“Heroes Don’t Kill” – A Discussion

What does it take to see Justice done?

I have been working my way through the Solo Avengers comic book series, readers. For those who don’t know, Solo Avengers was a twenty-issue series that focused almost exclusively on Hawkeye who was then the leader of the West-Coast Avengers. After the first issue, though, the books are split in half; the first half follows Hawkeye’s adventures while the second follows a different Avenger or Marvel hero’s adventure.

The reading has been fun, and I can’t tell you what a treasure trove the series has been. Not just from a writing perspective, either; the series gives a glimpse into the era of the 1980s. Admittedly, I never saw that era, but I grew up during some of the “afterglow.” That is to say, I missed the ‘90s “Edge” for the most part and absorbed a lot of the feeling from the ‘80s. I accomplished this in two ways: by the simple expedient of filtering my entertainment and through my parents’ determination to make sure I saw only good stories. We didn’t watch “Edgy” stuff because, for the most part, it wasn’t entertaining. It was ugly and depressing. So we watched older and/or newer material that was wholesome, fun, and good.

But it has been about twenty years since that time, and the afterglow of the 1980s is long gone. So long gone that it is easy to forget what it was like. The present tends to obscure the past more easily than people may like to admit, and current events have largely dragged our eyes down to less appealing visions. Most have little to do with fiction, of course, but that’s a discussion for another time.

One of the reasons why I bring up Solo Avengers is due to the fact that it relates to this article by J.D. Cowan. Here he wrote a post taking on the anti-hero trend that has been rampant in fiction since at least the 1990s. I enjoyed it and I agree with his points completely. But it got me thinking about the superhero code of “do not kill.”

I have heard a lot of people say that Batman, for instance, is a wimp because he won’t kill his enemies. The Shadow and his counterpart, the Spider, were much more likely to deal with their adversaries permanently (though the Spider did have some recurring nemeses in his books). Punisher famously murders almost all of his opponents, as does Deadpool. Thus the Avengers and the Justice League are chumps for letting their adversaries live.

There is some merit to this criticism. The Joker, for example, really shouldn’t be allowed to run around as much as he has been able to in the comics. Caesar Romero’s interpretation was probably the most harmless variant, while the rest should be locked in a dark hole where no one can find them until long after they have expired. (No, I don’t like the Joker. Haven’t you heard how bad clowns are for one’s health?) Likewise, the Red Skull should have been given the axe, and so on and so forth.

But – and yes, you knew there was going to be a but – there is something to be said for heroes who don’t kill as a rule, who only kill in extremes. The main problem, as I see it, is that comic book writers of earlier eras took a hardline stance on the heroes not killing the villains. Period, end of story. This is in contrast to Stan Lee and co., the original writers, who did have the heroes kill their enemies. It may have been unintentional, but it did happen.

One example of this is when Captain America accidentally brings about the death of Baron Heinrich Zemo, Helmut Zemo’s father. (There was a reason he mentioned his father in the Civil War film.) Cap had his shield up at the same time Heinrich brought up a laser gun to kill him. Light reflecting off the shield blinded the Baron and he fired his gun in the wrong direction. It started a rockslide that killed him, and Cap and Rick Jones buried him near the base where the Nazi had set up shop in South America.

In the Iron Man story “The Night Phantom Walks!”, Tony Stark doesn’t save the bad guy. Admittedly, he’s holding onto his then-girlfriend, and the bad guy is standing in a radioactive pool. He cannot exactly drop the girl and pick up his nemesis – not fast enough to save them both. But the bad guy does die on Tony Stark’s watch and, one could argue (particularly in today’s morally confused time) that he should have tried.

By this circuitous route, we return to Hawkeye. Until Brian Michael Bendis got his hands on the character, Hawkeye was notably reluctant to kill adversaries – sometimes foolishly so. Under Bendis’ pen he wavered back and forth; by now, I do not know where he stands on the issue. More than likely nowhere, since the current editors and writers at Marvel Comics are too busy chasing Twitter tweets to write much these days.

We will get to my take on the “kill/don’t kill” topic momentarily, but I want to point out why Hawkeye did his best to avoid killing in earlier comics. It is an important issue, one that is often lost in the debate between extremes at this time. For all that talk of balance most people today quickly divide into camps of excess: Either the heroes must never kill, or they must kill without exception.

This is where the main issue lies for me. There are good reasons for characters to capture rather than kill their enemies most of the time, or to kill very reluctantly. I wish Marvel and DC had understood this more and dealt with the topic as well as the MCU does, but that never happened. Or if it did, it occurred in the early comics and was brought to a halt by the time Solo Avengers was written.

Punisher is a much-loved anti-hero, and I cannot say he has not earned the affection. However, this does not make his path correct, heroic, or admirable, something the writers made clear in the past. Punisher’s crusade is never-ending, and this has driven him mad – raving insane – in the past. He tried to kill Spider-Man in one of his early appearances because the latter was badmouthed continually by the media as a menace and a threat. Frank Castle had been slaughtering criminals by the boatload for so long that he snapped and attacked an innocent person.

This is where the “kill all the bad guys” policy runs up against a problem. It isn’t strictly just, something Mr. Cowan points out in his article. If the protagonist is just as vicious, just as horrible, and just as cruel as his enemies then he is not a hero. There is nothing heroic about the Punisher’s crusade: He wallows in the same crimes as the monsters he slays. His targets may be murderers and all manner of filth, but he himself has descended to murder to “clean them up.”

More to the point, he is one man; they are many, and they are never-ending. Evil will never go away or be uprooted. Killing all the gangbangers, murderers, mobsters, et al in New York City is impossible. To paraphrase HYDRA’s rallying cry, no matter how many human monsters the Punisher murders, there will always be more to take their place. This is why he loses his mind – if only temporarily – and attacks Spider-Man. He has been trapped in the mire of human filth for so long that he can no longer distinguish between innocence and guilt, between hero and villain.

As G.K. Chesterton said in the Father Brown mystery, “The Flying Stars,” man can keep a certain level of good. He cannot keep a certain level of evil. The more wickedness a man practices, the farther into iniquity he falls. At the bottom of the well he finds only insanity – a madness which death itself is not likely to alleviate, if the descriptions of Hell are any indicator.

Now, in contrast to the Punisher, we have the “never shoots to kill” Hawkeye. While I have a problem with Bendis making the archer eager to kill, I have an equal dislike of the character’s earlier ban on killing his adversaries. It is ridiculous; one cannot fight villains of the kind seen in Marvel Comics (as well as DC comics and numerous other stories) without having to kill one of the bad guys. Sooner or later it is going to happen, for the simple reason that there will be no other way to save an innocent life.

This is what occurs in one of the endings for Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again. Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil, is forced to kill some of the bad guys to save innocent lives. There is no way for him to avoid it; if the good people are to live, the bad guys have to die. So he pulls the trigger while silently praying for forgiveness because, unsurprisingly, he would prefer not to kill anyone.

Remind you of something? It should. Steve Rogers’ first test in The First Avenger came when Dr. Erskine asked him if he wanted to kill Nazis. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” Steve says. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”

Of course, Cap ends up killing a great many Nazis during his service in World War II. He doesn’t cry about it – it’s a war, after all. In a war, a soldier’s job is to “make the other guy die for his country,” to paraphrase General Patton. The same goes for superheroes, which we see in the MCU. Aside from a bunch of no-name HYDRA goons, Baron Strucker, and the Maximoff twins, in Age of Ultron none of the Avengers have a problem using lethal force if it is necessary. In the battle to take the Sokovian HYDRA base, they do in fact kill a number of HYDRA soldiers.

In the comics, especially in previous eras, readers don’t really see this because censorship laws and moral squeamishness precluded the writers from going in this direction often. At the same time, though, some characters – like Hawkeye – had a good reason for being skittish about killing their opponents. In Solo Avengers, during the reveal of Clint Barton’s true backstory, readers learn that he spent part of his adolescence being trained by an assassin named Trick Shot. Trick Shot enjoyed killing which disgusted Clint but he kept learning from the man because he loved archery.

Then, one night, the future Avenger unknowingly took part in one of Trick Shot’s operations. When someone snuck up behind him, the adolescent archer turned and fired without looking too closely at who was approaching him. Worried he had killed the man, Clint went to check on him – only to find that he had shot his older brother who had abandoned him some years prior.

It is easy to see why, between Trick Shot’s diabolical behavior and the accidental near-killing of his own brother, Hawkeye would be a little more determined than most Avengers to avoid using lethal force. While I dislike the fact that the writers leaned so hard on it for their stories, I can say it is a legitimate reason for his stance on not killing anyone. Coming that close to being the monster that his mentor was, it makes sense for Hawkeye to refuse the idea of killing his opponents in combat.

Should this determination have been challenged? Absolutely. The writers came close later on, when Hawkeye’s mother-in-law and wife were threatened by his nemesis Crossfire. Hawkeye was furious and wondered if he shouldn’t kill the villain. He didn’t, in the end, and it was probably for the best: Killing in anger is different than killing in self-defense or defense of others.

That, honestly, is where the challenge should have come in; this is where the wariness of heroes who say “don’t kill” ought to be tested. When there is no other option and the hero cannot make another option there is only one recourse left. No matter how much the hero may not want to do it, resolving the situation any other way is impossible.

While it has flaws (and is currently barreling downhill in terms of quality), the first ten years of the MCU were fairly even-handed in their portrayal of the heroes killing the villains. Individual writers would do well to take their cue from that and build from it, I think. There are times when it is better for the hero to stay his hand rather than kill in anger (Hawkeye), and there are times when the hero has no choice but to end the villain’s threat permanently (Daredevil). The Punisher stands as an able warning, and he has a place in fiction as well.

As do the Shadow and the Spider. Do not think I disregard J.D. Cowan’s points in his article; these two pulp heroes of the ‘30s and ‘40s were not wrong. The writer who had Batman lording his moral superiority over the Shadow was mistaken. (Note, I do not say that Batman is wrong not to kill. He has not been challenged on this front often. That is a failure on DC’s part if only because they have not supplied a consistent concrete reason for his refusal to take this step if it proves necessary. I don’t think “because I may never stop” quite cuts it, since it is implicit rather than stated.) Those who refuse to let the superheroes they write face reality – something which the MCU, adhering to Hollywood storytelling conventions, did not flinch from doing – are in error.

Superheroes are, in general, supposed to uphold the law. They are not judge, jury, and executioner nor are they meant to be. While they have been used in fiction to support the status quo, as Mr. Cowan says, that is not their purpose either. My Hero Academia deals with superheroes who have been used to maintain the status quo and are now faced with that world falling apart around them. The rules they were tasked with enforcing are melting before their eyes as the society they have held in place for decades decays before them.

This has led the protagonists of the series – Deku and Class 1-A – to step up and stand up for the ideals all heroes ought to strive for, whether they are “super” or not. A similar shift may yet occur in the Western comic world, though it is doubtful that change will come from “the Big Two.” New writers inspired by original Marvel and DC comics, My Hero Academia, The Shadow and the Spider, are moving on to the scene. Like the world of MHA, our world is undergoing a change as well and something new may come out of that.

More than likely, it will be evident in the stories we tell ourselves. Those are already changing, taking on new shapes and new forms. The MCU, long seen as a paean to comicdom, may in fact be the bridge between the past portrayal of superheroes and the coming view of them. It all depends on our view of it – and what we are willing to learn from it.

I choose to see what can be learned from it, and to build upon what I learn. If that interests you as much as this post (hopefully) did, then be sure to check out my Amazon Author Page through this Affiliate Link. You can also check out my website, www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com, for more content. And please, stay tuned for more fiction. You do not want to miss what comes next!

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