Q&A: Lethal Superheroes

Whats your opinion of the whole ‘Superheroes shouldn’t kill’ argument that always pops up? Why is it say Iron Man is given a pass for killing Jihadists, but Batman or Superman aren’t?

I wouldn’t say it “always pops up,” because I see it fairly rarely. The important thing about Superman or Batman isn’t that they shouldn’t, it’s that they choose not to.

So, the short version with Batman is his prohibition against killing was added after the character was created. Initially he had no qualms about gunning people down. His aversion to firearms and killing in general, came as an attempt to move further from another fictional, nocturnal, New York vigilante and their brace of nickle plated .45s.

It’s kind of weird now to say that Batman’s refusal to kill was because he looked like a rip off of The Shadow, but here we are. Gotham is rarely used as a nickname for New York now. The Shadow gained actual superpowers to simplify the character for the radio show. And of course, Batman became wildly popular while The Shadow slipped into obscurity.

Superman, it’s a choice. It’s just his ethics, and a line he refused to cross. Not because he can’t, or because it would cause some horrific backlash against him: Killing a sentient being is against his code of ethics.  This is a line he won’t willingly cross. It gets into a complex discussion about who he is as a person,(or character.)

There are plenty of supreheroes that don’t kill people, for a variety of reasons. So, there’s nothing wrong with a character like Batman, Superman, or Daredevil saying they won’t kill.

There’s a lot of legitimate arguments for killing your foes when they’re literally supervillains. This is especially true for Bats, every time The Joker decides to nerve a mall. “Dude, you could stop this, but you won’t. He broke out of Arkham again, so you’re taking him back instead of just ending here?” There’s a lot more to that argument, but, it makes sense.

So, Tony Stark kills people. A lot of people. Not just the ones you see. (I’m going with the films here, because the Jihadists thing is from the movies, not as much the comics.) Stark Industries is a high-tech weapons manufacturer. They make so many weapons. It makes sense. I mean, Tony wasn’t there, pulling the trigger, but this is a guy with a lot of blood on his hands, seeing as he’s also their primary venue of arms R&D.

Kind of a, “what if Steve Jobs, made weapons instead of computers,” thing. Though, even in the films Stark Industries is also in the Telecom and Computer markets.

So, part of Tony’s arc is moving from this guy who sold the weapons that killed a ton of people and didn’t care about that, to a guy who’s far more selective in his violence. Given the circumstances, that makes sense. Hell, his alcoholism makes sense. Tony doesn’t get a pass for killing people. The people around him don’t care, they’re willing to accept that, but he’s not willing to accept that about himself. It also consistent with his personality and personal history, so this isn’t just some act of self-flagellation, but it does fit neatly into the character.

This is why characters like Superman don’t kill people. It’s not that they can’t; they don’t want to live in the aftermath. Tony already does, and that’s reasonable behavior. It’s also what drives him to be a hero; he’s trying to atone for past actions. By itself, this could be cliche, but expression is unique enough that you don’t think of him as someone who’s trying to make up for who they used to be.

Superheroes can kill people, but it depends on who they are. No one bats an eye when Black Widow, or The Punisher, blow someone away. It’s in character for them. They approach lethal violence as a tool to deal with their opponents. Also, I don’t want this to sound like it’s just a Marvel thing, DC also has a bunch of lethal heroes, (ironically, including The Shadow.)

Usually when someone’s questioning if a superhero should be killing people, they’re coming from one of two places. Either, they aren’t familiar with the character at all, or it’s out of character.

The best illustration of the former is that quote from Deadpool:

You’re probably thinking, “My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kabab!”

So, no shame here. If you aren’t familiar with a character like Ghost, The Mask, or The Tick, you might think they’re not going to kill people. Well, credit you can figure out which of those characters are non-lethal from their names.

Alternately, it may be that it doesn’t fit the character. Having Bats suddenly decide to gun down a foe is a problem. Not because lethal heroes aren’t a thing, but because it’s out of character for him. That’s not Batman. You know it. I know it. It’s not right for the character.

It can be very easy to transition from poorly executed writing to, “that shouldn’t happen.” In a stray moment, from someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time reading comics, that could turn into, “superheroes shouldn’t kill.” It isn’t consistent with actual superhero lit, but it’s an understandable mistake to make.

On an ethical front, sure. If superheroes were real, with actual powers, yeah, use of lethal force should be very careful measured, and only used as an absolute last resort. In practice, it probably wouldn’t be as carefully measured, and there is an entire discussion about law enforcement dealing with superheroes, that usually gets skimmed over. I mean, if the cops decide to arrest Superman, what’re they going to do? What can they really do?

This can also be a justifiable restriction based on the genre you’re working with. If working from a Saturday morning cartoon or four color 1960s comic flavor, having characters who are lethal is a serious decision and probably shouldn’t be introduced lightly. If you’re trying to write a post-Watchmen critique of the superhero as  “unrealistic” no one’s going to bat an eye at your character carving people up like a Christmas Turkey.

It’s also possible for a non-lethal hero to break their personal code. This could be increasing stress, this could be the result of some traumatic event that causes them reevaluate their position. It could be a desperate act because there really is no other option, or it could even be an accident. When you have the ability to dead lift five tons, people are made of tissue paper. Apply a little too much force and you’ve got the world’s worst Will it Blend reboot.

That’s the other thing about Superman. He makes life harder for himself by not killing his foes. Simply put, he believes killing is wrong, and doesn’t stoop to that level. I mean, this does make sense with the character’s personality and beliefs. He’s nominally invulnerable to harm, and firmly believes that anyone can mend their ways. As a result, he’s willing to make life difficult for himself to protect others, including his foes, which is certainly one definition of a hero.

The inverse is, of course, also an option. A hero who backs off of killing people, or has a change of heart is entirely possible. I mean, we were talking about Tony Stark earlier, though he’s certainly not the only example. This can also create a situation where a selective killing is more of a setback than a full failure,  This could also be baked into their origin story. Though, to be fair, there’s also plenty of room for a superhero to have a change of heart as part of their creation and continue mowing people down on their very messy road to personal redemption.

Is your character inclined to kill people? It depends on the hero. If your hero was an academic, a reporter,  jazz musician, or some other “normal” profession, then it could go either way. They might, or they might not, depending on their personal outlook. If your hero was a soldier, hitman, or intergalactic warrior before taking up the mantel of superhero, there’s a decent chance they’ll be smearing their opponents across the walls.

Should superheroes kill people? It depends character, and their story.

-Starke

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