Before I earned my PhD writing about adaptations of videogames, I studied towards a Master’s degree in the same subject only, for my Master’s dissertation, I wrote about adaptations of comic books and superheroes. As many of you are probably aware, movies based on the likes of DC Comics and Marvel Comics costume-clad crimefighters are a prevalent subgenre in cinema these days but, back then, the boom was still reaching its apex; Marvel’s The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012) was still a year or two away from changing the genre, and cinema, and The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) had just been released.
It was an exciting time not just for move lovers but also for comic book fans; superheroes and comics have long been the basis of movies, cartoons, videogames, toys, and other media and have always been ripe for adaptation but, in the last ten years especially, they have really emerged as a successfully subgenre of cinema to dominate box offices and, thanks to the interconnected movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), change the way movie studios approach not just comic book movies but movies in general.
However, as with all adaptations, we’ve seen some changes to the source material during the act of taking these beloved characters from the restrictive panels and plash pages of comic books and transferring them to the big screen. The first thing you learn when studying adaptations is the inevitability of this change yet even when knowing this, those who critique adaptations do so to test their faithfulness and equivalence to a source material that is, by comparison, awarded primacy and authority simply because it “came first” (Hutcheon, 2006: 16). Similarly, Dicecco (2015: 164) observed that adaptation theorists are generally exhausted with the concept of “fidelity” and the subsequent rejection of fidelity as constructive analytical discourse has been described as essential to adaptation theory as it “does not make sense as a critical framework because literal reproduction, which may or may not even be a formal possibility, is actually a relatively uncommon motive for adapters” (ibid, referencing Hutcheon and Leitch). Indeed, the very act of discussing fidelity is to express personal disappointment when an adaptation “fails to capture what we see as the fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of its literary source” (ibid, quoting Stam), none of which is generally viewed as constructive to adaptation theory.
And yet, for those of us who are particularly close to the source material and heavily invested in it, it can be difficult to accept when a movie changes something fundamental about our beloved characters; from having Jack Napier/The Joker (Jack Nicholson) be responsible for killing Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Michael Keaton) parents, to the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) being little more than a drunken actor playing us all for fools, to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) being the idealistic protégé of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jnr), comic book fans often lament startling changes and, with the internet and social media giving them the perfect platform to vent their frustrations, are never shy about letting others know exactly how they feel when movies alter their favourite comic book characters.
But perhaps the biggest and most enduring debate amongst the superhero fan community is the question of whether or not their favourite heroes should be depicted as killers. It seems like every other day my Twitter feed comes alive with people raging endlessly about whether Batman should kill, protesting that Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) snapped General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) neck in Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013), and generally raging endlessly whenever someone dares to suggest otherwise. Honestly, it gets very old and aggravating; it’s almost as annoying and insulting as when these same fans decry superhero costumes in movies and television shows (no matter how faithful the design is to the source material, they still find something to complain about).
So I figured that I’d go back to my Master’s dissertation and throw my two pennies into the well; however, as this debate could honestly go on forever and contain numerous example, I’m going to try and limit it to a couple of choice franchises: Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Avengers, and Star Wars. When I wrote my Master’s dissertation, the first chapter was all about Batman; his origins, his code, his various intricacies and how these had been summarised, distilled, and changed by the adaptation process when the character was brought to life in movies. At the time, the Christopher Nolan films were at their peak and it was generally understood that Batman (Christian Bale) had one simple rule: he would not kill, no matter the circumstances.
Fast-forward to sometime later, after the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (ibid, 2016) and I revisited this piece in an attempt to get it published in a journal. However, when I came back to it, my entire argument had changed; having seen the way Batman (Ben Affleck) was portrayed in Batman v Superman, and actually being perfectly fine with a Batman who killed, my original piece was suddenly completely contradicted and it is this contradiction that I want to tackle first and foremost.
Personally, I feel Nolan’s movies hammered home Batman’s no-killing rule in a way that is massively exaggerated for the source material. Whenever the subject is raised, people inevitably point to examples from Batman’s earliest days of publication, back when he was little more than another gun-toting pulp vigilante in the spirit of the Shadow or the Phantom. The “Bat-Man” as originally depicted by Bob Kane and Bill Finger was very nonchalant about killing criminals; he would kick them into vats of chemicals, snap their necks, or hang them from the Batplane, all while spouting a cutting quip or dry comment.
However, examples of Batman killing in comics are few and far between and he is seen far more often opposing the killing of others than he is executing criminals. This was a driving force in the Under the Hood (Winick, et al, 2004 to 2006) in which Jason Todd, freshly returned to life, laments the fact that Batman would prefer to let criminal, murdering scum like the Joker live rather than end their threat once and for all. this idea of Batman resisting the urge to kill because it would be “too easy” and would start him on a downward path of death and destruction has been explored numerous times in Batman comics and is of particular relevance in Nolan’s films.
In Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) Bruce Wayne is fully prepared to avenge the death of his parents by shooting the man who killed them, Joe Chill (Richard Brake) right in front of entire host of witnesses. When the opportunity is taken from him, he becomes disgusted at himself for taking up the same weapon that brought such pain and loss to his life and, in that moment, literally and figuratively rejects such instruments of death. Later, when told that he must execute a murder to graduate from the League of Shadows, Bruce’s resolve remains steadfast (emphasis mine):
BRUCE (refusing the sword offered to him)
No. I’m no executioner.
Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.
That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.
You want to fight criminals? This man is a murderer!
This man should be tried.
By whom? Corrupt bureaucrats? Criminals mock society’s laws! You know this better than most!
It’s a great scene, and a great moment, in which Bruce outright refuses to follow the League’s gospel to the letter and, instead, chooses to take their teachings and bring criminals to justice rather than end their lives. However, when faced with the choice of killing the man, Bruce takes drastic action and causes a fire to start in the League’s temple and ends up fighting with “Ra’s al Ghul” (Ken Watanabe); the fire causes the temple to become structurally unstable and, as a result, “Ra’s” is crushed to death by falling timber and, shortly after, the temple is rocked by a series of explosions. While Bruce risks his life to save his friend and mentor, Ducard (Liam Neeson, later revealed to be the true Ra’s), how many members of the League perished because of Bruce’s actions?
This scene is, structurally, reminiscent of a sequence in Batman: Year One (Miller, et al, 1987) in which a young, inexperience and exuberant Batman is so frightening that he causes a robber to almost tumble over a balcony and to his death. Despite the fact that Batman takes a great amount of punishment from the other criminals (he gets a television bashed over his head, and not one of our light-weight flatscreens!), Batman makes a concentrated, deliberate effort to save the man from falling. “Lucky,” he remarks afterwards, “lucky amateur”.
However, despite all of this, Batman is faced with a choice at the conclusion of the movie: the Gotham monorail is out of control and heading right to Wayne Tower and cannot be stopped. It’s breaking apart around him and his only option is to escape and let the train crash, destroying Ra’s’ microwave emitter in the process and saving Gotham City. Yet, he’s not along: Ra’s is with him in this moment:
Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?
I won’t kill you…but I don’t have to save you!
And, with that, Batman unfurls his cape and is flown clear of the train, and of danger, and Ra’s is left to accept his fate. So, explain to me how killing a man and letting a man die are two different things? Remember, Batman has an entire utility belt full of gadgets and gizmos, the most prominent of which is his gas-powered magnetic grapnel gun. Rather than gliding away, he could have swung them both to safety or, better yet, took Ra’s with him as he escaped but, instead, he let Ra’s die through his inaction. Had Ra’s made a move or a fatal error that Batman was powerless to stop, this debate wouldn’t exist; we saw something similar in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (Geda, 2000) where Batman (Kevin Conroy) was too injured to stop Tim Drake (Mathew Valencia) from killing the Joker (Mark Hamill) but he most like would have tried to interject had he been physically capable.
In The Dark Knight, Batman’s code against killing is so widely known that not only does he rasp it at criminals at any given opportunity, but Gotham’s criminal underworld is “wise to [his] act”. Spurred on by Batman’s “morals” and his “mode”, the Joker (Heath ledger) wages a reign of terror across Gotham in an attempt to have Batman unmask and expose himself as a fraud. Interestingly, it is Bruce’s loyal butler and father-figure, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), who tries to talk Bruce out of complying with the Joker’s demands:
People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?
Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no-one else can make. The right choice.
This isn’t the first time Alfred has encouraged Bruce to accept that casualties are inevitable in his war on crime; in Batman Forever (Schumacher, 1995), Alfred (Michael Gough) actively encourages Bruce (Val Kilmer) to offer guidance to Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) just as he encourages Grayson to follow his own path towards vigilantism: “One day, Robin will fly again” he tells the troubled youth and he not only not only is conveniently lax about keeping the secret entrance to the Batcave hidden from Grayson he also “[takes] the liberty” of creating an armoured Robin costume for his young master.
Batman Forever is an interesting example as, whether fans want to admit it or not, this movie is tangentially connected to the two prior Batman movies, both of which depicted Batman as fully capable of killing. By Forever, though, Bruce has become so lost in his crusade that’s actually forgotten a pivotal motivation behind becoming Batman in the first place: the vow to keep anyone from experienced what he had to as a child. When it becomes apparent that Grayson is fixated on tracking down and killing the man responsible for the death of his family, Harvey Dent/Two-Face/“Harvey Two-Face” (Tommy Lee Jones), it is Bruce, not Alfred, who tries to talk him out of it:
So you’re willing to take a life.
As long as it’s Two-Face.
Then…it will happen this way. You make the kill. But your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows and so you run out into the night to find another face. And another. And another. Until one terrible morning you wake up and realise that revenge has become your whole life…and you won’t know why.
Grayson, however, is unconvinced at the time and Bruce’s words don’t truly start to sink into him until much later in the film, when he’s suited up as Robin: “I can’t promise I won’t kill Harvey,” he says…and Batman accepts this, having completed his own character arc and learned that he can’t deter Grayson from his path, all he can do is help guide him. However, when he finally gets his hands on Two-Face, Robin stops short of killing him and, ironically, it is Batman who causes the villains demise, in that moment, the shot clearly lingers on Robin’s face as he gets the catharsis he so desperately desired from Two-Face’s death but is spared having to commit the act himself thanks to Batman.
Batman’s willingness to get his hands dirty, to “plunge [his] hands into the filth” so that others can keep theirs clean, is a pivotal plot point of The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012). This film is a culmination of the idea that Batman, as a concept, is not a hero; he’s a legend, an icon, an inspiration to others. We saw this in The Dark Knight when Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) believed so strongly in the Batman that he lied to the press and said that he was Batman right as Bruce was about to out himself to stop the Joker’s killings. We saw Bruce do a similar thing in Batman Forever where he didn’t hesitate to stand up and shout his secret identity to the world when Two-Face threatened the circus but, whereas his cries were drowned out by screaming Gothamites in that film, Dent is arrested and publically believed to be Batman until he dies.
And how did Dent die? Batman tackled him off a high ledge! Harvey fell and broke his neck on impact and, with their “White Knight” dead, Batman chose to take the fall for his crimes: “I killed those people. That’s what I can be […] Because I’m not a hero. Not like Dent”. Only Batman and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) know the truth and this truth, and guilt, is what drives Gordon to become a shell of his former self in The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight ends with the prospect of Batman being hounded by the Gotham police, who believe him a murderer, as well as the galvanised criminals of the city but, instead, Bruce simply retires from the role due to the physical and mental impact it has on his body.
When he finally returns to the cape and cowl, Batman picks up right where he left off, to his detriment. When he crosses paths with Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), he immediately discourages her from using guns or killing people; this is consistent with Batman’s methods in the comics where, despite referring to his crusade as a “war” and his protégés as “soldiers”, Batman constantly forbids members of his “family” from taking lethal action. This despite the fact that Batwoman, Kate Kane, is former military and has killed before, that Jason Todd/Red Hood regularly engages in gunplay and murder, that Batman’s own son, Damian Wayne/Robin, has killed before, and the fact that Alfred regularly patrols and defends the Batcave with either a shotgun or a musket! Furthermore, when Catwoman uses the cannons on his Bat-Pod to kill Bane (Tom Hardy), Wayne is still perfectly happy to retire from crimefighting with Selina by his side.
So you’ll forgive me if seeing Ben Affleck mowing down criminals with machine gun fire and breaking them in two doesn’t offend my opinion of Batman. Of course, Batman films are often regarded as being especially important to comic book fans because they depict “a supposedly definitive representation” of Batman, belonging to a “multi-national conglomeration and the global audience” who buy tickets and merchandise, “rather than to the dedicated comic book readers” (Brooker, 2001: 293). Honestly, I think one of the issues hampering Batman v Superman and the film’s portrayal of Batman is the fact that Snyder’s directing style tends to be very loud and bombastic and on the nose but, when it comes to Batman, he is uncharacteristically subtle. I’ve mentioned this before but Batman’s entire motivation in this film can be explained in that one lingering shot of him first looking at the Batsuit with a mixture of disgust and conviction and then gazing in anguish at the Robin suit left on display. I fully believe that the visuals tell us more than words ever could in this scene, which clearly shows that this is a broken, desolate Bruce who, after twenty years (twenty years!) of being Batman, has become so jaded by his crusade that he has given up all hope: he now freely kills criminals or brands them with his symbol, ensuring they will die in prison:
ALFRED (handing Bruce a newspaper):
BRUCE (barely glancing at the headline: “Bat Brand of Justice!”):
We’re criminals, Alfred. We’ve always been criminals. Nothing’s changed.
Sadly, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) then elaborates tat things have changed…because of the arrival of Superman and alien beings on their world, rather than because of recent events in Bruce’s life. Yet, nevertheless, this is a Bruce so jaded and lost in his crusade for justice, that’s willing to pre-emptively kill Superman in order to actually affect real change in the world. Perhaps if the film had included a more explicit line of dialogue or explanation regarding Bruce’s state of mind rather than relying on the audience filling in the gaps through subtext, audiences would have reacted a little better to Affleck’s portrayal (or, at least, understood it better). While the eventual change in his perspective is quite jarring, Bruce spends the remainder of the film and the entirety of Justice League (Snyder/Whedon, 2017) trying to make amends for his actions. Indeed, in Justice League, Batman is so devoted to forming a superhero team and bringing Superman back to life that he’s willing to die to see this through. Superman’s sacrifice galvanises Bruce and he sees how far he has fallen and believes he has to atone for his sins; however, the team worked too well and saved him from not only death but himself as well.
Speaking of Superman, every other day I see the debate raging on Twitter that killing should, under no circumstances, ever be a part of Superman’s nature. No matter what the situation is, Superman, as the pinnacle of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” should always find another way to resolve the issue and never resort to killing.
Which, quite frankly, is utter rubbish.
If Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982) taught us anything it’s that, sometimes, you’re in a no-win situation and there is no other way. To deny Superman, or any superhero, that kind of desperate situation is to deny us the chance to read interesting stories dealing with the fallout from that situation. If Superman always prevails and never has to address the fact that his actions may have fatal consequences, than surely that limits him as a character?
In the comics, Superman has killed a few times, the same as Batman and other superheroes (even Spider-Man once accidentally killed a woman), but examples are far less prominent for the Man of Steel. One particular story that often gets brought up time and time again as an example of Superman killing is “The Price” (Byrne, et al, 1988), in which Superman is forced to execute some Kryptonian criminals with a chunk of deadly Kryptonite. This decision weighed heavily on Superman’s conscience for some time as he had taken an oath to never use his powers to kill and, as a result, tied into John Byrne’s over-arching goal of humanising Superman and making him more relatable to readers rather than him being some all-powerful, infallible demigod.
Typically, though, Superman (like Batman and other superheroes) is generally depicted as killing one of the many parallel worlds that crop up in comics, with Superman generally becoming a merciless dictator once he starts down that path. In this story, though, one of the Kryptonians Superman killed in this story was none other than General Zod; of all the villains Superman has faced, Zod has perhaps met his ends at the hands of the Man of Steel more than any other. People forget that Superman (Christopher Reeve) threw Zod (Terrance Stamp) to his death after removing his Kryptonian powers, crushing his hand, and throwing him down a bottomless pit in Superman II (Lester, 1980). Sure, the Richard Donner Cut (Donner, 2006) showed that Superman was originally going to reverse time to restore Zod to life but, even if you consider this canon, he still killed Zod so how is this any better than what we see in Man of Steel?
In this revised origin story, Clark has finally discovered his true heritage and only just put on his Super-Suit for the first time when, all of a sudden, General Zod arrives and demands that he surrender to him. He’s not had a chance to properly reveal himself as Superman, much less use his powers in a fight, and he’s suddenly forced to battle against a group of dangerous, highly-trained Kryptonians who threaten his mother. How would you react in that situation? Would you calmly assess the situation and try to think of a way around the issue or would you attack head-first in an emotional attempt to save the woman who raised you?
Obviously, the ensuing battles are quite devastating in their impact; Superman trashes most of downtown Smallville and never once during his subsequent fight with Zod does he try to direct the fight away from Metropolis. While this is mainly due to Zod blocking his path or forcing the fight to stay on ground level, there is that one sequence where the fight ends up in outer space and the two come crashing down right on top of Metropolis like an Earth-splitting meteor. This was easily Superman’s best opportunity to direct the fight away from the city but, again, this is a Superman who hasn’t been in action longer than a day and is overwhelmed by his emotions so of course his solution is to try and end the fight through brute force.
Whether talking about Batman, Superman, or any other costumed hero, you have to factor in a degree of plausible realism; how likely is it that entire skyscrapers or cities would be evacuated when Doomsday comes crashing down into Metropolis? In the “Death of Superman” (Jurgens, et al, 1992 to 1993) story, Metropolis gets a great deal of advance warning before Doomsday rocks up, despite Superman’s best efforts to keep the creature from the city, and there are still countless civilians watching the fight and caught in the resulting destruction. We’ve also seen in comics before how, when dodging automatic gunfire, Batman has allowed others to be gunned down; is this not killing? By the logic of the internet, Batman should have taken those bullets and died right then and there rather than let someone die through his actions.
As I briefly mentioned before, even Spider-Man has been guilty of this in the past; despite Peter Parker doing everything in his power to save lives, sometimes he fails to do so and, sometimes, his actions (or inactions) lead to yet more death and he is forced to deal with the consequences of that. Yet, apparently, according to some people, Superman doesn’t have to. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002 to 2004), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) is guilty of causing at least two deaths that we know of, intending to kill two others, and directly responsible for at least one death.
In Spider-Man, enraged at the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), Parker chases down the culprit, Dennis Carradine (Michael Papajohn), breaking his wrist and confronting him in a fit of anger. Peter demands answers from the murderer who, spooked by Peter’s enhanced strength and abilities, conveniently trips and falls to his death. Could Peter have saved him? Well…yes, of course he could have. He could have shot out his webbing and saved Carradine but, in the heat of the moment, he was powerless to stop the carjacker from falling to his death and, in the aftermath, vows to take his uncle’s words to heart and use his great powers responsible.
And it works, for the most part, until he ends up locked in combat with Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe); beaten to a pulp by the chemically-enhanced madman, Peter is shaken when he discovers that the Green Goblin is the father of his best friend, Harry (James Franco) and, taking advantage of that distraction, the Goblin summons his rocket-powered glider to impale Spidey in the back, luckily, however, Peter’s spider-sense warns him of the danger and, acting purely on instinct, Peter flips out of the way and Norman is impaled by his own glider and dies. Should Peter have taken that fatal blow rather than saving himself? Could he have used his webs in mid-flip to knock the glider off course? Who can say, but the guilt of being directly responsible for Norman’s death haunts Peter throughout the next two movies.
I’ll cut Spidey some slack for the conclusion of Spider-Man 2 (ibid, 2004) as I don’t think anyone can really pin the death of Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) on Spidey but, still, you could make the argument that Spidey could have swung in and saved the misguided scientist from his death, no matter how willingly Otto went to meet his fate. In Spider-Man 3, however, Peter again lets his rage consume him when he discovers that Flint Marko/The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) is actually the man responsible for the death of Uncle Ben.
Fuelled by the symbiotic black suit, Peter obsessively monitors police radio frequencies and, as soon as he gets a lead on Sandman, tracks him down and washes him away with a jet of water. The liquid dissolves Sandman into a mushy mess as Spidey remarks: “Good riddance!” Clearly, in this moment, Spider-Man believes Sandman is dead and is glad to have killed him; he later admits to his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) that Spider-Man killed Marko and she is shocked:
AUNT MAY (confused, shocked):
Spider-Man? I don’t understand…Spider-Man doesn’t kill people. What happened?
PARKER (clearly rattled):
I…uh…he was…I thought that…that you’d feel…he deserved it, didn’t he?
I don’t think it’s for us to say whether a person deserves to live or die.
The revelation that Aunt May no longer wishes harm upon the man responsible for her husband’s death clearly knocks Peter for a loop and he questions his actions…but not enough to keep from tossing a pumpkin bomb right in Harry’s face when they fight later in the movie. Up until that point, the only person to survive such a blast was Spidey himself so, even if you want to make argument that Peter knew Harry’s enhanced strength would keep him from dying, he clearly set out to kill, or at least permanently maim, his childhood friend with that explosive.
Later still, having finally freed himself from the black suit’s corrupting influence, Peter prepares to kill once again; this time, his target is the alien symbiote itself, which he has contained within a bunch of vibrating bars. This is a common theme in superhero movies and comics where heroes like the Justice League and the Avengers are perfectly happy with killing sentient alien creatures; whether they’re part of an insect-like hive mind or mindless brutes, they’re still living creatures and the likes of Batman and Superman are more than happy to off them without a second’s hesitation. In this particular instance, though, Parker actually ends up killing Eddie Brock, Jnr (Topher Grace), who was so obsessed with the power and freedom offered by the symbiote that he leaps right into the blast and was summarily incinerated.
Peter’s reaction? A look of shock, a scream of “EDDIE!!”, and he shrugs it off as just one of those things. The symbiote was a drug, after all, and Eddie couldn’t kick the habit and he paid for it. plus, to be fair, there was very little Peter could do to save Eddie in those final moments, certainly far less than he could have done to save Norman and Otto, and it’s obvious that he never intended for the bomb to kill Eddie but, still, a young man died as a direct result of Peter throwing that bomb.
I mentioned the Avengers earlier so let’s go back to them real quick; while everyone cries and gets all stressed and upset when Batman launches a crate right in a goon’s face and smashes his skull open, no one bats an eyelid when the Avengers make killing a routine habit of their day-to-day lives. Obviously, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) gets a pass though, right? He was a soldier in the war and we clearly see him gunning down Nazis and Hydra agents in Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) like any good soldier would be expected to do. Steve even says: “I don’t want to kill anybody” (emphasis mine) in his debut movie but it’s war: of course he’s going to and he does and nobody questions it.
Yet Batman has the nerve to lecture Kate Kane about not using lethal force in DC Comics and Kate (Ruby Rose) even has a crisis of conscious when she kills in her self-titled television show (2020 to present)…which is doubly ridiculous when you consider that Oliver Queen/The Hood/The Arrow/Green Arrow (Stephen Amell) and his allies routinely went around killing criminals and goons in Arrow (2012 to 2020) and it was perfectly acceptable! Hell, it was even part of Ollie’s character arc as he swore off killing for a time but, when he returned to murdering bad guys, nobody questioned it so why is there this double standard when it comes to superheroes killing?
Similarly, in Avengers Assemble, we clearly see Cap gunning down those under the influence of Loki (Tom Hiddleston); these men aren’t actually evil or deserving of death, they’re just under a magic spell, but Cap offs them anyway and never gets a lecture for it. similar, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, who is so horrified and traumatised by his time as a prisoner of war and seeing his technology and weapons being used to kill American soldiers that he builds highly advanced suits of armour and flies halfway across the world to murder terrorists! The criminally under-rated and unfairly lambasted Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) tries to explore the consequences of this but Tony simply laughs in the face of the American government…and is literally cheered for it!
For that matter, all of the Avengers are publically lauded as heroes despite that fact that each and every one of them is a cold-blooded killer; Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a former Russian spy with “red in her ledger” that she may never be able to erase no matter how much good she does, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) was sent to assassinate Romanoff and, while he made a “different call”, he’s clearly trusted enough to perform such an action, and even Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) was guilty of causing untold amounts of mayhem, destruction, and deaths when he was Edward Norton in his also-under-appreciated solo movie.
Later in the MCU, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) reacts with horror when he kills a man even though it was a clear case of self-defence. Strange’s position is unique within the MCU; as a Doctor, he’s more accustomed to saving lives than taking them so his perspective on the matter, and approach to superheroics, is naturally very different to that of his fellow costumed peers. The consequences of collateral damage and the Avengers’ actions are explored in Captain America: Civil War (The Russo Brothers, 2016); here, the Avengers are placed under scrutiny when their largely unilateral actions result in a lot of innocent deaths. Up until this point, they have operated with “unlimited power and no supervision” and the decision is passed that, going forward, they should answer to the United Nations before jetting off to fight super criminals and terrorists, a decision which divides the team. Captain America’s outlook is very black-and-white and fitting for a soldier; he understands and sympathises with the guilt and shame Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) feels following her actions but doesn’t believe that it should spell the end of the Avengers’ effectiveness as an independent team:
People died. That’s on me. This job…we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody but, if we can’t find a way to live with that, next time…maybe nobody gets saved.
For Tony, the resultant Sokovia Accords are a means to alleviate some of his guilt and to show to his estranged girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), that he’s willing to step away from his role as Iron Man and hold himself accountable for his actions. Up until this movie, though, Tony’s view and methods reflected Cap’s more pragmatic view on the matter, as did the rest of the Avengers; they generally identify who the enemy is, engage them, and subdue them by any means necessary. In the course of their battles, which natural escalate, collateral damage is not just expected but all-but-inevitable; Cap understands this and, yet, even in the midst of city-wide destruction, will direct his team (and emergency and public services) to take the time to minimise civilian casualties wherever possible.
As a result, Cap and the Avengers are never seen killing criminals indiscriminately and make every attempt possible to contain and reduce damage and casualties, but are not only willing to kill when necessary but accept that causalities are bound to happen. We see this when Cap goes to talk sense into James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and they end up having to fight off a riot squad; though he says he’s not going to kill anybody, Bucky, his head twisted by years of Hydra programming, is desperate to escape by any means necessary, is extremely aggressive towards his would-be-captors and Cap has to go out of his way to save them from serious harm and death. Cap recognises that these are the local authorities, not some Hydra goons, and therefore shouldn’t be killed or harmed at all, if possible, but has already showcased in the first Avengers movie that he’s used to seeing team-mates and innocents get caught in the crossfire during battle and has learned to compartmentalise that in such a way that allows him to continue function to save countless other lives whenever possible.
Let’s apply this to Ben Affleck’s Batman; despite popular believe, he isn’t some unhinged, murdering psychopath. He exists in a world where he’s perfectly happy to arrest the likes of Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith) and where Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker (Jared Leto) remain alive and well; Batman v Superman implies that it’s only very, very recently that Batman has taken to taking more violent and extreme actions against criminals and he’s understandable a bit distracted by the oncoming battle against the forces of Apokolips but you have to believe that, if he wanted the Joker dead, he would be dead…but he’s not. Batman also doesn’t kill every criminal he crosses paths with; some are clearly only as maimed or injured as the countless goons Batman disables in the comics, while others are left completely unmolested. His methods are quite inconsistent but, for this Batman, the end goal is far bigger than just his city; in these movies, he’s concerned with the safety of the entire world and actually having a lasting impact outside of Gotham City. As a result, is approach seems to be one of sacrificing a few to save many, which isn’t a million miles away from Cap’s philosophy but, obviously, far more explicitly violent.
Finally, lets take a look at the characters of the Star Wars (1977 to present) movies. In Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (Lucas, 1977), we’re introduced to two characters who would become staples of the franchise: the innocent, wide-eyed farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who dreams of fighting space battles against the Galactic Empire and the rough-and-ready lovable rogue Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who wants little more than to be paid for his services. Famously, Lucas has butchered his original movie time and time again to alter the scene in which Han has a tense confrontation with Greedo (Paul Blake). Originally, Han blasted Greedo and killed him in a bad-ass moment that showed Han had no fucks to give but, feeling this made Han seem too cold-blooded, Lucas altered the scene again and again to have Han awkwardly “dodge” Greedo’s laser bolt and the two of them to shoot simultaneously.
My question, as I’m sure many Star Wars fans also have, is…why? It seems completely redundant as, not long after this scene, both Han and Luke are blasting away at Stromtroopers without a care in the world. Is it somehow “better” because they’re being shot at? To me, it’s the same thing; killing is killing, the only question is how you can justify that killing and, in the case of Han murdering Greedo, he’s totally justified: Greedo confront Han with the specific intent on killing the smuggler so Han is simply defending himself by pre-emptively eliminating the immediate threat to his life.
Plus, like, Han is a galaxy-weary smuggler who has been around a while; he carries a blaster and is expecting trouble everywhere he goes so of course he would have had to have killed before so why Lucas chose to meddle with this scene but thought it was perfectly okay for bright-eyed and eternally optimistic Luke Skywalker to start murdering Stromtroopers (most of whom are simply following orders) with reckless abandon is beyond me. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that Luke destroyed the Death Star! We know the Rebellion has spies within the Empire; how many of those were onboard those space stations when they blew? How many innocent lives were snuffed out? How sure are we that everyone on those battle stations was pure evil? Half of the Rebellion is made up of defected Imperial soldiers, for God’s sake! Even Han was an Imperial once and he ended up becoming a pivotal member of the Rebellion so who’s to say that a significant number of those hundreds of thousands of people actually “deserved” to die?
Again, though, it’s war so I guess that makes it “okay”, right? The fact that Batman often refers to his cruse as a “war on crime” never seems to factor in since it’s assumed that, obviously, there are different “types” of war. War is war; if you declare war, you’re at war and, in any war, there are casualties. Batman, of all people, should understand that. But don’t misunderstand me: I’m clearly not saying that Batman and every superhero should go out there and kill every criminal indiscriminately. That’s obviously not the point I’m making. What I am saying, though, is that if we’re to believe that a man dresses like a bat or an archer or wields incredible powers and regularly engages in city-wide battles or highly dangerous fights against armed foes, death is an inevitability. It should be avoided at all costs, sure, but it’s going to happen even if it’s just because our spandex-clad hero jumps out of the way of incoming gunfire. Hell, this was even a theme in the universally-maligned Batman & Robin (Schumacher, 1997) for God’s sake:
For what is “Batman” if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world? An attempt to control death itself?
BRUCE (contemplating, clearly affected by this):
But I can’t. Can I?
None of us can.
So what is it that makes killing acceptable for some characters but not others? Is it literally because these characters haven’t been so closely associated with not killing as Batman has (thanks, again, to the Nolan movies) or because Superman, with all his powers, should be capable of more? Okay, well, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an actual God and he kills people all the time during battle and when his back is against the wall so why shouldn’t Superman? Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is obviously the better analogy as, like Thor, she’s this superpowered, God-like character from the pages of mythology and she kills so why is that okay but it’s not okay for Superman to snap a madman’s neck when he’s not only threatening to roast an innocent family alive but literally screaming about how he is genetically engineered to continue killing and causing as much destruction as it takes to resurrect Krypton?
Of course, a lot of these examples are circumstantial; you could read an entire year’s worth of Batman comics and never see him kill, or through action or inaction allow someone to die, so it’s true that it’s hardly a normal, everyday occurrence for superheroes to kill (unless you’re talking about the likes of Spawn, Wolverine, or the Punisher, where it’s a given). Yet, it does still happen and, when adapting any character with as rich a history as the likes of Batman to the screen, writers and directors often tend to draw from the entirety of the character’s history, distilling their essence and reinterpreting the character in a way that hits all the familiar beats (and even introduces some new ones).
Now, don’t get it twisted: I’m clearly not calling for these heroes to start killing their enemies indiscriminately but I’ve been a fan of all the superheroes and franchises I’ve talked about in this article for pretty much my entire life; I’ve seen Batman kill, abstain from killing, kill by coincidence, and lecture his fellow heroes on taking a strictly non-lethal approach and, yet, I am perfectly happy with either approach. Not minding (or even caring) when the likes of Batman kill doesn’t make me any “less” of a Batman fan; instead, it opens the door for deeper explorations of the character if you choose to look at the subtext of this approach and see what it does for the character. Personally, I am always open to the endless possibilities offered by comic books and their many adaptations and feel it is extremely short-sighted and limited to limit oneself to the types of stories they can tell. Use the pages to explore how killing this affects Superman and his faith in himself and his abilities; people always complain that Superman is too powerful to be relatable so any chance to humanise him and make us understand him better is an opportunity for a poignant tale without having him become some crazed dictator. It’s the same for Batman; he’s always preaching and lecturing his protégés and extended family of vigilantes on the virtues of saving lives rather than taking them so what would it do to batman, to Bruce Wayne, if he were responsible for innocent lives being lost and caused a criminal to die? Would he quit, go on another voyage of self-discovery, change his tactics, go on a killing spree? Most stories tend to lean towards that latter and even the comics have basically said that, once Batman starts killing, he wouldn’t stop but…wouldn’t he? He didn’t kill every criminal in the Tim Burton or Snyder movies so is it really fated that he’d become a pseudo-Punisher once he took a life or could he, perhaps, have the strength of will to work through the knowledge that his crusade had led to someone losing their life and be a better, stronger character for it?
I hesitate to ask you to leave your opinions on this matter as it’s a massively divisive can of worms, to say the least, but please do feel free to comment below on your opinions regarding this subject. Do you feel death is an inevitable part of a superheroes chosen career or do you think superheroes should be above that sort of thing? If so, why? Who is your favourite superhero? How would you feel if they took a life or, if your favourite superhero is already a killer, why do you feel it’s acceptable fort hem to kill but not others. Literally no opinion is “wrong” regarding this matter; it’s all a matter of interpretation so, whatever you think, leave a comment and, the next time you think about ranting about a superhero killing on twitter, stop and think about why it upsets you so much and maybe do a little research or dig a little deeper into the lore and the subtext before lynching those who disagree with your opinon.