Comic Book Conundrum: To kill or not to kill?

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Today, I wanted to take a look at the most well-known moral stance in DC comics: Superman and Batman, and their choice not to kill.

I think we all know the deal. Neither Superman nor Batman will intentionally take the life of a villain. Many a story arc has revolved around the moral implication of this. For anyone wishing for an example, I would recommend two DC animated movies: Batman: Under the Red Hood and Superman vs. The Elites. Each of these movies provides an excellent, albeit very different, commentary on the effects of their moral stances. I'm recommending movies and TV episodes throughout this piece because I feel they are easier to locate and digest over their paper counterparts.

Is this stance right? Wrong? Are Superman and Batman actually responsible for more suffering than they ever prevent because of this choice? These questions are always present when a writer attempts to tackle this construct.

How can you justify letting a super villain live so he can kill again? If we consider the usual suspects, it seems like an easy decision. The Joker, Lex Luther, Black Mask, Darkseid. . . how many countless lives would have been saved had the “heroes” simply removed these scoundrels from the world after their first, second, third… any of their murderous crime sprees?

(Ironically, the Joker was supposed to die in his first story, but the editor saved his life after realizing what a great character he was.)

The stance becomes even more farfetched when looking at Superman specifically. At least in Batman’s stories, the villains are ordinary, albeit psychotic, humans. Many of the Man of Steel’s rogues gallery are villains that only Superman can handle. Incredible strength, magic powers, nigh invulnerability… these are just a few of the dangers that Superman deals with on a regular basis. Much of the time, there is just a faint hope that these intergalactic menaces might leave the Earth alone after Superman punches them enough. Superman choosing not to kill seems, at best, naïve, and at worst, criminally irresponsible—bordering on malicious indifference to the suffering they cause.

Justice Lord Superman doesn't have the same qualms about killing

Justice Lord Superman doesn't have the same qualms about killing

The personal reason behind this position is apparent. Killing people is just not something that a “good guy” does. But, shouldn't our supposed protectors put aside their own personal morals for the good of those they purport to protect? Can’t we forgive them their transgressions because they ARE the good guys?

This is what makes the world of comic books so amazing. Comic books are a world of frivolous fantasy where one can escape from the mundane into the fantastic. It is also a world of parallels and analogies. At least on this point, Superman doesn’t just stand for “truth, justice, and the American way,” he is America--representing the writer's ideal of what America is. Considering Superman’s stance on killing, it makes me, as an American; consider what transgressions I forgive my government in its efforts to protect me.

Superman draws the line, though. Our Superman doesn’t kill. He doesn’t subvert the justice systems established by us lowly humans. Superman knows that it’s a fine line between protector and tyrant—or fascist dictator as shown in the Justice League two part story “A better world”. Who is he to cast judgment from on high?

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What about Batman? Is Batman’s position more reasonable since his brand of criminal is rooted more in the psychological than in the super powered?

Batman’s stance is much less noble than that of Superman. Where Superman has chosen to not use his powers to act as a god figure, Batman chooses not to kill to distinguish himself from the criminals he struggles against.

Batman’s reasoning rings hollow to me for a number of reasons:

Bringing this back to the real world for a second, if a police officer kills a criminal do we then consider the officer on the same level as the criminal? Generally, no; we understand as a society that some situations necessitate the use of deadly force by those we entrust to protect us. That is why our legal system distinguishes between murder and killing. Murder is defined by the malicious intent of the actor whereas killing is something done by police and soldiers (as well as accidental slayings). While Batman may not be a police officer or a soldier; within the context of the comic book universe, he is the protector of Gotham.

Secondly, Batman is already a criminal, even without indulging in killing. Throughout his time as the Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has broken almost every single law that society has (I bet the bat mobile doesn’t even meet emission standards!). On top of the obvious crimes like assault and breaking and entering, Batman often breaks less obvious laws such as stalking and peeping tom laws. If Batman’s goal is to set himself apart from the criminal class, he does a poor job of it.

Maybe it’s just a matter of conscience for Batman. Maybe the man, Bruce Wayne, can justify all of those other crimes to himself, but his conscience would not allow him to forgive crossing that line. Fair enough. At least this answer would be an honest one. This still begs the question of whether or not Batman should kill.

Batman is in a unique position in the DC universe. Although he may not always be fighting the super powered, Batman has the distinction of matching up against the villain with the single highest body count of any single rogue in DC comics. I am speaking, of course, of the Joker.

It’s one thing for Batman to choose not to kill street criminals, or villains such as Two-Face or the Penguin; but, the Joker? On top of all the faceless civilians that the Joker has murdered, the Joker has done such heinous, and personal, acts as beating Robin, Jason Todd, to death with a crowbar; crippling Batgirl, Barbara Gordon; and murdering Commissioner Gordon’s wife for fun. Time after time Batman has captured and locked the Joker away in Arkham Asylum, and time after time the Joker has escaped--only to continue his killing ways. More so than any other character across any medium, the Joker is a force of nature whose only purpose is to cause pain and chaos.

Yet, through all of this, Batman won’t stop him.

I don’t know what the answer is here. I don’t know if Batman would be my hero if he began to execute criminals. It’s easy to say that he should, but we all know that Bruce Wayne is just as insane as the criminals he fights—so traditional logic is wasted on this problem.

What I do know is that Batman and Superman both would have saved a lot more people by killing than they otherwise have.