Why don’t Superheroes Kill?

(in which I ruminate about the various reasonings about why heroes do what they do – or don’t)
(also it is dedicated to Linkara)

META

The first and most obvious rationale for why heroes don’t kill is that unless you set up a legacy villain*, once the bad guy/gal is dead you can’t tell any more stories with them.  That really sucks if the antagonist had perfect “conflict chemistry” with your protagonists.  Well, you could do a villain that keeps coming back but once death is cheapened it’s much harder to draw drama from the stories.  So as a writer, it’s usually a good idea to find some justification for your heroes to avoid killing.

*Now there’s a story I’d love to write for DC: Is the Joker just one man???**

However, before we figure out why a hero shouldn’t kill, we must determine for what reason a hero might kill in the first place.  For the moment, let’s set aside all the debates about justice and deterrence (not that they’re unimportant, it’s just beyond the scope of many comics to deal with) and instead focus on a matter that’s not discussed as often: recidivism reduction.  Let’s be honest here, a dead criminal is one unlikely to repeat their crimes, and in a universe of cardboard jails (i.e. 99% of comics) that is a big concern to the heroes.  So in almost all discussions, that has to be the riddle we tackle: why not put a permanent end to an individual’s crime spree?

THE BIG TWO

Superman

First, let’s look at Superman.  No, let’s back up, and look at God or at least, the Divine as a concept.  A human is a thing of incomparable worth; all the measures by which we grade wealth in this world are, creations by people – people are the source and font of all wealth.  So to have any person die (especially by a willful act like execution) is to lose something of great value to the society, especially since as willful beings, a human that’s unproductive or harmful now (like a criminal) could redeem themselves and become a great asset to society, this is why most sane societies are reluctant to execute.  This then leads us to one of the justifications for a Divine Being executing someone.  A being that is omniscient is one that can at least be 100% certain about a person’s guilt, and a reasonable estimation on whether that person can be redeemed or not (setting aside the implications of free will for the moment); thus we have one reason why many faiths might be ok with the concept of God(s) executing someone.

This brings us ultimately to Superman and here we have two aspects.  First is that of the public’s perception of him.  Depending on how public his power set is, people at least are aware that Superman isn’t as limited to location as most mortals are and he has senses very different from ours.  As far as many of them know, he could have the same rights to execute someone as any divine being: certainty of guilt and remoteness of redemption.

However, the second aspect is that of Superman’s perspective.  Whatever else anyone believes, he knows that he is not really divine (and Doomsday proved how mortal Supes can be).  Ultimately he seeks, he longs to fit in with the world that has adopted him and while he might always be just a little outside of humanity, he would still be closer than if he took up executions.  Doing so would create an insurmountable gulf between him and humanity that not even the Man of Steel could cross.  By refusing to kill, Superman makes a continuing effort to be a part of us.

And what about all the times involving aliens or things not of earth?  For the same reason that alcoholics cannot drink even under reasonable circumstances.  To be as powerful as Superman is to enter an all or nothing state.  Slippery slopes are a lot more dangerous when you have super speed.

Batman

But then, what about the opposite side?  More normal characters like Batman don’t have the same concerns as Superman and his ilk.  Indeed, the very creation of the identity of Batman is to separate from the group, from society.  Heck in a lot of instances it clearly is justifiable homicide and he wouldn’t be guilty of anything by law or greater morality.

There is a principle (I hope my more intelligent readers – which of course is all of you – will help me find the term for this) that when a lawful governing structure fails to perform its proper duty, citizens have a right, neigh a responsibility, to take up that duty instead.  Batman is about the failing of a system, the corruption of a governing authority.  Just as cops don uniforms when executing their duties (because in doing so they become not individuals, but symbols and representatives of the system they serve), so Batman must don a symbol to represent the system he alone champions.  But it’s considerably more complicated when talking about a democracy or republic.

With a democracy (like a city and/or city council), the public makes a large agreement on how they want to operate as a society.  This agreement forms laws which subdivide into two parts: what is banned, and the punishment for the violation of said ban.  In this country, in the city of Gotham, the public has decided that punishment will not be meted out immediately, but will be determined by a due process in order that the innocent not suffer.  Batman, in his efforts to be a symbol of the people’s decisions (the job corrupt cops have vacated), cannot violate this due process (as it would ruin his efforts).  Thus he works only to capture.  If the public votes and decides that criminals, even those as vile as the Joker, are not to be killed, then Batman will not kill them as to do so would be a violation of his very being.

And since a lot of his efforts come from suffering the trauma of losing a loved one at a young age, his efforts are not only to fight corruption, but Death itself, and so he cannot stand to be even an instrument of his truth archenemy.

ADDENDUM

Of course all of this kind of leads to fridge logic about why wouldn’t death penalties be more popular across the DCU.  I know we have things like “insanity pleas” but honestly, if someone like the Joker truly terrorized a society as consistently as he does everyone in the DCU, the summary execution of all clowns would probably become a constitutional amendment.  And that’s including that in a world of mind control, shape-shifters, time travel, clones, alternate universes and even murder victims coming back to life, it would probably be impossible to convict anyone.  Discuss among yourselves.

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**Of course, I’d end the story as ambiguous as possible because… well it’s the Joker!

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5 thoughts on “Why don’t Superheroes Kill?

  1. Your Batman analysis is spot-on, in my opinion. Batman has no desire to be judge, jury, and executioner. His role is to ensure the justice system is able to work by catching the criminals that the ordinary police can’t, whether because they’re crazies like the Joker, beyond the scope of ordinary people’s ability to capture like Clayface, or because they’re able to hide their crimes. When he’s not able to have them tried fairly, he at least attempts to thwart criminals’ plans, like the League of Assassins’ endless plots. Passing judgment on them has never been part of his shtick.

    I guess to put it another way, he wants to stop crime, not criminals. If they shape up, he doesn’t really care about them anymore (unless he suspects they’re not going to stay shaped up). Case in point, when Harley, Ivy, and Catwoman were living together not long ago. They weren’t causing (too much) trouble, so he didn’t bother them (too much).

  2. The Indiana Jones solution to MANY of the psychopaths would be popular.

    Crazy guy: *fancy show-off prep to kill you*
    Prospective victim: *waits until they’ve got a clear shot, two to the chest and one to the head*

    Hey, maybe that’s why we never see superheroes in BFN, Redstate! They’re always in Chicago or New York…..

  3. Your asking a logical question in an illogical fantasy universe. Why not ask “Why Superheroes don’t demand the cities they defend don’t pay them money for the voluntary services they provide?” or “Why Police, Firefighters, and other Emergency Service agents aren’t all given superpowers so Superheroes are made useless?” or “Why you can’t eat brontosaurus burgers at McDonalds?”

    There are hundreds of real reason why Superheroes don’t kill. Because you’d like to distinguish the heroes and villains in the story your telling. If Heroes can simply kill off noteworthy Supervillain they’d logically figure why not kill the non-superpowered criminals. An then we get into “George Zimmerman” territory where Batman and Superman decide who the badguys are. Criminal Actions no longer qualify at some point and random people can get executed as they walk home because they happened to step into an alley where someone was found dead and the vengeful public expects they’re local hero to serve up their criminal on a bloody pike.

    At the end its a fun topic to discus to see who will respond, but should a teller at McDonalds be fired because a customer is pissed because they were told “Brontosaurus Burgers don’t exist” and “Should we really feel like “Superheroes” should kill because the readership is so old now that they demands adult content in its children’s stories.

  4. ” An then we get into “George Zimmerman” territory where Batman and Superman decide who the badguys are. ”

    No, we get into George Zimmerman territory where Batman and Superman treat the criminal who has self identified as such. Unless you are prepared to disallow self-defense entirely, Which, you obviously are.

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