When did it become okay for superheroes to kill people? When did it become okay for them to let people die? If I were to put a rough date on it, I’d say May 3rd, 2002, when the first ‘Spider-Man’ movie was released in theaters. Roughly. But since then, it’s become a glaring, and increasingly wide gap between how superheroes were first depicted in comics, and how they’re depicted on screen. And not to put too fine a point on it, or get all hand-waving-in-the-air-y: this trend is the death of everything superheroes stand for.
Let’s take a little step back for context, because based on discussions with friends who weren’t raised on a bed of comic books, soaking in the four-color adventures of the ‘Man of Steel’, the ‘X-Men’, and more, the idea of a hero killing someone isn’t that strange.
In action movies in particular, the good guy HAS to kill the bad guy. Look at any Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sylvester Stallone flick – the holy trinity of ‘80s/’90s “super”heroes on film – and imagine the end of their movie without them shoving a gun in some dude’s mouth and blasting them away with a quippy catchphrase (I’m thinking, “Eat lead,” but really almost anything will do).
Killing terrorists to save the day is what tough guys do, right? Letting them live is a sign of weakness, a sign they’re not able to go the distance and finish things off.
On the flip side, you have the Disney method of letting the villain off themselves. In every Disney animated movie, the hero gets to the brink of stopping the bad guy… And then the villain accidentally falls off a cliff. Or a house, if you’re Gaston. But the hero of the movie is left blameless, and the villain causes their own demise.
But Disney cartoons, as we all know, are kids stuff. Kids need to live in that fantasy world, where everything is righteous all the time, and there’s no hard choices.
So there’s your filmic set-up, but what about comics? They’ve long straddled the line between kids entertainment, and fare for adults – a gap that’s of nearly constant discussion, given that the audience for comics ain’t getting any younger.
That said, the basic fact is this, and has been this for nearly seventy-five years: superheroes, in comic books, do not kill. They just don’t. The villain is stopped, they get locked away, and then a few months later Lex Luthor, The Joker, or Green Goblin are back to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting populace.
Then the ‘80s happened.
Around the same time Arnie and Sly started gracing our movie screens with their macho heroics, comics were also going through a growing period. With titles like Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Frank Miller and Alan Moore in particular pushed comics to reflect the times. They darkened their heroes, the situations, and the worlds. It increasingly became a debate in the plot of the comics themselves, whether heroes should use lethal force… And whether using lethal force made them into villains.
Characters like The Punisher and Wolverine, tough guy macho men who were increasingly popular on the racks - and were racking up sales - killed with abandon. And people loved it. Even Frank Miller’s Batman broke a lot more bones than the goofy, not so dark Knight who paraded around in the ‘60s and ‘70s. On the other hand, characters like Spider-Man and Superman always stood up to those folks, telling them there was always another way – it was about saving people, not killing bad guys.
As comic fans got older, and continuity became more important, fans – and fans who later became the writers tackling books today – started to question the revolving criminal door of the Marvel and DC Universes in particular. Why DIDN’T Batman kill The Joker, when one simple snap of the neck would save hundreds, if not thousands of lives? There’s a simple answer there, one established by Frank Miller (Mr. Gritty himself): that’s the line that separates heroes from villains. If you are a hero – a superhero – you never take the easy way out. You always believe there’s a germ of hope inherent in even the worst of people.
And that’s where comics have been for a few decades now.
Over in films, meanwhile, we’ve been seeing a disconnect, and something that, as a comic book fan, hasn’t sat well with me for a while. The dawn of the modern superhero movie was probably ‘X-Men’, but that played by the comic book rules. Magneto, and the rest of the evil mutants, lived to fight another day. Then two short years later, we got ‘Spider-Man’… And things changed.
At the end of the movie, as Spidey confronts the Green Goblin, GG prepares to kill Spider-Man with a super-sharp Goblin Glider. Peter appeals to his basic humanity, but Norman Osborn is too far gone. He fires the glider, Spider-Man jumps out of the way, and Norman is impaled. And then Spider-Man is wracked with guilt for two more movies.
There are a couple of points I want to highlight here: Spider-Man tries to help Norman; and there’s true, lasting consequences to the fact that he doesn’t save him. But… He could have. It’s a sticky point, and maybe muddles the argument, but there’s always a way for superheroes, right? Spider-Man could have figured out something. But we’re in movie land now, and in movie land the audience isn’t happy if the bad guy lives.
This is something that continued through the rest of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, with the villain dying at the end of each film. Usually by their own hand, per Disney Cartoon Rules. But it’s death nonetheless. Satisfying for the movie-going audience, not so much for the comic book fan.
And then there are Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which took things one rung further. In each of his takes on the Dark Knight, once again, the villain dies by their own hand… But Batman makes even less of an effort to save them. In ‘Batman Begins’, Bruce Wayne leaves Ra’s al Ghul to die on a crashing train. In ‘The Dark Knight’, he lets Two-Face drop to his death. And in ‘Dark Knight Rises’, he all but forces Talia al Ghul to kill herself, forcing her off an overpass by shooting at her with guns for about five solid minutes.
In all of these cases, there’s always another way, right? Given that he’s Batman, he has incredible tools at his disposal (what’s in the belt? Candy?), and has worked all the angles anyway. But instead, he lets these villains die because it would just be ever so slightly harder to save them.
Given all this darkness and destruction, the Marvel movie-verse has mostly been a nice change of pace. Loki survived two whole movies (‘Thor’ and ‘The Avengers’), and even the Red Skull was zapped to who-knows-where at the end of ‘Captain America’. The Iron Man movies have been an exception, but part of the essential character has been his slow march from warmonger to superhero, a leap Tony Stark truly made in ‘The Avengers’.
Which is why this Summer has been so upsetting, and the reason for this Op-Ed. Only took a thousand words to get there, right?
‘Iron Man 3’ is a great fun summer movie, with some deeper themes and excellent builds on the characters established throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But there’s one scene that glaringly stands out against all the rest. As Tony Stark is infiltrating the Mandarin’s (big terrorist baddie) hideout, he blasts away henchmen with weapons cobbled together from Home Depot. Mostly fine, and standard blood-less action movie fare. But after knocking one henchmen into a fountain, he walks away… And then comes back, just to put a bomb next to the guy’s face.
Mind you, this isn’t even a major bad guy who’s going to come back at any point, or threatened the hero’s girlfriend, or whatever motivation you need to help you sleep through the night. This is a hired thug who’s already been taken out, and Iron Man decides he needs one less face than he currently has. It’s a needless scene, and almost single-handedly destroys any character building Tony has gone through over the course of four movies (and sundry other appearances). He just kills a dude because it looks cool.
And then there’s the just released ‘Man of Steel’, and I’m going to plain lay out the end of the movie so turn back now. Seriously. Spoilers spoilers spoilers.
Still there? Cool. In the final fight between Superman and Zod, after Zod’s army has literally flattened most of Metropolis, Superman is faced with a choice: kill Zod to stop him from heat visioning a bunch of regular people, or keep fighting him forever. So Superman snaps Zod’s neck. Not paralyzed. Dead.
Superman kills Zod.
I’m going to let that sink in for a minute, because – and again, this is the disconnect between comic book fans, and regular people – Superman. Does. Not. Kill.
For fifty years, probably the most essential part of Superman’s character, beyond the dying planet, the Kents, the Daily Planet, Lois Lane, the many incredible powers, and the world-spanning villains is this: Superman always finds a way. Even when hope is lost, even when the odds are impossible. No matter what, he saves EVERYONE.
Superman’s not a master planner, he’s not sneaky… But when the chips are down, and there’s an evil planet hovering over ours with alien invaders ready to wreck the world, he pushes harder than anyone, and stops the bad guys. While Superman is around, nobody dies. Sure it’s fantasy that nobody would die with his epic fights, but he’s a frickin’ space alien wearing a skin-tight colorful suit who shoots fire out of his eyes. We’re not in the realm of documentary here.
And more than anything, he does not kill. Because even when the villain presents him with a choice, “Kill me, or save them Superman! Those are your only options!” There’s ALWAYS a third option. Always.
Here’s what I think it comes down to, and it’s a rather obvious point, but in order for a hero to not have two options - killing a villain or letting people die - the screenwriter has to think like a superhero and come up with a way. There’s always a way out, they just need to create one. But that’s tough, right? It’s easier to say, “Batman jumps away from the train, and feels the sads.” But that’s not good screenwriting, and that’s not what superheroes are about.
This, if you take anything away from this, is really what gets me… Superheroes are inspirations. They inspire us to be even better than the best of us, to aspire to be the pinnacle of who you can be. To always think of other people, to have the best interests of the world at heart, not just your own. And to always, always think of a third option.
My concern is that we’re sending kids to these movies, and for many of them ‘Iron Man 3’, or ‘Man of Steel’ is their first exposure to a hero. We’re showing them that even with all the powers in the world, and many, many options… Sometimes you just gotta snap a man’s neck.
That’s not good.
I’m not one of those alarmists, saying, “Think of the children!” and lamenting the amount of violence in movies. I LIKE Schwarzenegger movies, and Stallone movies, and movies where macho dudes fight machoier dudes with guns as big as their heads. But when it comes to superheroes, I do think there are certain things that are sacred, and more important than just selling popcorn and the latest toy line.
Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the rest are about instilling values in the world that will propel us into the future. They are the future, what we hope and dream we can be. Iron Man and Superman in particular exemplify that probably better than any other comic book creations: one is a man literally wearing the future on his body; the other an alien who shows us the true potential of human beings.
On screen, at least, they’re not living up to that promise, and that has to change.
There's another way, too. ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness,’ while not technically a superhero movie, presents an alternate, viable option for the superhero genre, a way to move forward. Khan (yeah, Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan – I said there’d be spoilers, right?) kills a ton of people, blowing up whole cities, and even murders Captain Kirk’s mentor Admiral Pike. Kirk goes on a mission of vengeance… But at the end of the movie, leaves Khan alive and in cryo-stasis. Because what’s killing going to get him? Is that going to bring Pike back? Is it going to make Kirk feel better? Nope. Instead, he’s brought Khan to justice, and he’s saved as many people as he could.
And that's what superheroes - and heroes - are supposed to do. Save as many people as they can... Even the villains. Here's hoping the next wave of superhero movies learn that lesson. Because we don't need more nihilism, more grittiness, more - ironically, given the one exception here is Star Trek Into Darkness - darkness on our screens, and in our lives. We need hope.
Here's hoping we get a little more of that on our screens next summer.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of MTV Geek.