At the conclusion of Man of Steel, Superman is forced to kill his evil adversary, General Zod, in order to save an innocent family. The hero lets out a scream of agony after he does the deed, and the film treats it as a painful moral turning point–complete with dramatic music and a shot of the protagonist falling to his knees. Superman doesn’t kill. That, many outraged fans have declared, is his brand. A Superman who takes the life of another is a symbol of violence, not justice. What, critics wonder, makes him different from the bad guys?
In the universe of American superheroes, the good guys know where to draw the line—at homicide. But when you think about it, that line is pretty arbitrary. Superman in Man of Steel spends the twenty minutes before he finishes Zod off in a brutal, mutual beatdown. The two of them smash the crap out of each other, punching one another through buildings and slamming into each other at super-speed. Zod may be practically invulnerable and able to absorb a lot of punishment. But Superman has superstrength. How can he be sure he’s only doing cosmetic, rather than permanent, damage? If you knock someone through a building, doesn’t that mean, as a necessary corollary, that you’re willing to risk the possibility that they might die?
You can see this longstanding ethical confusion illustrated even more clearly in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil series. The show’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood is being stalked by a nastier, more murderous vigilante, The Punisher. The Punisher actually shoots villains with real bullets rather than just apprehending them.
The Punisher tries to convince Daredevil to shoot a bad guy (namely, the Punisher himself), and our hero nobly refuses. But immediately after doing so, Daredevil engages in an extended battle in which he pummels the members of a biker gang with a metal chain. Hitting someone in the head with a metal chain can reasonably be expected to cause brain trauma, eye loss, and not improbably death. Daredevil doesn’t use a gun, but he’s using violence that could easily be lethal. Maybe he’s lucky and by some miracle hasn’t actually killed anybody. But that hardly seems like a coherent moral stance. It’s not like we see him double-checking after each fight to make sure all the thugs are still breathing and/or aren’t bleeding out.
When superheroes refuse to kill, it’s not because writers, or audiences, actually have a strong ethical objection to killing–or god forbid, to violence. It’s because “not killing” functions as a convenient litmus test to separate the good people from the bad people. Villains use hyperbolic superviolence to murder people. Heroes use hyperbolic superviolence and, somehow, don’t kill, or even permanently injure, anyone. Except when they do, like Superman. And then they feel bad about it.
The conceit here is that violence can be strictly controlled and regulated. And when you put these controls on violence, you transform it into an effective, morally validated tactic used by good guys.
We used this same flawed logic in the real-world debate over waterboarding and other Bush-era “interrogation” tactics. Waterboarding and stress positions weren’t torture, because America doesn’t torture, just like Daredevil deliberately breaking someone’s hand is okay because at least it’s not the bad guys shooting off someone’s knee cap. The West’s drone program similarly runs on a dream of bloodless precision. You can create a war in which you kill only those who deserve it, as in a video game. We are good because we conduct war in such a way that children and civilians never die. Except when they do. And then we feel bad about it.
The ban on superheroes who kill doesn’t just arbitrarily separate the good from the bad. It also absolves the good guys of the need to consider cause and effect. Daredevil and Superman do all the things you would do if you were going to kill someone. They set out with the intent to do harm and they employ maximum force. But we are supposed to know inherently that this virtuous use of force won’t kill.
And if caped crusaders do kill, it’s an accidental slip-up and an occasion for virtuous soul-searching. In Batman vs. Superman, we see the ground-level effects of the Zod/Superman fight, in which a whole city is destroyed and many are killed and wounded. Batman, and many others, see Superman’s massive use of violence as a danger and a moral wrong—but the whole point of the film is to show that that viewpoint is misguided. Only the bad guys intentionally kill, so any deaths are their fault.
In the US, a lot of violence is still viewed through this lens of good guy versus bad guy. You send heavily armed police (good guys) to pacify a marginalized community (bad guys), making any potential violence the responsibility of the occupied, not the occupiers. Americans love to feel like they’re innocent, even when they’re pulling the trigger.
Superheroes don’t torture and they don’t kill—unless they have to. And since we know that, they can torture and kill as much as they’d like, and still be righteous, and pure, and good.