[WARNING: This article includes SPOILERS for Batman V Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Star Wars, and other superhero blockbusters.]
There's never been a bigger spotlight on blockbuster battles between superheroes, with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice pitting two of DC Comics' biggest stars against eachother, while Marvel enjoys a skirmish of its own in Captain America: Civil War. In both films, however, it isn't just a difference of politics or world views that raises the stakes - it's the human cost that's tallied when the dust of a superhero movie adventure settles.
For Marvel, it's a sober reminder that for all the time spent clearing civilians from danger in Age of Ultron or taking the brunt of alien attacks, people die when superheroes leap into action. Meanwhile, DC's new Batman (Ben Affleck) arrives to hold Superman accountable for the thousands of deaths caused by the Kryptonian brawl in Man of Steel. But that wasn't the only bodycount that viewers of Zack Snyder's Justice League introduction took to task.
Seeing the reckless destruction of Man of Steel - criticized at the time for being, seemingly, meaningless - actually justify the sequel ended up as merely a footnote to Snyder's latest mistake: under his watch, Batman had become a ruthless killer. But while some fans claimed that a lethal Batman was faithful to the comics, and others ruled it blasphemy deserving of scorn for the film as a whole, we realized one fact was being overlooked.
Whether or not a killer Batman 'fits' with his previous incarnations, a killer Batman absolutely fits in with his fellow big screen superheroes: a jam-packed genre of costumed and caped heroes starring in billion-dollar morality plays. Morality plays that, one would assume, deal with the morality and consequences of defending, sacrificing, and taking lives as a fundamental aspect of their storytelling - just like their comic counterparts. But it isn't so.
Ever the beacon of humanity's darker side, Batman hasn't just shown us that you can't be a superhero without killing these days - but that we don't even notice anymore.
Zack Snyder Presents: The Killer Batman
Yes, Batman kills in Dawn of Justice. And for those lucky enough to have avoided contentious debates over the film as a whole, this fact became one of the most succinctly delivered: just as Snyder had ruined Superman (in the eyes of many) by having him kill his enemy in Man of Steel, he had similarly ruined or perverted the idea of Batman - who "never uses guns or kills" - by having him wound and kill Gotham's criminals.
By now it's well documented that those statements, at face value, aren't completely true (and there are plenty of articles detailing that issue already). It didn't really matter to the discussion that Batman has, and does take lives in the comics he's born from.
It doesn't matter (say the detractors) because Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. aren't telling one-off, "Elseworlds" stories soon to be written out of canon or continuity. They're building a shared universe of films and characters that will, if all goes according to plan, live on for decades.
And in that movie universe constructed by Zack Snyder (and continuing in his Justice League films) the two biggest stars of DC Comics - the two biggest comic book characters of all time - have become, in the words of his detractors, murderers. Superman, the shining beacon of the superhero genre who has embodied goodness since his first appearance, snapped the neck of his enemy. Now a comic book vigilante who swore never to kill after seeing his parents senselessly murdered in front of him is portrayed angrier than ever, and kills without hesitation.
Once the shock subsided, we had to ask ourselves one question: in a movie industry that makes billions from films in which a 'hero' shows his strength and courage by... well, killing bad guys, why is it that we're seeing these stories, these heroes, differently? More importantly, how is it that we're NOT seeing the killing everywhere else?
Context Matters, Right? 'Killing' Isn't Always 'Murder'
Taking one look around the blockbuster movie field (or reading any action/adventure novels, playing similar video games, etc.) shows that audiences feel very, very differently about murder on the big screen than in the real world. That in itself isn't shocking news to anyone - Indiana Jones murdered several foes for a laugh - but the cost of human life driving the plots behind both Marvel and DC's biggest hits offers one explanation most would probably agree with. When it comes to big screen heroes, it's the villains who commit murders - the hero only kills the people who deserve it.
That's a good enough explanation, at least, for the heroes for whom killing or fatally wounding with precision is what makes them important in the first place. Wolverine is famous because his mutations make him an unstoppable killing machine (who doesn't harm innocents), and Deadpool proved a billion-dollar fan favorite for the same reason... the fact that he, and the tone of the film, made a joke of it only added to the enjoyment.
The same rules apply to more than comic book superheroes, but literally any movie hero who is, for all intents and purposes, superhuman. Which means Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) of Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) or Die Hard's John McClane (Bruce Willis) can all kill their enemies without a second thought, and the audience won't read it as some kind of loss of morality, integrity, or innocence. It is what these heroes do, which also means the deaths they cause don't actually have to mean anything in the grand scheme of things.
To Be a Hero These Days, Killing is Practically a Must
If you're a superhero at the heart of a major blockbuster franchise, you're likely a killer. Maybe not a murderer (that's for the courts, or audience to decide), but it really is staggering when you take stock of the biggest heroes in Hollywood, and the bodycounts they've wracked up in their ascent to glory. Especially when the ones doing the killing are heroes aimed squarely at children, and the ones they're killing can't even be said to deserve it on their own film's terms.
Nobody will weep for the stormtroopers sent against the Rebel Alliance in the original Star Wars series, but that notion changed when The Force Awakens put the audience into the boots (or under the helmet) of a new Stormtrooper, FN-2187 (John Boyega), a boy stolen as a child and raised to serve the First Order. Training or not, "Finn" shows his character and heroism when he just can't bring himself to kill villagers harboring enemies of the Order, and instead pursues what's right, betraying his oaths, freeing a prisoner, and making a run for it.
Soon, the true star of the new trilogy emerges: a young girl who, with Finn's help, successfully escapes the First Order's forces. Not by outsmarting, outmaneuvering or just outrunning them, mind you - but killing them. Using the Force to do it, the group of heroes heads out to kill dozens, if not hundreds of soldiers without wasting even a moment's consideration on them. And quite literally, Rey's (Daisy Ridley) first step towards greatness was only made possible by taking a stand against the First Order... in the form of taking lives.
As a general rule, enemy lives are pretty meaningless in this series: the more faceless the enemy forces, the better. But remember that the movie made a point of revealing that many (if not most) of the modern stormtroopers were kidnapped as children and trained to defend the Order, or face horrible consequences. The mentioning of the attractiveness of a clone army (unlikely to exhibit such insubordination) implies Finn's defection is not isolated, and there are more potential defectors in the ranks.
Even Han Solo (Harrison Ford), once famously retconned NOT to be a cutthroat killer, looks on as he, with the help of our heroes, sends two different gangs to their brutal death (after they have arrived to collect a debt that, we're led to believe, actually is owed). J.J. Abrams and co. are rightfully praised for ingenuity and originality for dispelling one of the most widely held beliefs of Star Wars fans: showing the men and women beneath the white armor of the Empire aren't faceless, at all. In fact, one of the film's most unlikely heroes lives beneath one.
But these heroes need somebody to kill. So minutes later, the filmmakers go back to presenting stormtroopers as faceless cannon fodder, whose deaths are met with cheers from the film's heroes (and, ideally, the audience).
Marvel's Many Murderers
As further proof that studios can simply kill villains without remorse, one need look no farther than Marvel's Cinematic Universe; what has become a regular billion-dollar superhero movie factory. And its stance on murder (not having one) came from the start. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) may be the most brilliant man in the world, able to invent or retrofit his way out of anything with a technical failsafe or trick up his sleeve, but it hasn't stopped him from killing every villain he's come up against.
Making his debut killing terrorists, things were amped up for his first villain. Instead of outsmarting the clearly inferior Obadiah Stane's armor, he killed him. Instead of proving he was smarter than Ivan Vanko in the sequel, he (and Rhodey) killed him. And instead of 'curing' Aldrich Killian of his Extremis powers like he eventually did Pepper Potts (after choosing to blow a hole through his henchman's chest, complete with one-liner), he killed him... well, tried to, before Pepper killed him.
Marvel isn't at fault here, since the audience - like the audiences of most blockbuster films - clearly doesn't care. Bad guys kill people, and it's bad. Good guys kill them, and... honestly, don't even bother thinking about it. Since their mandate, like the other adventures mentioned above is simply to entertain, the nameless, faceless corpses these heroes leave in their wake - like the non-lethal solutions the writers could have come up with - is something audiences are expected to just ignore, and not ask questions about.
But what happens when the filmmakers tell a story that looks at the audience, and actually asks that they DO?
What Happens When Deaths Start to Matter?
If murder is something the villain does (because they're bad), and killing is something some heroes must do (because they're good, and have to stop bad), why is the obvious grey area between the two so largely ignored? Unless, of course, the writer or director determines it's something the audience should think about, as is the case with Captain America: Civil War - a story built around the cost of human life that, at least on screen, was avoided at all costs. We speak of innocent lives lost, obviously, since the killing of enemy soldiers and villains remains something neither audience members or the filmmakers care about (seriously, the fact that armed men were shot dead by the Avengers on foreign soil is never mentioned in any news coverage).
The question of not killing - as one would expect from the Star-Spangled Man, Captain America (Chris Evans) - is brought to the forefront in Civil War, when Cap and Bucky are forced to flee from police officers sent to arrest/kill the former Winter Soldier for a crime he did not commit. While Bucky fights to escape, Steve must keep fatalities to a minimum. It's a memorable sequence, too, characterizing Cap as a man willing to risk his own safety to protect those mistakenly believing him to be their enemy.
The fact that the Avengers covertly enter a sovereign nation, kill several unknown men in crowded places, and the entire world only cares about the 'innocent' people injured is weird, if nothing else. Audiences might not even flinch as Cap and his team shoot down goons, remove their gas masks to inhale toxic fumes, or throw them from third-story windows, but are stunned into silence as an innocent life is ended by accident. But use that genre and audience buy-in to tell a story that is actually about the human lives they've ended without even noticing, and eventually, keeping things just as fun while dealing with such heavy material will be easier said than done.
The near-universal critical praise for Civil War (and similar successes like The Wolverine and The Force Awakens) shows that it's obviously not a problem for critics; the most popular superheroes can kill as they please - or in the case of Cap's Avengers, continue to shoot, drop, and smash the skulls and spines of their enemies (no blood or bodybag, no death?) as much as they please. If the filmmakers don't ASK the audience to wonder if it's excessive or problematic, they probably won't.
Unless, for some reason, people really want to think about it.
People Really Don't Want To Think About It
As mentioned above, most big screen superheroes who've taken the life of an enemy aren't painted as murderers - especially not if doing so means ignoring the heroism and virtue that every other aspect of the story shows them to possess. And the fact holds true for even the most famous, most iconic superheroes the world over: DC's juggernaut superheroes, Batman and Superman. But the arrival of Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice brought a very different response - one that, no matter how you feel about the films, their stories, or their competition - is one worth dissecting, since it sheds light on just how strange this issue really is (and how rarely people consider it).
As much as anything else, both Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder's adaptations of Superman and Batman have been stories about killing, on both small and large scale. Nolan's Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) distinguishes himself from his enemies by refusing to kill (but leaving his first villain to die), famously saving Joker for incarceration in The Dark Knight. The decision to wipe out Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins instead of saving him wound up creating his final villain, but Nolan still held back from the machine-guns, bombs and laugh-inducing kills that Tim Burton had deemed acceptable (just like the fans who still claim it a high point for the character).
Perhaps Zack Snyder determined that, like Nolan, he would also dial things back from the version of his hero seen in Superman II (1980), in which Superman killed three rival Kryptonians. With Man of Steel, his Superman origin would be mired in death: the death of Krypton, the death of Jonathan Kent, the potential death of Earth and humanity, and the death of Superman that could bring a new world into being. And to cap off the story, Superman would be faced with an enemy who refused to surrender, who refused to rest until humanity had been destroyed - and whom only he could stop, in the one way he could be made to. To end this 'bad guy's plan, Superman is forced to kill. And just that quickly, Zack Snyder learned that no matter how many lives blockbuster superheroes might take without remorse, the rules are clearly different for the Man of Steel.
It didn't matter that Snyder hedged his bets by getting ahead of criticisms or questions by demonstrating that, having destroyed two cities already, this fight would only stop with one of the aliens dead. His critics proclaimed - in some cases, to an extent that it ruined the film - that Superman simply doesn't kill. In all honesty, he probably could have technically killed a few of Zod's soldiers, as long as they were presumed dead, or discovered off-screen.
But with his choice to make the killing of Zod (a man committed to killing billions, beginning with a family he was about to burn alive would make it hard to call this "murder") the climax, center stage, and what the story was all leading to, Snyder forced audiences to form an opinion: was this superhero's decision to kill justified, or not? Morally right, or not? A moment of victory, or defeat?
Vocal critics and plenty of comic book writers heard the call, declaring that there would never be a time when Superman killing would be acceptable (not "the real Superman," anyway) - implying that the character is unassailable, placed miles above Captain America, the Fantastic Four, or the X-Men. Perhaps it's a compliment - lesson learned, and move on, right? Nope. Snyder decided only one story could follow a film asking if Superman was justified in killing a man bent on destroying humanity: one asking if Batman would be justified in killing Superman to save it.
While a casual observer would take one look at Ben Affleck's Batman and assume he's be more likely to send a brutalized criminal to the morgue than Superman, outcry was renewed. This time around, it was the fact that "Batman never kills" which became a motto of Snyder's most vocal detractors - and the fact that Superman/Clark Kent takes him to task for even indirectly having criminals killed doesn't change the facts: Batman. Never. Kills.
We could, but won't explore how Batman has and continues to take lives when needed in the comics - or how the most oft-cited examples of his dislike for guns (taken from Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns") are usually taken out of context. We won't bother, because the question isn't "should Batman kill?" or even "is his path to killing justified in the film?" The question should really be "why is Batman killing different from every other superhero doing the same?"
As Tony Stark stands over Captain America, his fallen enemy, consumed with rage, audiences and critics see drama and emotion. As Rey stands over Kylo Ren, her fallen enemy, audiences and critics see victory and heroism. But when Batman stands over Superman, his fallen enemy, audiences and critics seemed positive that he shouldn't even be there.
Not in terms of plot, but the medium and character on its grandest scale. Because this story depicts a Batman who doesn't preserve the lives of criminals - even if the narrative is about that fact - it's one that shouldn't be allowed to be told.
So what's the answer? Or more importantly, what's the question we should be asking? Is more expected of Batman than Marvel's own resident billionaire playboy? Is this a sign audiences have gotten used to other superheroes killing, and are now enraged to see another follow such a path? Or do audiences want to escape into a comic book movie, not navel-gaze about the morality of killing at all - and definitely not be forced to sit through a story based on that issue above all else?
We don't have an answer, since it's a question that most fans of comic book movies, or the critics analyzing them, just aren't really asking in places where it matters. But regardless of the studios, characters, or genre, an audience and critical body deciding that two characters can't (or shouldn't) do what nearly every entry in the genre does regularly - and renouncing it so passionately - is fascinating. It may be that Snyder's morally-mired heroes are the canary in the coal mine, warning that the age of the bloodthirsty (but totally heroic, you guys) hero truly is coming to an end.
Or more likely, that a hero's bodycount may simply be something viewers will happily ignore - unless asked to take a stance.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is now playing in U.S. theaters. Suicide Squad will arrive on August 5, 2016, followed by Wonder Woman on June 2, 2017; Justice League Part One on November 17, 2017; The Flash on March 16, 2018; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; an untitled DC Film on October 5th, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League Part Two on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps. on June 19, 2020.
Captain America: Civil War is now in theaters, and is followed by Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2– May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.