This is a time honored quandary about superheroes and morality. One that has been debated and debated and worked out in comics for a very long time. I’ll start by saying there’s no right answer, so there’s no wrong answer. Killing people is taking the law into your own hands, but so is chasing a bank robber with fire streaming out your hands and trying to blow them up on the highway as a means of stopping their getaway.
Public perception is important for heroes and so is morality, because if public opinion is the only thing driving our heroes forward then things’ll get shaky if they encounter the likes of J. Jonah Jameson. It’s worth remembering that both extend further out and are more complicated than just “killing is bad”. However, if your heroes are wanting to avoid a citywide manhunt then leaving the actual arrests to the police is probably for the best.
If you’re wondering, both work as reasons why.
That said, I have a certain fondness for the Punisher. It’s mostly because he exists in the Marvel universe itself against the backdrop of other heroes, but I do like him. It’s a great examination of what does happen when a “superhero” just starts killing. And yeah, in setting the Punisher is very much a loathed pariah because the argument ultimately revolves around the fact that he’s a mass murderer. The Punisher himself doesn’t care much one way or the other, but he’s had more than a few city wide manhunts for his ass.
The central question for me is always:
What makes one a superhero?
Is it the powers? Does anyone dressing up in a jumpsuit or a leather bondage outfit and going out to beat the crap out of bad guys with a cool, semi-cool, or flat out dorky name get the title?
When you want to get into the nitty gritty discussion, it’s always worth having a concept in the back of your mind of what you think a hero is, what it means, and the form it takes. This will influence your work on both a personal narrative level and a thematic one.
Your going to define what a hero is for your audience. Killing and no killing can both be portrayed as heroic. You’ll see plenty of narratives where the “no killing” justification is accepted by audiences as easily as the “I must kill to save the world”.
So, you need to ask yourself what makes one a hero?
For the average person living in the setting, it’s easy to hate superheroes.
Remember, every time a superhero throws a car at a villain to explode spectacularly they’re throwing away around 20 grand and a person’s livelihood. There isn’t any “superhero insurance”, the car will come back with a deductible on their insurance but the person in question may now have no way to get to work, pick up their kids, and are out a means of transportation. They destroy work places. They blow up buildings. They destroy homes as a casual byproduct of their battles with supervillains. People die.
Superheroes often cause more problems with their destructive tendencies than they solve.
Superhero stories ask the audience to relate to the superhero, rather to the citizens in the setting suffering from Stockholm Syndrome while just trying to get by and hope their not out several hundred thousand dollars because Mr. Miracle blew up their home in an effort to stop the Rampalion Wretch from nuking the downtown area.
Vigilantism is against the law.
Powers or no, a lot of superheroes have powers and the average cops don’t. How do you stop a superhero when they go off the rails? How do you trust someone who takes the law into their own hands?
Cops should be arresting vigilantes and the justifications on why they don’t in most superhero settings is because they feel the heroes are more of a help than a harm, but that can often turn against the heroes when they go off the rails.
It makes sense for a superhero to care about the public’s trust. If they have bad press like Spider-Man then it makes their job twice as hard. Try investigating when no one on the force will talk to you. When the locals think you’re as bad as the villains you fight. How can you figure out what happened if no one will give you access to their crime scene notes, tell you what they saw, or speak to you?
On some level, a superhero needs good press, public trust, and a good reputation to continue functioning.
If you feel your heroes need to earn that trust or more importantly, they feel they need to earn it, then good for you and them. Many stories out there often just sort of assume it’s the heroes just do. Of course, the author think, my hero will be beloved, they’re on the side of right.
What’s so good about the Punisher when handled right is that he is a bit of a pariah in the Marvel world. He’s a wanted man by the cops, the superheroes, and the villains alike. He lives out of safe houses and the back of a van so no one can find him. He has one real solid contact on the police force that’s unsure if he should be working with him half the time. If it got out that he was, then the detective would lose his job.
A character choosing to take the law into their own hands has their threat level significantly upgraded. How can you trust someone who is deciding who lives and who dies? How can you trust that they’ll only be killing the bad people? Why do they get to decide that? Who gave them the right? What are the shades of gray or are there any for someone this black and white?
Step outside the characters for a moment and think about consequences.
It can be easy to justify character choices when you consider what the consequences of a character’s actions will be for other people.
The obvious justification for kill or no kill is “it’s the law”, “it’s wrong”, and “we can’t stop X from continuing to hurt people, he won’t get caught” or “the system protects them, so I’ll be outside it”.
But you can have characters moderate their behavior for a whole host of reasons. Some may enjoy fame and good publicity. Some may believe they don’t have the right to decide who lives or dies. Some may have parents who lost their home to a super-villain attack and know the personal cost of rebuilding for middle and low-income families when a hero or villain blows up a house.
What do your superheroes actions cost the people they save?
Stop and think about the world your characters exist in. Try to remember that most of our modern superheroes actually follow an antiquated value which doesn’t matter anymore.
The cost of blowing up a person’s car is much more grievous to them as an individual than stopping a bank robbery.
The line in Michael Mann’s Heat when Robert de Niro’s character gets those held hostage inside the bank to cooperate while he holds it up for a robbery: “We want to hurt no one! We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money.
Your money is insured by the federal government, you’re not gonna lose a
dime! Think of your families, don’t risk your life. Don’t try and be a
When your character throws a car through a bank window to stop a villain on a heist, they’re actually causing more damage to the people they’re trying to save than if they did nothing at all.
So think this through, think your world through, and the costs for the people who live there.
Once you have that then the practical reasons for why characters behave the way they do will become apparent.