Superhero Movies and Security Lessons

A paper I co-wrote was just published in Security Journal: “Superheroes on screen: real life lessons for security debates“:

Abstract: Superhero films and episodic shows have existed since the early days of those media, but since 9/11, they have become one of the most popular and most lucrative forms of popular culture. These fantastic tales are not simple amusements but nuanced explorations of fundamental security questions. Their treatment of social issues of power, security and control are here interrogated using the Film Studies approach of close reading to showcase this relevance to the real-life considerations of the legitimacy of security approaches. By scrutinizing three specific pieces—Daredevil Season 2, Captain America: Civil War, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—superhero tales are framed (by the authors) as narratives which significantly influence the general public’s understanding of security, often encouraging them to view expansive power critically­to luxuriate within omnipotence while also recognizing the possibility as well as the need for limits, be they ethical or legal.

This was my first collaboration with Fareed Ben-Youssef, a film studies scholar. (And with Andrew Adams and Kiyoshi Murata.) It was fun to think about and write.

Posted on September 27, 2019 at 12:19 PM19 Comments


Nick Fisher September 27, 2019 12:52 PM

I’m glad you enjoyed writing the paper but I’ll pass on spending a fortune to read it, thanks !

vas pup September 27, 2019 1:09 PM

@Bruce:”while also recognizing the possibility as well as the need for limits, be they ethical or legal.”

Bruce, I have a question related to statement above. Do we (I mean regular folks) enjoy when in the movies rogue IC agent and/or ‘dirty’ cops bring down some evil person/criminal REGARDLESS of ethical and often legal boundaries? E.g. ‘Chicago PD’ all criminal intelligence unit? Are we identify ourselves with cruel criminals or those guys when it is particular related to assault on kids, elderly, you name it? Do such movies resonate with last statement in Snowden’s interview by MSNBC when he said he decided to do right thing (based on his understanding what is right and what is wrong) regardless it is legal or illegal?

I understand general statements regarding ethical or/and legal boundaries, but when it is become personal (your wife/daughter/nice raped, your close relative killed) and system did not provide proper actions towards criminal, then void is filled in with vigilantism.

Please read the article to the end – it is related to the subject:

Thank you!

Sherman Jay September 27, 2019 1:39 PM

Dear Mr. Schneier,
I greatly appreciate your work. Being very attuned to the attacks on our privacy and security online (EFF’s privacy badger installed in my firefox browser has further enlightened my awareness of the spyware of websites) and realizing that there is an ever growing proliferation of spying that makes it almost impossible to have a useful internet experience without allowing significant spying, I have been trying to avoid some of the more outrageous abusers: G00gle, Amazin, Farcebook, etc. However, In visiting the link you posted ( I find that almost all the author info links there drag you into the G00gle web of spying.

I am grateful to you knowing your site is clean (no cookies, no tracking). But, I’m so disheartened by the fact that almost every ‘commercial’ site is so loaded with tracking/spying crap. Now, some even deny us access because our browsers have privacy badger or other security measures installed!

I hold free community computer clinics to try to teach people how to have a safe computing/internet experience. But, it is like trying to negotiate a mine-field that constantly has more mines added.

Sherman Jay September 27, 2019 1:51 PM

By the way,
More to the point, I realize that there are many lessons that can be learned even from the somewhat simplified ethical landscape of the media of superheroes: justice, ethics, vigilante actions, etc. I work toward, think it is critical to restoring responsibility in our society and would like to see more discussions by people regarding the issues of morality, ethics, honesty and responsibility. But, I am afraid that too many see, and take to heart, the limited/conditional ethics of ‘comic book heroes’ and this curtails and limits their intellectual growth.

But, (bottom line) thanks again for your untiring work toward a world of greater security for the populace.

Alyer Babtu September 27, 2019 4:52 PM

As Doc Holliday said about Wyatt Earp when questioned if vengeance was right, “not vengeance, but a reckoning”. There is no absolute moral injunction against personally executing justice. But it’s a last resort when normal means have failed, and a very dangerous place to be because of human weaknesses; only the truly virtuous can go there.

Jon September 28, 2019 1:31 AM

@ Alyer Babtu :

And who decides who is “truly virtuous”?

Not something I’d trust to self-analysis, there, and some might say that hijacking an airliner and deliberately crashing it into a skyscraper is truly virtuous. Furthermore, there’s serious problems with “personally executing justice” – Justice for whom, says who? Some used to believe that lynching a black man for whistling at a white woman was personally executing justice.

Can o’ worms you have opened there. Jon

PS – Back on /topic, the point is that in the case of Hollywood movies, it’s the writers and directors who decide who is the ‘good guy’ at the end. Not sure I trust them, either.

Clive Robinson September 28, 2019 7:38 AM

@ Bruce,

The thing about Super Hero and other similar stories is that they are in general set either in a slightly different reality or a slightly future reality.

As such to work they have to be close to where we are currently, that is just a slight almost believable step away from where we are currently.

Thus in reality they are a way for the story teller to set a mirror up to our current selves to send what is in effect a moralistic warning. If you wish “A ghost of Christmass future”.

The fact we don’t appear to learn very much from such stories is perhaps the real story.

After all religion in one variety or another has tried to make mankind “improved”[1] for thousands of years, but mankind has as many if not more ills today than in times past[2]. Often because it gets perverted by those with other intents such as political control.

Thus the question arises are such movies a more technologically advanced form of religion[3] for political control?

[1] Mostly badly in term of oppression and worse if you study history.

[2] Mankinds ills appear to increase at a similar rate to the technical sophistication man achieves, often with technological development in essence paid for by those wishing to put technology to use as weapons and similar.

[3] That is a new “Opiate for the masses”.

pt September 29, 2019 1:49 PM

@ Alyer Babtu:

…only the truly virtuous can go there


..Not something I’d trust to self-analysis …

I think we’re all in agreement. Humans by their nature are prevented from being “truly virtuous”, especially those that think they are.

It is said that hanging onto a resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies.

Name (required): September 30, 2019 2:53 AM

@Nick Fisher, @Ed Bear
You can often privately contact one of the authors and request a copy. 9/10 times they are happy to email it to you.

TRX October 2, 2019 10:48 AM

> Now, some even deny us access because our browsers have privacy badger or other security measures installed!

Even better, when you’re using a W3C-compliant browser without any anti-spyware add-ins at all, but the web server either

A) renders a partial page and demands you “upgrade” to one of the browsers they’ve generated customized payloads for


B) orders you to “turn off ad blocking” and locks you out, when you have no ad blockers installed

EvilKiru October 2, 2019 12:55 PM

@TRX: That’s because instead of trying to uncover if you have one of a large number of possible ad blockers installed, they try to load something, such as a 1×1 GIF, using a URL that most ad blockers will block, and then claim you’re using an ad blocker if the object fails to load.

rachelb January 27, 2020 8:25 AM

To be honest I don’t like all this superhero stuff at all. I would better spend my time learning rather than watching a Hollywood crap. I find a lot of interesting facts online at service. It is always great to discover interesting things. And no “superhero” stuff, please.

0123movie April 12, 2020 3:52 AM

But honestly there is a glut of film festivals. The number of film festivals is way out of whack compared to the number of movie distributors that release independent films.

Anonymous November 15, 2023 7:54 PM

Superheroes are agents; agents are superheroes. The problem is: quis custodiet ipsos custodes

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