Should Superheroes Kill?
The superhero genre, from its humble beginnings, has now become one of the biggest box office juggernauts in cinematic history. Superhero films new regularly gross over a billion dollars, and the genre has configured itself into the all-encompassing, mass-market opium of modern cinema; it shapes, and is shaped by, the water-cooler conversation, the lunch-break chatter, the newspaper column inches across the globe. Put simply, superheroes are celebrity. But why? In supplying easily identifiable figureheads of each competing morality, the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’, the superhero genre corresponds with the western before it, another crowd-pleaser, the world of the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black ones. The genre is the most outwardly moralistic and binary of any in cinema at the moment, and in its own visceral, outlandish way, it corresponds to the audience’s basic notions of right and wrong. It speaks to the principles hard-wired into them ever since their childhoods, the clean-cut days of black and white morality, of the school-yard bully and the superheroism of the omnipotent adult figure who has the power to eradicate any problem, or heal any wound.
The superhero genre captures very much the zeitgeist of the time in which we are living. As such, like any great event or work which influences the collective imagination, it has become a powerful building block in the culture, with the ability to influence, parody or perhaps even change the public consciousness altogether. By propogating a clean moralistic divide, and showing such an emotive conflict between the forces of good and evil, the superhero genre has the ability to set the template for acceptable morality in people, to push society’s notions of acceptable conduct one way or another. In the dangerous times in which we live, when death, and the extent of human cruelty, is a staple of the modern televisual and technological diet, and if superhero films really have captured the public’s imagination as much as box office numbers suggest, surely they also have a duty to reflect the mainstream cultural and political attitudes of their audience? In the UK, the death penalty was officially abolished in 1969, but poll after poll shows the public are divided about bringing it back, and they often reveal a majority favouring its reinstatement. In the U.S.A, 32 states still execute those guilty of grave wrongdoing. In this climate, then, is it acceptable for heroes to kill?
‘You have nothing! Nothing to threaten me with…Nothing to do with all your strength!’ So says Heath Ledger’s cackling, maniacal Joker in The Dark Knight. That film’s effectiveness emerges from its succint presentation of the primal conflict between the two basic human impulses: good and evil. The Joker’s words summarise the historic conundrum often faced by those who represent the ‘good’ side; he or she may have the strength, physical or mental, to destroy their adversary, but as soon as they give into their impulse and engage in the killing, have they not become that which they are fighting against? When, if ever, is there an acceptable time to relinquish this perceived moral superiority in the service of an even greater good? The Dark Knight shows Batman is a conflicted character; he rails against the Joker’s anarchic hypothesis that eventually ‘civilised people…eat each other’, but he himself does not represent a perfect figurehead for the civilised, ordered society he promotes – he fights for law and order, and yet he is outside of the law himself, as well as being unelected by the democratic society he fights for.
Both Batman and the Joker are visual, as well as ideological, symbols; Batman, fighting as he is for the ‘good’ side, is a dark, nightmarish and brooding figure. The Joker, by contrast, represents a dark ideology of extreme anarchy, but he is the visually brighter and more colourful of the two characters. He is the walking personification of extreme wish-fulfillment, plastered with clownish motifs; he is the ultimate id unchained. In actuality, he represents the immorality to Batman’s imperfect morality, although the appearances of the characters would not make this obvious.
To place the two opposing forces side by side, the shortcomings of the side of right against the Joker’s evil ideology, which murders at will and without order, become apparent. As in real life, Batman’s side, the ‘good’ side, simplistic as the term is, looks to the viewer more fragmented and divided than the Joker’s moral code which is, however repugnant and cruel, is shown to be the more full-blooded, empowered and united philosophy. We can see this too in our own society; those who practice extremism are unconcerned with democracy, the rule of law or what is considered to be acceptable morality; like the Joker, terrorism has no qualms about doing what it deems necessary, or desirable, whereas those fighting for society and order are held back and fragmented by the competing desires that democratic society brings with it, and the need to retain the moral high ground. When the Joker says ‘you have nothing to threaten me with’, the audience understands that ultimately good, by very virtue of being good, is always self-defeating, especially in the face of an antagonistic ideology which is unconcerned with questioning itself or with moral expectations.
The Joker’s philosophy, however, is never compromised or diluted, he never strays from his basic principle. The final image of him in the film turns the screen upside down, inverting the traditional manner of things, as he cackles in complete nirvana. He wins. He never strays from his ideals, however morally repulsive. Batman, meanwhile, escapes to face the scarred Dent, who has been turned from the side of ‘right’ and justice to the Joker’s methods of murder, terrorism, and anarchy, leaving life or death decisions to the ‘unfair, unbiased’ hand of chance. The ‘white knight’, Batman’s strongest weapon in the fight to return Gotham to order, becomes instead another convert to anarchy and chaos; it is a very clear defeat for Batman’s ideology and a victory for the Joker.
It is in this context that by the end of the film we witness the ‘good’ side employing questionable tactics to defeat its enemy, if only because there is no other option open to it – as Alfred says, in order to catch the runaway Burmese bandit, the only way to win was to ‘burn the forest down’. This is the attitude Bruce rails against throughout the film: the notion that, to catch an uncatchable enemy, the only solution is to destroy the battlefield. As the Joker’s campaign of terror brings death all around Bruce, however, his traditional ‘good’ methods begin to evaporate. So it is that we see the morally dubious sonar reading machine being used to catch a man who represents the ultimate threat to Gotham. It’s a very post 9-11, Bush regime crisis-management ideology, that in the interests of security, liberty must be slowly chipped away at. But if it is safe to assume that throwing away liberty in the name of security is not the correct way to fight a radical ideology, then how is Batman really superior to the Joker? Simply because he doesn’t kill, or because he wants to stop the Joker killing? That’s an admirable aim, but in stripping the people he’s protecting of their privacy, is he really any better?
Batman’s moral superiority emerges because he doesn’t kill people, but if Batman had simply killed the Joker the first time he encountered him, if he had broken his ‘one rule’ as the Joker puts it, then the tragedy of the rest of the film would have been avoided; he doesn’t because, aside from the fact that the film would be a lot shorter, he believes in the rule of law, fighting evil not with revenge but justice. But is this really an admirable ideology, if more people die in the long term? Although killing may desolate the psyche of the hero, it could be argued that the true mark of a hero is that they are prepared to take this existential destruction that killing inflicts on them, in order to rid the world of an ultimate evil. Is there any moral superiority in letting innocent people be killed in order to prove an esoteric point about not sinking to your enemy’s lowly level?
The immoralities of war may not be pretty, some could say, but in the world we live in they are sometimes necessary, especially in order to defeat the kind of antagonists we now face: those who operate in secret, often in the kind of society they try to destroy, and no longer as part of a monolithic rogue state. Surely our on-screen heroes should reflect this mentality? The Dark Knight, however, appears to come down on the opposing side of the argument, despite Batman’s morally dubious actions in the final reels, that in the end it is essential that the side of ‘good’ retains its perceived moral trump card and refrains from the kind of tactics its enemy would employ. The situation recalls the words of Benjamin Franklin, that ‘those who sacrifice liberty in the name of security will in the end enjoy neither’. Batman instructs Lucius to turn off the machine after he has found the Joker; although it seems regrettable that he compromises himself morally and uses the technology in the first place, he refuses to continue doing so and acted differently only in an extremely exceptional situation. This is the seemingly the conclusion of the film’s moral conundrum, that whilst the side of ‘good’ may break its ‘one rule’ very occasionally, it still stands superior to the side of immorality, because the latter has, as Moroni says of the Joker, ‘no rules’.
When you look for it, the portrayal of killing in mainstream cinema is remarkably varied. In real life, killing is always a shocking, tragic and regrettable act. When we hear about people being killed on news programs it adds another crack to the veneer of the harmonious society we all, ideally, like to think we live in. In films, killing or maiming is very often tragic, shocking or frightening, but it is also often humourous, flippant or workmanlike. How many scenes have we all witnessed where the good guy shoots a room full of ‘bad guys’ dead, in the service of his or her mission, or vendetta against an even worse antagonist? Mainstream action films rarely stop to examine the full effect of that (probably because the sort of trauma such an act would likely induce doesn’t exactly smack of box-office gold). Nevertheless, we see film after film in which the hero kills a lot of people. More often than not, it is treated as a byproduct of the genre. Killing seems a given of the standard-issue determined action hero, it’s a minor irritation of the job they do.
Films such as Nolan’s Bat-trilogy make a moral minefield out of killing, and so the audience follows it. But it is notable that unless they are told to, on the whole the audience won’t question a protagonist who kills, and will accept it as a necessary part of the fight against evil. Although the death penalty is gone in large parts of the world, this latent eye-for-an-eye instinct seems to run through the DNA of a lot of mainstream cinema. Surely then, that if the audience is instinctively taking a certain view of crime and punishment, then doesn’t cinema have a duty to reflect that?
The answer is complicated, not lease because the very definition of killing in superhero films is a murky one. More often than not, what we witness with the death of an antagonist is manslaughter or self-defence on behalf of the hero, rather than straight up ‘murder’ as the law would objectively see it. Lighter hearted fare, such as the original Spider-Man franchise, showed antagonists who effectively killed themselves, with a little help from the hero. The Green Goblin tries to stab Spidey in the back, but, acting out of self-defence, Spider-Man moves and the villain is vanquished by his own weapons; a very poetic and appropriate death, but also one which conveniently sidesteps the moral quandary of having a hero who kills.
Likewise in the second film, in which Doc Ock, after a bit of rewiring from Spidey, realises the error of his ways and drowns himself with his deadly machine. Again, not caused directly by the hero, but occuring indirectly as a result of the hero’s (and his own) actions. Apart from these instances, the films make clear that Spider-Man is not a hero who kills criminals, he merely captures them and makes them available to the authorities. This is in line with the tone and setting of the Spider-Man world; the everyday criminals he faces are immoral but, on the whole, they are not sadistic killers unlike, say, Batman’s enemies. As a result, Spider-Man’s punishments for the criminals in his films seem to fit the crime. The low level criminals get sent to jail, and the ‘big bad’, like the Goblin or Ock, ultimately pay for their crimes with their lives, but not by Spider-Man’s hand. The films seem to say that serious enough crimes will warrant death, but then they shy away from showing the hero actually bring that death about himself. Perhaps the implication is that by indulging in so much immorality the villains effectively cease their claim to life?
Man of Steel has been controversial for a number of reasons (the main reason it is controversial with me is because I think it sucks), but one of the biggest talking points seems to be Superman’s killing of General Zod. Not only does the Boy Wonder kill his enemy, but he does it in a pretty brutal, animalistic way, by snapping his neck. From my extremely limited knowledge of Superman’s comic-book history, I feel well-informed enough to say that the sight of the Man of Steel slaughtering his enemy is not a common one. It’s a pretty drastic thing for the audience to see that Superman, the timeless symbol of hope and optimism, sees the threat from his enemy as so great that he sees no other option but to kill him. Again, it’s interesting to consider the real world effects of a moment like this; the hero most associated with providing hope, light and optimism to the world, the character that people are supposed to look up to (literally as well as figuratively), engages in such a shocking act. That moment more than any other was a reminder, possibly under Nolan’s design, of the melancholy post 9-11 world we’re living in; the stakes are higher than ever before, people are killed on the streets of their own country, not in a foreign land at war, and seemingly ‘civilised’ countries often retaliate not through diplomacy, but through aggressive action.
Superman killing Zod speaks to this instinct in our modern, paranoid collective psyche: an enemy that is so immoral, and the price of them succeeding being too terrible to contemplate, leaves the only option to eliminate them altogether. Furthermore, the film makes a point of showing that Zod is aiming to kill civilians at this point, as Superman grabs him by the neck, and so the very stark choice is again presented, as in so many of these films, of the death of one antagonist, brutal though that may be, versus the deaths of many more innocent civilians. In this context, some would say it is obvious that the antagonist must die, whatever the cost to the hero’s moral equilibrium, and indeed, perhaps it is even the hero’s willingness to bloody their hands for innocent people that makes them a hero in the first place.
Like the times we live in, the issue of superheroes killing is divisive, sometimes shocking, and swathed in shades of grey rather than black and white. Like most people in the world today, I’m conflicted; on the one hand, we should of course expect the ‘hero’ of a film to retain their moral superiority, by refusing to employ the same tactics we see their antagonists use, because surely as soon as they do, the differences between the hero and the villain evaporate. On the other hand, superhero films, like most mainstream cinema, surely have a duty to be attuned to the culture from which they emerge, and in this case should we not expect superheroes to act in a way which befits our world, a world which seems to grow more dangerous and cruel every day? Perhaps, because the value of human life seems to cheapen with every melancholic news report we see, the people held up as our ‘heroes’ on screen should not be seriously expected to conduct themselves by unreasonably high moral standards, especially because in the real world, the cost of trying to keep your hands perfectly clean could result in even more innocent deaths than otherwise.
I think in the end the solution lies in artistic intention; if, as with a film such as The Dark Knight, the aim is to tackle weighty, sombre issues in a way which is in keeping with the strange times we live in, then of course it is right that Nolan made a film which seems to me to provide no clear answer to the question of the morality of the ‘hero’. On the other hand, if films, and especially candy-coloured superhero films, are treated as escapism, then it is surely admirable, desirable, and perhaps quaintly charming that they seek to present a nostalgic vision of the morally complete, untainted hero, who saves a busload of innocent people whilst delivering the tied-up pantomime villain to the authorities with no bloodshed in sight. Ultimately, though, I think it tells us a lot about the times we live in that such a romantic, simplistic hero now seems so cartoonish, and so distant.
What do you think? Leave a comment.