Underneath My Mask: Can Superheroes Kill?

by Aaron Einhorn
WonderWomanMaxLordThis week’s column deals with an issue that has often been a sticking point for me about superheroes – namely, is it ok for superheroes to kill?

I have probably got into more arguments about this topic than any other single topic. I think debates about The Clone Saga and the merits of Superman Returns have been less contentious than deciding what should be a simple answer to the question “Can superheroes kill?”

And I, personally, am torn.

On the one hand, I fully realize that there are times in the battle between superhero and supervillain where the death of the villain is unavoidable. Sometimes it’s a case where the villain has put themselves into a fatal situation, and the hero was unable to save them in time. This situation doesn’t reflect on a lack of heroism on the part of the hero in my book, but it still ends with a dead supervillain, often accompanied by a remorse-filled hero.

There are other times that a superhero is put into a no-win situation, where the choice is to kill the villain, or allow a far worse situation to occur. Possibly the best example I can think of with that is the end of Season Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy killed Angel to, quite literally, prevent the apocalypse. This situation is far less cut-and-dried for me, with part of me saying “But a true superhero would find a way to win without letting anyone die,” but I don’t know that I believe it. Being a hero sometimes means making hard choices – choices that no one else would make, but I still find it difficult to accept a superhero making the choice to kill.

And then there are the times that a villain pushes the hero to the point that they feel they simply have no choice but to dispose of the villain. This isn’t the “Kill me, or this bomb goes off” situation, but is instead the “The bomb has gone off. And if you don’t kill me now, I’m going to do it again.” Think of the moments between Batman and the Joker at the climax of both The Killing Joke and Death in the Family, or between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin after the death of Gwen Stacy.

Sometimes the hero makes the choice to kill the villain, more often they restrain themselves. And when they make the choice to kill, that’s usually when they cross the line in my book.

I’m able to accept superheroes who kill when it is absolutely unavoidable. I’m not thrilled by it, but I’m willing to accept it. But once superheroes accept killing their opponent as a legitimate option, that is the point when they cross the line from being a superhero to… not.

It’s not that I don’t think you can still be a hero while being willing to kill. After all I consider soldiers in the military to be heroes. But I don’t think that you’re still a superhero at that point.

You’ll probably realize that “superheroes” like The Authority don’t get a lot of credit in my book, and I know that makes me a minority among comic fans. But I want my heroes to represent something greater and bigger than myself. It is easy for me to picture situations where I could want to kill someone. It is much more difficult for me to imagine being put in that situation and finding the moral restraint to do what is right, as opposed to what I would ant to do.

At their best, superheroes exist to make us want to be better than we are. And a hero who is willing to take the expedient route, instead of doing what is right, fails to inspire that sentiment. Heroes who kill those who we would, ourselves, want to see killed aren’t inspiring us to greater deeds. They’re serving as wish fulfillment fantasies.

Underneath My Mask features thoughts, ideas and opinions about superheroes in all forms of media. These ideas belong to Aaron and no one else – and he frequently finds himself in arguments about the ideas put forth here. Feel free to offer up your own arguments in the comments below.

Comments

  1. drackan27 says:

    Being a superhero isn’t about whether a hero kills or not to me. Instead it revolves around whether a hero strives to be like the pinnacle hero in his or her universe.

    There are pinnacle superheroes like Superman or Batman who should never kill. They serve not only do they show comicbook readers what a superhero should be, but they usually set the standard that most heroes try to meet.. I’m fine with these heroes being tempted to kill their foes, but they should never kill . . . EVER.

    The majority of heroes in a comic universe strive to live up the standard that the pinnacle heroes set. The burden of being a hero usually weighs heavily on their shoulders and sometimes they give into thier emotions and kill (like Captain America letting terrorists fall to their death after the dissolution of the Avengers). Their failure to live up to such standards makes them more human and therefore more relatable to me as a reader. This helps me admire them more when they do overcome their emotions and achieve the standards set by the pinnacle heroes.

    When a hero fails to be a superhero is when they don’t strive to meet the pinnacle standard. Wolverine falls into this camp from time to time depending on who is writing him. When Wolverine kills and rids himself of all guilt with a simple shrug of the shoulders, I don’t consider him to be a superhero. When Wolverine kills and then deals with the guilt of his actions, questions whehter he is a monster or not, and wonders if he can live up to the pinnacle standard, then he is a superhero.

    All superheroes should aspire not to kill their foes, but sometimes they fall short of the goal. I don’t view killing someone as grounds for discontinuing their status as a superhero as long as they try to correct their mistake and keep trying to meet the standard set by the pinnacle heroes.

  2. Nord Ronnoc says:

    Most superheroes these days are cowards! Supervillans have no right to live, so that’s why they should be killed! They should grow some balls!

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