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Using economics to find the greatest superhero

In case you missed it, the world was recently saved by the Avengers, a Marvel Comics superhero, super-team who defeated Thanos, a genocidal maniac of galactic proportions. However, the real victory belongs to Disney, which owns the Marvel movie properties. Avengers: Endgame annihilated the record for the largest opening weekend box office haul, raking in over $1.2 billion globally. In terms of the battle for superhero big-screen supremacy, Marvel is the winner, hands-down. That being said, some on the Internet suggest that the main men and women of the other comic heavyweight, DC Comics, would’ve wiped the floor with Thanos stoking the watercooler chatter over who might be the greatest superhero of all. In the grand scheme of superhero hegemony, the answer to who is the greatest has been an elusive one, even more so with the introduction of lesser known heroes like Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Deadpool, and Shazam. (Ok, Deadpool isn’t the greatest; not even Deadpool would make that claim.) In addition to more familiar names like Batman, Hulk, Superman, Thor, and Wonder Woman, we now have a host of heroes who are candidates for king or queen of hero mountain. Donning an economist’s cape, we can utilize a superpower of a different kind to at least approach an answer to a question that has befuddled comic fans for decades: who is the greatest of them all?

Considering greatness requires us to look beyond being powerful. The Hulk can smash things, and, it turns out (spoiler warning) wield infinity stones with some degree of success. But rampaging Hulk is a menace to everyone, even other heroes. Thor is particularly strong, but (another spoiler) he is prone to drunkenness and an apparent addiction to Fortnite. The mighty Captain Marvel is so convinced of her own righteousness that in the comics she considers taking over the world. A smashy, boozy, or dictatorial hero may be no hero at all, so perhaps we should look at additional attributes.

Saving people should make the hero happy. In economic terms, we call this utility.

There are strong heroes, smart heroes, noble heroes, and brave heroes. There are heroes with the power to destroy the universe, and ones who are just out there protecting the neighborhood. Who could possibly be the best? To adjudicate this, let’s consider an economic perspective. The greatest should be the most productive in terms of accomplishing his objectives. Moreover, saving people should make the hero happy. In economic terms, we call this utility. Great heroes are happier, or increase their utility, when they save people. In that regard, we can clearly say that Wonder Woman is better than Wolverine (who seems annoyed by the whole hero thing). But comparisons require an additional element. Productivity could just mean Captain Marvel takes over the world. She is happy, and everyone would be safe, but at what cost? The second part to the economic analysis is that the hero needs to consider how their actions would impact the world they are trying to keep safe.

The economic investigation comes down to this: Who achieves the most and does so at the lowest cost? Costs to saving the day include what the heroes give up, say in terms of a personal life, and the costs imposed on society as they do their jobs. In other words, a tradeoff exists for the hero between good deed doing and time away from the family. Similarly, there is a tradeoff for the citizenry between being safe and living in a dictatorship.

Unfortunately, economic reasoning can only take us so far. You see, there is one significant shortcoming with utility analysis. Like comics, utility is a fabrication. There isn’t a universally accepted scale for how many utility points you get from eating chocolate cake, or reading a comic book, or saving someone from Thanos. How you measure happiness won’t ever compare to how I measure it or how Superman measures it. The only real thing we can say when comparing utility is that something makes you happier or less happy, not by how much or how that change in happiness improves your life relative to mine. That means that while utility is certainly a helpful tool to establish motivations we must apply this one person (or hero) at a time.

So who is the greatest? Powerful, yet considerate heroes, who like doing what they do are few and far between; thus, the list of contenders for best in the land is curtailed significantly.

I know who I would choose. Partly based on economics, the greatest superhero is … well, you don’t really want to know that. It might make you mad, and that would reduce your utility. The debate over who is the greatest will probably never end. That’s part of the fun, and even economists can’t take all the fun out of superhero stories.

Featured image: “Comic Books” by Lena Rose. Public Domain via Unsplash

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