has that creates supervillains reboots those villains and increases their powers each time they are killed by an enemy. (Suicide doesn't count for some handwave reason.)

Detention facilities that rely on fatal traps therefore only serve the interests of the supervillains in the end. They can just set off the trap, allow themselves to be terminated, and come back even stronger than they were before.

The only way to deal with supervillains is via superhero clemency whereby superheroes defeat and capture supervillains but do not kill them. Their detention facilities should be robust enough that escape is difficult, but not so robust that supervillains can easily contrive situations where they can provoke death by enemy action.

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