Note: this article contains SPOILERS for Batman: The Widening Gyre, “Action Comics #775,” Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, the television series Arrow, and the 2008 film The Dark Knight.
It’s one of the best known attributes of some of the best known super-heroes: they don’t kill. The hero is the good guy, and as such he never resorts to taking a life, for any reason. This line is used to distinguish heroes from villains in many cases, but things are not that simple.
It can be perfectly understandable for a super-hero to not want to kill. There can be many decent reasons for them to choose non-lethality as a general rule. Batman has a personal trauma from his childhood that gives him an aversion to killing, especially with firearms. Superman wants to be seen as an example so must set a higher standard of behavior, one that shows humankind that they can aspire to be better. Many super-heroes are interested in gaining a public persona as a non-criminal and thus gain legitimacy. The problem with the no killing approach begins when general rules and guidelines become hard rules—when killing becomes an absolute taboo, regardless of context. It becomes even worse when the super-hero holds not only himself but others as obliged to obey this hard rule.
Many think that killing in self-defense or in the defense of others is morally justifiable. It can be a necessary part of the job for many police officers, soldiers, etc.. Sometimes these people have to kill.
Practically every super-hero has a cooperative relationship with the authorities (or they aspire to have one). Integral to that relationship is the view that the authorities are an overall good, moral body. Imperfect, to be sure, but our super-hero has to have a general respect for the morality and righteousness of the governing force with which they wish to have a partnership of sorts. A super-hero with a hard no killing rule runs into a conflict here, because the body he wishes to cooperate with inevitably breaks this rule. In Kevin Smith’s Batman: The Widening Gyre Batman meets fellow vigilante Baphomet, who wields a crossbow. Batman allows Baphomet to keep the weapon but threatens to punish him if ever Baphomet uses it to kill. No provisions for context are spoken of here. Perhaps one could imagine that Batman would allow Bamophet to kill in self-defense and that I’m being too literal, but for the sake of this example I’ll treat this incident as simple and representative. Batman plainly will not allow his fellow vigilante to kill at all, and in this he is a hypocrite. Batman’s cooperation with the Gotham P.D. cannot coexist with his hard no killing rule.
Another case of a hard no killing rule that perverts a super-hero’s standards and view of the world can be found in Joe Kelly’s critically acclaimed Superman one-shot story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” from “Action Comics #775.” In this story, Superman has to face The Elite, a group of young vigilantes who use their superpowers to stop villains, even mild criminals like thieves and robbers, by brutally murdering them. Superman is, of course, appalled at this and spends the issue trying to stop them. First, he approaches them with calm words, and when that doesn’t work, he battles them and stops them by force.
Two parts of this issue are largely problematic for me. The first occurs when Superman prepares to face The Elite and is talking to the worried Lois Lane. He explains to her that he has no choice but to risk his life by fighting them, because their destructive influence will corrupt the world if he does not. One of Superman’s main examples of the The Elite’s corrupting effect is of a group of children he saw playing in the street, none of whom wanted to play as Superman because he couldn’t kill, and it wouldn’t be any fun. The Man of Steel is deeply disturbed that a child would think of killing as “fun” and concludes that he must do something. But I think that this is a fundamental mistake by Superman here (or rather, one made by writer Joe Kelly): the assumption that children mean killing in the same way that adults do. All that these children are doing is pretending, and when they say killing is “fun,” they are talking about the only kind of killing they know: pretend. Saying that this is an indicator for how children view actual killing is ridiculous, as the average child knows nothing of such things. In this context, the child who doesn’t want to play Superman is similar to a child who’s playing soccer with his buddies and doesn’t want to be the goalie because he wouldn’t be able to run around on the field and play offense.
The second part of the issue that is problematic, in my view, is the ending. Superman battles The Elite, struggles at first, then gains the advantage and seemingly resorts to killing all but one of them in battle. He then confronts the last member, Elite leader Manchester Black. Superman struggles again against Black, but then manages to turn things around and neutralize him. He reveals to Black that his team members are merely subdued, not dead, and proceeds to makes a speech to the defeated Manchester Black about his ideals and how he will always strive to meet them. The main problem I have with this sequence of events is that it is manufactured to give Superman the “noble” victory he needs to maintain his aura of superiority. Superman somehow manages to beat all of The Elite in ways that feel lucky and coincidental after being quite close to death. For example, he performs microsurgery on Manchester Black’s brain through the pupil of Black’s eye using his heat vision. Several things out of Superman’s control had to go just right for him so that he’d be able to barely defeat his foes. Essentially, Superman was having the kind of luck that does not lend him the proper right to make a victory speech. It’s okay to give your hero a get out of jail free card but not if you then proceed to have him lecture everyone else about his superiority in breaking out of jail. It’s like a lottery winner preaching to poor people about economics.
Joe Kelly was greatly praised for being able to show in “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” that Superman’s values are still relevant, but I would contend that he does precisely the opposite. Superman’s absurdly good luck makes the situation laughable. It makes Superman’s holier-than-thou speech at the end not only odd but grotesque. It shows us just how out of touch with reality Superman actually is. Joe Kelly wanted to make people see that Superman’s values could and should be the rule, and instead he made them look like the exception that proves an opposing rule.
Another example of the morality of Superman’s no killing rule can be found in Alan Moore’s and Curt Swan’s classic Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. In this story, which functions as the swan song to the silver-age incarnation of the character, Superman faces a deluge of his foes who all attack him at his fortress of solitude. The fortress is surrounded by an impenetrable dome that prevents any of Superman’s allies from coming to his aide. Superman manages to defeat his foes one by one, eventually leading to a showdown with his most powerful enemy, Mister Mxyzptlk. The fifth-dimension sorcerer turns out to be quite a bit more sinister than he ever seemed before, and Superman kills him in order to protect the world. After doing so, Superman feels deeply ashamed, telling Lois Lane: “Nobody has the right to kill. Not Mxyzptlk, not you, not Superman…especially not Superman!”. The Man of Steel then decides he is not longer fit to carry the mantle, bathes himself in gold kryptonite radiation (which takes away his powers forever), and retires. This is another example of a no killing rule that is, arguably, quite hypocritical. Superman saved the world. He could have let Mxyzptlk escape to the fifth dimension and live, only to return another time, but I don’t believe that most people would truly regard this act of killing as immoral. Mxyzptlk was attempting to flee, true, but this is the equivalent of an armed enemy who’s running for cover; they’re still extremely dangerous. In addition, the idea expressed here by Superman—that killing is always wrong—makes him a hypocrite for the reasons mentioned in the beginning of the article. Superman’s retirement could be perfectly understandable if his motive were personal guilt for having killed. But to the justification Superman used to endorse the idea of an objective rule that states killing is always unacceptable, I must strongly disagree.
I would like to clarify that this is not a critique of Moore’s work. I find Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? to be a fantastic, classic comic book. My aversion is to Superman as a character in this particular incarnation, not to his portrayal or the story being told. In this context, the main difference between Man of Tomorrow and “Action Comics 775” is that Alan Moore was not attempting to advocate for Superman’s values, he was simply telling a fond farewell-story about a flawed character that we love. Kelly was morphing his story in order to serve his character’s misguided values and ended up with a misguided story. Moore, on the other hand, wrote a beautiful eulogy for an imperfect but deeply-beloved figure.
Conversely, the Green Lantern Corps is a body that acts like a police force for the universe, and they have a reasonable approach to killing. (On that note, by the way, another example of hypocrisy by some iterations of Batman and Superman characters is their partnership in the Justice League with heroes who are willing to kill under some circumstances.) There can also be reasonable ways to handle super-heroes who have a general no killing rule. The television adaptation of the Green Arrow comic book, Arrow, displays an approach that I found surprisingly reasonable in its second season. The Batman film The Dark Knight avoided the convenient script-tailoring of “Action Comics 775” and actually forced Batman to accidentally kill someone in order to save a child.
There are those who would claim that killing is always unequivocally immoral. I could argue directly against that position, but I feel that this is not quite the time or place. What I will say is that I believe that the vast majority of people see at least some circumstances under which killing is morally justifiable, and that those people should notice and oppose the instances when super-heroes take their anti-killing stances too far.
Asaph Bitner is a staff writer for Capeless Crusader. His other activities include studying for a college degree and dreaming of visiting the Song Of Ice And Fire universe as a future-tech wielding jedi secret agent. You can follow him on twitter at @AsaphBitner.