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An Examination of Whether Superheroes Should kill

Written by Davidde Gelmini

You know the routine: the Joker goes on a murderous rampage, killing countless innocent people. Batman apprehends him and sends him to Arkham Asylum. The Joker escapes again and kills countless more people. Batman puts him in Arkham again. The Joker escapes again and goes on yet another killing spree. Batman captures him again, the Joker escapes again, repeat repeat repeat. 

Batman has a strict ‘No Kill Code’, so turning off the Joker’s lights permanently is out of the question. But how long before it becomes Batman’s fault? How many thousands of innocents does the Joker need to kill before Batman finally realises that enough is enough, and that he needs to put a stop to it? Permanently.

A similar conundrum was presented by Maria Hill in the Road to Civil War miniseries, using the fact that Spider-Man kept capturing and imprisoning the Green Goblin rather than killing him as a metaphor for how the Hulk would continue to rampage until being stopped for good, causing him to be forcibly sent to a far away planet, only for him to land on the wrong planet then return to Earth with an invading force in the World War Hulk story arc. Clearly that plan went well.

But with so few superheroes actually being willing to kill their enemies, is it at a point where we’re just bound to see the same thing over and over again? Garth Ennis explained during his run on Punisher MAX, that one of the benefits of having the hero (yeah it’s debatable if Frank Castle really is a superhero but what the hell) kill the villains was that it forced the writers to be more creative by creating new villains who will challenge the heroes in different ways rather than just recycling the same old characters and plotlessness over again. But despite his ruthlessness, the Punisher has never killed an innocent, and even considers suicide as a means to punish himself after being framed for the murder of a young girl. 

And the Punisher, well, when it comes to superheroes killing their opponents, he is a living, breathing (or undead in some cases) opponent to the vey notion. That’s because he doesn’t believe in second chances. He doesn’t believe in forgiveness. He only believes in one thing: putting his enemies down. Permanently. And not just his enemies, but anyone who happens to get in his way. 

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The idea of having a vigilante who only kills his opponents was one of the main reasons why Frank Castle became such a success for Marvel, because at the time such an idea was decidedly new and unique. Marvel had clearly realised that they had something on their hands which would be a strong earner for them, deciding to introduce more characters who specialise in killing, with mixed results. Wolverine would also become a huge success, (he even boasts during Jason Aaron’s Weapon X series that he’s killed more people than most people have met) and Deadpool, despite starting life as an oddly drawn Rob Liefeld creation (before he went on to create the even worse Youngbloods) would be so popular that at one point he had three ongoing series. Blade would be primarily known as a vampire slayer, but would also kill humans if necessary. Too bad all the countless vampires that he killed were bought back to life, thanks Marc Guggenheim. And Moon Knight would also relish in killing his opponents, at one point even removing the face of his arch nemesis, Bushman, causing Khonshou, the god who grants him his powers (unless he is of course a figment of his imagination, as it is strongly suggested) to appear in the guise of a faceless Bushman to remind Moon Knight of his greatest work. Too bad the character would eventually adopt a no killing code, presumably to make him more similar to Batman, who many see him as being a direct rip-off of. But as Moon Knight already has a similar costume and MO to Batman, in addition to being an incredibly rich businessman, living in a huge mansion with a secret lair underneath and sometimes even having a butler, was a No Kill Code really necessary?

The worst offenders are Batman and Superman. After making their debuts in 1938 and 1939 respectively, they were not adverse to killing, and actually seemed to relish in it. It was soon felt that this was not appropriate for characters who were supposed to be immaculate heroes, and so, strict no-kill policies were introduced. 

So regardless of how many lives will be saved by ending a single life, Batman and Superman didn’t kill anyone anymore. Ever. Well…

Batman did notably refuse to intervene in events which caused the deaths of others, such as deliberately leaving Ras Al Ghul on the derailed train in Batman Begins (“I’m not gonna kill you but I’m not gonna save you”) or hoping to capture Two-Face and explain to him how Great White Shark had framed him, then ensured that they were imprisoned in the same facility, presumably in the hope that they would kill each other. Strange then, that he was desperate to save the Joker’s life after Onomatopoeia stabbed him, despite Jim Gordon’s pleas that letting him die would not be killing him and would be the right thing to do.

As Batman famously put it, “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot” and that by becoming Batman he would “strike fear into their hearts”. Yeah. Fear of being briefly imprisoned only to soon be back on the streets. How much fear he really hoped to inspire without the threat of ending their lives is debatable. A common theme in the Batman comics is that rather than act as a deterrent, his presence actually draws criminals to Gotham, and so with more and more criminals wrecking havoc and Gotham’s protector refusing to end a single life, maybe it’s time he finally hung up his cape and cowl?

And Superman infamously killed Zod in Man of Steel. Broke his neck and everything. This caused a huge uproar among fans (how dare they? Superman would never kill, never) but it makes more sense than they would have you believe. It actually strengthened Superman’s belief that he should never end a life. By being forced to kill Zod, not only was he killing the last of his kind, but also becoming just as bad as those he wanted to protect the world against. By doing something that he detested so much, Superman had unwillingly realised how it felt to take a life, strengthening his resolve to never do it again.

And to all those crying fanboys out there, you never complained when Superman killed Zod at the end of Superman 2 (or maybe he didn’t, depending on which ending you see) so why complain when he did it in Man of Steel?

Strangely, most of the main Avengers have a more relaxed attitude. Tony Start started life as weapons manufacturer, so although he didn’t kill people directly, his weapons did. And despite becoming Iron Man to turn over a new leaf and dedicate his life to helping people, he has no problem using the suits weaponry to blow up enemies and buildings and just about anything else whilst in combat, but the fact that he kills pretty much any opponent he encounters as Iron Man is a topic that is rarely raised, presumably because it just wouldn’t be fun to see him using the suits weapons to make people fall over.

Most of the other main Avengers are surprisingly not adverse to killing. Thor fought in countless battles on Asgard before joining the team, and so for him, it’s something of an everyday occurrence, Hawkeye and Black Widow were both soldiers and were therefore also accustomed to it, and Hulk is, well, Hulk. Captain America  is the only one who outright refuses to kill, refusing to take a life after fighting in World War II. The Avengers films did not seem to realise this, however; hell, we even saw him using an assault rifle against brainwashed S.H.I.E.D. agents in the first movie.

And not to mention how we see all of them gleefully slaughtering the Chitauri in the first movie, even going as far as to use a nuclear missile against them. The fact that the Chitauri are living, sentient beings who were probably forced to attack the earth against their will is suspiciously ignored. Superheroes seem to be much more relaxed towards killing in movies than in comics. Case in point: in the director’s cut of Daredevil, the Man Without Fear throws a criminal onto a train track and gleefully teases him verbally before the train proceeds to tear him apart. Despite the fact that the comic book version of Daredevil swears never to take a life (aside from him killing Bullseye whilst being brainwashed in Shadowland).

So should superheroes really kill their enemies or instead just lock them up so that they can inevitably escape and go on another rampage? At the end of Garth Ennis’s Punisher Marvel Knights series, Frank Castle tells Daredevil that if he truly does not agree with his methods and wants to stop him, there is only one way that he can. Most superheroes know this about their enemies but still refuse to kill them, thus making themselves somewhat responsible for what follows. If superheroes really do want to take responsibility for their own actions, then many of them need to understand that in some cases, killing really is the only option.

How do you feel about the recurring theme of heroes not killing in comics? Tell us what you think in the comments or on Twitter!

About the author

Davidde Gelmini

1 Comment

  • An interesting article. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach for me. I’d rather not see Supes/Bats/Spidey kill, as I don’t think the characters needs that darkness within their stories.

    On the other hand, characters like The Authority and The Punisher are grounded in killing their opponents.

    If we take a wider view, there’s not many governments (in the west at least) that employ the death penalty. Does it become hypocritical for killing an individual as punishment for killing? I’d say yes.

    The characters in my comic kill and have been killed. There’s one of them that now suffers with PTSD because of the things he’s done.