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?

Joker Final

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?

a-spidermanThe 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.

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  1. Samuel Burgess (@BurgessSamuel)

    Dat post looooong. Some kill some don’t, but Batman DOES NOT KILL, EVER.

    • Batman has no qualms with killing if he knows the situation calls for it.

    • Didn’t he kill in the first ever couple of issues? I could be wrong. That’s interesting how he completely turned around as a character if that’s true though. Like I said in the article, I think ‘killing’ is a bit of a hazy term at times; Nolan’s films have several questionable moments in them – Batman’s ‘I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.’ to Ra’s, for example. I find it hard not to regard that as killing. Likewise in DKR, when he blows Talia’s convoy off the road, and the crash kills her. He virtually kills her, but I guess the counter-argument is that with a nuke ready to wipe out the city, the situation was absolutely desperate. But what choice did he have in that circumstance?

    • fepounsberry

      Except in Nolan’s Dark Knight Batman killed, He did. I took it as weak storytelling but Batman after going for days of his time and about 3 hours of ours, does not kill Joker. Okay, Batman doesn’t kill…right? Wrong! because right after leaving Joker for the Police he swoops done and kills Two face, I wish I could underline that. Yes in the comics Batman is obsessive about not killing but in the movies the lines are blurred. One side note for all people that say Superman would never kill in the comics. If DC put that exact situation in a Superman comic Supes would in fact kill Zod. He does not kill unless the villain is about to do something that in not killing the villain Superman would have to deal with an even greater evil that having villain’s blood on his hands.

  2. Well what would Spider-man or Batman do if they caught a serial rapist? They would punch him in the face and then put him in jail. Well say that rapist gets out in a couple years and then rapes again. I bet that poor woman getting raped wishes that the rapist would have been caught by The Punisher instead of Spidey or Batman. The Punisher would have shot him dead and that next woman would be safe. But instead, Spider-man keeps his “code” and the rapist rapes again and the woman is brutally attacked and scared for life.

    And forget about the whole “murder” thing. What about violent assaults? Spider-man has super strength and a punch from him would surely break your jaw. They never show the bank robber getting his broken jaw set or wired shut. They never show him having to eat through a straw for a month or having pain in his face for the rest of his life. If Spider-man and Batman were such angels, they wouldn’t be violently beating these criminals. In America, you are innocent until proven guilty. Yet these “heroes” beat the crap of people based on their OWN judgement. A police officer can legally shoot and kill a suspected criminal if the situation arises. However, they can not beat the guy to a bloody pulp.

    Batman won’t kill but he will happily beat the living crap out of someone WAY beyond the point of just sub-doing him. Police are taught to subdue a suspect as non-violently as possible. I’d like to see Batman do that. It is backwards superhero logic that says they won’t kill but they will torture and beat a person who is innocent until proven guilty. The Punisher does what any soldier would do. Other “heroes” do what any bully would do; beat someone up and then claim they are the good guys because they didn’t kill them.

    If you put on a costume, work outside the law, violently attack people, beat up suspects that have not even stood trial, an break many laws, YOU are the criminal. Batman killed a guy before. Same with Spider-man…

    • Interesting points. What I’m saying is that yes films never show the criminal having to eat through a straw for the rest of his life, but I find it interesting that the kind of culture we live in values the artistic value of seeing a hero blow a room full of people away above the value of seeing a criminal face the consequences of his actions. That’s how they justify it as escapism, I guess.

    • David G

      When have you ever seen a hero beat someone to a bloody pulp? That’s right, never, because they hold back. They don’t do that because, and this might surprise you,THEY’RE THE GOOD GUYS. The Punisher isn’t a hero because he goes around violently killing criminals instead of putting them in jail like the true good guys do.

  3. The Cedric

    If we walk stricly comics… It has been mentioned that the serial nature of comics led to villains always coming back and that if comic prisons and law worked like in reality they would not end up on the street again.

    Suspension of disbelief is crucial for enjoying comics because this stuff wouldn’t make sense otherwise. 🙂

  4. _Diana_

    A “hero”, in my opinion, does not kill (which is inherently evil) unless it is necessary. It shouldn’t be done in a nonchalant way.

  5. Damion Mirabito

    Firstly, great article.

    Essentially, I suppose what you are asking is a debate between deontological ideas of right and wrong, and utilitarian ideas of right and wrong.

    Superman for instance, has a deontological morality system. At the core of his philosophy is the idea that all life is sacred, and that he doesn’t have the right to decide who should live and who should die. It’s actually one of the things that makes him more interesting as a character. (it’s one of the two big ways to create tension in a Superman story. Since he’s so powerful you can either create an enemy as powerful as he is, or you can create an enemy who exploits situations in which he has to limit his output of power lest he risk killing someone.)

    But that doesn’t mean that all heroes don’t kill. Wonder Woman, for instance, killed Maxwell Lord when it became apparent that the only other option would be to allow Lord to wreak untold damage on the world. And during the Sinestro Corp Wars the guardians changed the rules in the book of OA so that Green Lanterns could use their rings to kill. These were clearly utilitarian decisions.

    So should superheroes kill? Yes and no. Some of them should, some of them shouldn’t. That’s how you get an interesting story, by allowing that debate to exist in the first place.

    • Along the deontological track (I.e. ‘life is sacred’), there is not a unanimity of opinion. There is a clear school of thought that has the opinion that if person X does something clearly so contra naturum (in other words, so against human dignity that it runs completely against the nature of what man ought to be at his most ideal) that he has chosen to shed his humanity, and thus, has forfeited his own life. See, e.g., Aquinas.

  6. Thanks for reading. I just find the debates for and against pretty interesting, mainly because they feed into our own world and those who have power and authority and the way they use it. The interesting thing with superheroes I find is that they have power and authority but they aren’t appointed by the society they protect. When you think about it, superheroes are pretty undemocratic, and like I said in the article, someone like Batman maybe even makes of a mockery of the rule of law.

  7. Very interesting and well-written article and I applaud you for that. The moral struggle in the Dark Knight is one thing that me and my friends often discuss. It reminds me of a dilemma discussed in my philosophy class: suppose that a train is about to crash into five people, and the only way to save them is to throw a man onto the track to stop the train. Not arguing about the feasibility, would you throw the man to stop the train from killing five people? There’re no perfect answers to such question, and I’m glad films like the Dark Knight prompts us into thinking more about these issues.

    • Thanks for reading. I think I’d leave the train to crash and let the man keep his life, on the extremely flimsy basis that the five people’s lives would in some senses be diminished by the fact that they survived only through someone else dying, and also that fate had determined that the five should die but in throwing the man onto the track I would have intervened and gotten blood on my hands, so not only would the man die but I’d live with the guilt. How very selfish of me! Also, I guess our lives are all existing on the basis that people died in wars years before we were born to protect our freedoms, so my first point is potentially completely invalid. I think I think too much…
      That dilemma makes my head hurt!! 🙂

    • Danny Cox

      Well, the reason there is no perfect answer to the question is simply because no one can agree on the ‘first-level’ foundation upon which morality as a whole can be justified and applied to all situations. Those that choose to throw the fat-man onto the train-track typically associate with a utilitarian worldview, i.e. maximize the utility of any situation by acting in such a way as to increase the overall ‘happiness’ or decrease the overall suffering by means of acting a certain way. Those that refuse to sacrifice the fat-man (because of principle, not just because they are too squeamish) typically associate with deontology, i.e. treat each person as an ‘end’ in and of himself or herself, and never treat people simply as ‘means to an end’. The problem is that there is (currently) no sort of logical argument that is capable of convincing any rational person that one is better than the other in the same way that I could provide you with a logical argument concluding that the angles in a triangle sum to 180 degrees.

  8. Taylor Ramsey

    It is interesting to me that, with all the new ‘realism’ in comics (and comic based film), that the superhero as soldier concept never gets talked about.
    Just like the Roman soldier was our champion, through history, soldiers have been the champions of the society we live in. They are asked to do questionable things in the service of a greater good, and most feel that as a mark on their ‘soul’.
    Superheroes are our modern fictional champions, like Jason or Homer, they create the ‘ideal’ champion as seen by the fiction and legends of the era they came from.
    Is it not correct then, in our era of shaded greys and moral ambiguity that seems to alternate with moral absolutism, that our fictional heroes should wrestle with, and sometime lose, the internal struggle?
    Superman killing in MoS made sense to me in the context of the film (although they didn’t sell it very well as being the only choice), but in the comics, we still struggle as readers with the absolutism we feel the comics should represent.
    This is the backlash of the 90s to a degree, I think. Comics of the 90s were SO dark, the heroes SO unpleasant that we now are conflicted by the desires for both a morally strong hero, and the violent catharsis that comics provide.

  9. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    Great article that I hope receives a lot of exposure. It seems to me that you are identifying an important question regarding the way superhero films have changed. A lot of this has to do with the recent Batman films but also the James Bond revisions in that superhero movies are now becoming “serious.” As a result, the filmmakers want us to view them as more than “only entertainment.” If we take them seriously, though, we have to come to terms with the violence. You do that well but I don’t think there are any easy answers.

  10. Brandon Wiggins

    Great article, and you raise some interesting points about how as a society as a whole seem ok with killing our enemies. The problem with this, in my opinion, is that superhero characters such as Batman or Superman should be held to a higher standard of morality.

    There’s a dangerous fascist undercurrent to a lot superhero stories, in that these stories are essentially about extraordinary beings imposing their visions of law and order onto the cities they protect without actually being apart of the law and order apparatus (I highly doubt, for instance, that Batman has ever taken out a search warrant before he goes to investigate a criminal’s hideout). Some of this stems from the fact that early comics creators likely weren’t considering the constitutional implications of their stories when they created them for children. Still, if superheroes are to be given extraordinary powers and abilities, and the privilege to use those powers to pursue a campaign of law and order outside the traditional venues of a police investigation, than they should also be held to a higher moral authority when pursuing these agendas.

    Take Batman, for instance. As you yourself noted, in the case of Batman, “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.” What ultimately prevents a character such as Batman from becoming a renegade vigilante seeking to lay out his own vision of justice, is that, while Batman bend certain legal rules in order to catch a criminal, he never violates the right of every citizen to receive their due process under the law.

    Perhaps the Joker does deserve the worst possible punishment-death-f or all the people he kills in The Dark Knight (I don’t believe debates over capital punishment really apply to superheroes, at least in the case of my argument). That, however, is for the courts and a jury of Gotham citizens to decide. Ultimately, the fate of the Joker should not be determined arbitrarily by Batman in a case of judge, jury and executioner. The Joker’s fate should be in the hands of the Gotham legal system, decided upon according to the principles of due process under the law, and the principles behind giving someone a fair trial in their day in court are the same principles that Heath Ledger’s character sough to prove were just one big joke. That those principles should survive and rule the Joker’s fate are the ultimate victory over his terrorism.

  11. Kelsey Clark

    You’ll find this with the baddies in Disney films (as if they are ever going to show the good guy killing someone in Disney), but in most of the films if the baddies die it’s because of some poetic “they killed themselves” mentality because that’s what a hero is considered as. That’s what makes them different from the bad guy. I have always found this though as I watch these films crying out that they should have just killed them to save all of this trouble. But that wouldn’t make a good film would it?? I think to a point this humanizes the good guy also. Killing someone shouldn’t be a easy choice and by having the bad guy eventually killed by his own means, it keeps the main character (and the audience’s) morality in tact.

  12. This is a very polarising and intriguing issue. I believe superheroes should if they are a) being attacked by people whom have stated their intentions to kill them and b) about the attack innocent people. Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy chose to leave villains alive so they would eventually the horrible and deserved consequences. Superman in Man of Steel, however, needed to kill zod to prove that he is the saviour that earth needs.

  13. Robert McHugh

    Yes, I think it is interesting that writers and such seem to be a bit afraid of trying to create a utilitarian hero who does some fairly extremely morally controversial things for the greater good.

    In fact, it seems like the ONLY time we ever see that kind of ideology used is by the VILLAINS in certain films and such who try to make the world better by committing unthinkable crimes.

    For instance, Ozimandius from Watchmen who was willing to detonate nukes around the world (and framing Dr. Manhatten in the process) to make the world scared of itself so that the superpowers would ally up rather than go to war, potentially destroying EVERYTHING instead of how the smaller amount of death and destruction that Ozimandius’s actions lead to.

    Or from Naruto Shippudden, in the story arc where Pain wants to create a world where people understand each other and stop being so hateful (through mutual understandings of each others pain), so he decides to try to create a weapon that can decimate entire countries which he fully intends to use.

    The thing is, these characters are usually villains rather than heroes because even if their actions COULD POSSIBLY lead to a greater good, there are usually some pretty glaring fundamental flaws to their ideologies.

    Sometimes, it is selfishness (like the villain who wants to create some perfect world, but seems to think himself the only one fit to lead it, and usually in a pretty darn tyrannical way).

    A lot of other times, there seems to be some fairly obvious or at least VERY POSSIBLE alternatives that should AT LEAST be TRIED first before going the whole genocidal route or whatever it is that the villain is going for.

    Death Note was a really good anime exploring this kind of ideology. I would highly HIGHLY recommend it to people fascinated by these kinds of questions, even if anime isn’t traditionally your cup of tea. Especially since by the end of the series, I’d bet there is a pretty good split of people who support the main character vs. people who are against him.

    But yeah, I would love to see a film or series or something one day where the hero is the one who uses these utilitarian kinds of tactics and is willing to go so far as to commit “heinous crimes” or something of the like for a greater cause, and his logic and ideology is so flawless (unlike all the utilitarian villains), that the audience is practically forced to support the hero throughout the thick of it all. And frankly, I think it WOULD be possible and realistic to have a scenario where that kind of solution would be the only workable one, and with a strong enough argument to support it that anybody would be hard pressed to argue against it. Of course, such a scenario would have to be brilliantly thought up and excellently written, but I DO think it’s possible. So, since I’ve never heard of or seen anything like that before at all, I think it’d be a great fresh new thing to try.

  14. Robert McHugh

    And yes, I just want to say great article! This is just what I needed! I recently just watched that story arc of Naruto that I mentioned, along with just last night rewatched the clip at the end of Batman: Under the Red Hood (a great animated gritty Batman movie) and due to those 2, I’ve been thinking extensively about these kinds of questions. Honestly, I found this article online because I google searched, and I quote “Have any super heroes done extremely controversial actions for the greater good?” And yeah, so far, I haven’t really seen any cases of a “yes” to that question. But at least, I found a great article exploring the ideology! Thanks again for it!

    • thanks for reading and for your kind comments 🙂 glad you enjoyed the article. feel free to check out my others!! haha

  15. If I were a superhero , than i would kill you for writing damn long post , WTF , I expected 4 line answer .

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