Frequent readers of my work and my blog will know that I am a firm believer in the idea that superheroes should not purposefully kill. Accidents, deaths in the heat of battle, unforeseen consequences, those are fine (though I don’t like seeing them used all that often because I think killing of characters when one can still get stories out of them is a waste), but the well-known ‘hero has the villain at their mercy, decides the villain is too dangerous, and so kills them in cold blood’ is not something I jive with.
A lot of people disagree with this. They say that the villains really are too dangerous and if the proper authorities don’t kill them, then it falls to the hero just as stopping their crimes does. They say that police and soldiers are authorized to kill and so should superheroes. They say it just makes more sense.
And I say no. No to all those things, and not just because of my personal preference. This article will lay out the reasons why superheroes making the choice not to kill their enemies is, in fact, usually the right and intelligent course of action on multiple levels that aren’t just based on moral grounds.
First of all…
It is Not Usually Self Defense
A lot of people argue that anyone is within their rights to kill someone who is a genuine threat to their life. And that would be true. The problem is, they often ignore the fact that what would be a threat to a normal person’s life is not a threat to a superhero—that’s kind of the point of the superhero.
First of all, let’s talk unarmed opponents. It is possible for someone bigger and stronger than you, beating the stuffing out of you to become a credible threat to your life, thus justifying self defense. That flies for normal, average people, but remember the film Lethal Weapon?
The title is justified by Mel Gibson’s character, Riggs, being so highly trained that he is considered a ‘lethal weapon’ even whne it comes to hand-to-hand combat. This is a real thing: highly skilled martial artists can and have been tried for the more serious ‘assault with a deadly weapon’ charge because they are capable of killing with their unarmed combat.
In a similar vein, it becomes much more difficult to prove that that same highly skilled martial artist could genuinely fear for their life against an unarmed assailant who is not. That, in fact, seems to be the justification behind the film Con Air where a service man kills a group of men in self defense. It’s rare in real life, but this too does happen.
When it comes to characters with actual superpowers and/or tech and/or superskills, this becomes an even bigger issue. Someone who fights crime in powered armor is never in genuine danger from small arms fire. Someone who can turn intangible is never in danger from anyone not capable of either doing the same or turning them back. Someone who can catch bullets and stop sword blows with their bare hands will have a hard time proving they were justified killing someone to protect themselves, especially if any or all of them have a long history of dealing with similar or worse threats non-lethally.
Even if one can absolve themselves to their own mind, they still have to convince a jury.
See that’s the part that usually gets glossed over in these stories of heroes killing villains: just because you have what could be considered an open and closed case of self defense, there will still liely be a Grand Jury and that might still go to trial. And if the dead villain had any family, they can file a wrongful death suit. More pressingly, if the hero wants to clear their name after that, they will have to go through the process… which means giving up their secret identity.
Yeah, that’s right. Unless your a minor, the basic details of your criminal proceedings are going to be public record, which includes your name unless there’s some special order from the judge. And evne then, a jury of your peers (twelve people plus alternates), the prosecutor, judge, stenograper and baliff to say the least are going to know who you are.
Goodbye private life, hello witness protection. That’s the sacrifice the hero would actually be making if they choose to kill, not just the choice to morally get their hands dirty.
‘But Cops and Soldiers!’
In the interest of not opening this up for political debate, the issue of police use of lethal force has come under intense scrutiny in the US of late, and a lot of the issues that are coming up there come into play when you have a hero who kills.
First is the issue of trust. Unsurprisingly, people are skittish around someone they known can and will take a life if they so choose. Even if they only kill ‘bad guys’, there’s a nagging feeling most people have in the presence of a killer (note I didn’t say ‘murderer’), an uneasiness that will color future interactions with defensiveness and hostility.
It’s probably worse for the superhero because they don’t have the implicit mandate police have or the regulation of something like an internal affairs division that ostensibly makes sure everything is done by the book. A hero is just a citizen with powers and maybe the public’s favor. No one in effect gave them ‘permission’ to kill villains.
For that matter, in the ‘classic’ example of this trope, where the hero stops and gives their justifying speech about how they can’t let the bad guy life once they’re defeated… police wouldn’t (or rather shouldn’t) be allowed to kill the guy either. Police are actually still supposed to be acting under the auspices of self defense or defense of others as above, so if the villain has already given up, they’re not allowed to then kill them ‘for the greater good’ or whatever.
And no, no matter how many times politicians declare ‘war’ on crime or drugs or ham sandwiches, that’s not a real war, that’s them being dramatic, so no soldier metaphors apply.
A similar argument is that it’s akin to the death penalty. Well ignore for a bit that the death penalty is just as contentious—if not more so—than police lethal force authorizations or that most democratic nations on the planet don’t it it at all, and consider instead that it really isn’t the same thing at all.
A criminal has to go through a trial and sentencing to get the death penalty. They get appeals. They get a (theoretically) quick and painless death administered by professionals who know what they’re doing. These are all safeguards to make sure, 1) that you’ve got the right guy or gal (and how many times have comic book baddies employed mind control, illusion, blackmail and plain old disguises? Yeah, think about it.), and 2) to make sure some vigilante who know how to fight and thinks the know better than everyone else goes to snap their neck and leave them paralyzed for life—which in comic may just result in them becoming more homicidal only this time they have an unkillable robot body. Nice job, hero!
So what is usually described as pragmatic… isn’t. Not in real world terms and certainly not in terms of the universes most heroes inhabit. And by the way…
‘But They’ll Keep Escaping!’
This is one of those seriously meta arguments for killing villains that seems to make sense on the surface. Popular villains will break out of prison within 24-36 issues, which in comic book time can be anywhere between a month and a day. It is as inevitable as the tides.
Okay, I know that. You know that. But unless the hero is capable of breaking the fourth wall, the have every reason to believe it will stick this time.
Think about how villains break out. There’s an effort form their people on the outside who are captured at the end of the current plot. There is a freak accident. They bribe or blackmail guards. They smuggle in a device or conceal a power that lets them escape. Notice that at no point do they just open the cell door and walk out (except Arkham apparently—why do people keep getting sent there? There is seriously a story the implies the place is an eldrtich abomination of some kind. Couldn’t some billionaire playboy buy the place, bulldoze it and put up a good mental health facility that mgiht actually cure some of these people? Oh, wait, no, he’s supposed to kill them. Forgot that.)
Point being, if these places at all like real prisons, the breaches will be noted and compensated for in the event of it happening again. They don’t know that there is an omnipotent being (the writer) who will make sure the bad guy gets away somehow.
Some say it’s basic pattern recognition, but the bottom line is, there’s no pattern to recognize. There’s no in-universe reason the villains keep escaping, it’s a contrivance of the genre. And that’s fine, right up until the hero starts recognizing the meta-pattern for the express purpose of justifying a little murder.
At which point, the other gaping flaw in this thinking rears its head…
If the hero can notice the meta-pattern of escapes, and therefore know that the popular villain will always escape, then they will also know that the villain will also come right back to life in a year or two. Seriously, if you want to go meta, you’ve got to go the rest of the way and the revolving door on Comic Book Heaven/Hell/Sheol/Tartarus/The Afterworld is the first think even non-Deadpool heroes know.
At which point, the question is moot. The hero is going to have to keep protecting people from the villain no matter what they do and there’s no point of killing them because nothing positive comes out of it. In fact…
Killer Heroes Make More Lethal Criminals
Imagine if you will, that you are a criminal. You enjoy crime and crime related activities such as hanging out at dank bars, looming menacingly over innocents, and lurking in alleyways. As you are a career criminal, murder is usually not on the menu; that’s reserved for obstacles that can’t be avoided and informants.
Now imagine that you just heard that a fellow criminal was killed by a vigilante because of one of those informant murders. Do you stop criming?
Hahahaha! Of course not! It’s your job! And heck, there’s a good chance you’ve got priors, so you’re not going to be able to get an honest job if you want to. But now you have a problem: if that superhero catches you, they may kill you. Suddenly being caught doesn’t mean making bail and skipping town, it means waking up with a toe tag and a tall guy in a black robe about to lead you into a midnight desert, dig?
First of all, no more witnesses. Not ever. Everyone that sees you committing a crime has to die. Not like it matters if you were deterred from it before because it would make things worse for you if the cops caught you, now you will die if anyone can point the hero to you. And as for the hero themselves, well that’s literally self defense; this person wants you dead, so you’ve got to make them dead to keep that from happening.
Yep, killing that one villain certainly made everyone safer!
And no, killing criminals is not a deterrent. People who think that don’t know why people commit crime. Either they have needs, can’t help it, or enjoy it. They never assume they’re going to get caught by the police, and they respond to threats to their lives with lethal violence. Killing people who commit crimes just means they’ll now do anything to avoid getting caught and killed.
And that’s not even getting into…
The Psychological Toll
Unless you’re a psychopath, killing another human being is not going to be something whre you just go home the next day and enjoy a nice brandy and a cigar. Even people who genuinely kill others in self defense still need (though often,t hey don’t get) therapy to get over the inherent guilt of taking a human life.
If you’ve ever seen scenes in military movies like Full Metal Jacket where they have a nasty Drill Sargent who breaks down the recruits, this is part of the reason why. The process is all about altering the recruit’s psychology to make them follow orders better and be less traumatized by the horrors of war. Recent studies have shown that it doesn’t work as well for the later and our military forces really need more mental care than we ever considered even in cases where they haven’t killed people, but were in life-or-death situations.
Similarly, when a cop kills a civilian, no matter the reason, most jurisdictions have mandatory psych visits afterward and the cop can’t go back on duty until they’ve been cleared.
Guess what crimefighters have nothing of the sort?
Yeah, that’s a problem, because without the proper help, the effects of committing murder on the murderer can range from depression to PTSD. There is an entire science behind this called killiology, and the gist of it is, a hero who kills will also be hurting themselves and their effectiveness at dealing with further threats.
Even comic book writers seem to know this, at least on occasion. That’s why the killingest ‘heroic’ character of all, Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher is so often depicted as being mentally unstable, often with the attendant symptoms of one of a host of illnesses like PTSD, OCD or depression.
But hey, I’m sure your hero is immune to normal human psychological reactions, cares nothing for public perception, the fact that the villain will be back, and doesn’t afraid of anything, right? Killing bad guys is cool and edgy and buzzword and that’s what matters.
Fine. Go ahead and ignore this stuff. I’ve never been a big advocate of realism for realism’s sake anyway. That, and watching a superhero get ostracized and hunted by the authorities until they succumb to the mental weight of what they’ve done an sink into despair isn’t something I’ve be interested in reading anyway.
That’s not the point. The point is to explain why they might choose not to. To show that killing isn’t automatically the pragmatic, right or smart choice even if you can turn the moral corner on having a hero intentionally take a life.. There are reasons, very good reasons why most superheroes would not kill and they are just as pragmatic, right and intelligent.
Just keep that in mind when someone tries to argue that mercy is unrealistic and that death is the only answer. The questions that come after may be too much to contemplate.
And to lighten the mood a bit, check out A Fistful of Rupees, a life action take on the Legend of Zelda… as a western. Yes. Ironically, the bad guy dies here. But it’s a western, not a superhero story.