Daredevil, Superheroes and the Morality of Killing

Netflix has done what Wilson Fisk and the Hand could not: they’ve killed Daredevil.  The recent cancellation of Marvel’s Daredevil show has me thinking about superheroes, as I often do while playing with the Superman action figure that I pretend belongs to my son, and I’m thinking particularly about an ethical issue that has been tackled by several recent small and big screen adaptations.  Do heroes kill?

****SPOILER ALERT**********

(The following article talks about the plots of various superhero movies and television shows, most notably Marvel’s Daredevil)

In real life, we often celebrate individuals and organizations – police, members of the military – who use lethal force to protect individual innocents or to more generally protect the country or some portion thereof. Ordinary citizens who are forced into such situations are similarly lauded; regardless of whether we thing “a good guy with a gun” should be considered Plan A, we are generally grateful when one shows up to take down a mass shooter.

In fiction, heroes often kill, sometimes a lot. The 1980s was filled with action heroes portrayed by actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and more who racked up double-digit body counts in each movie.  One of the defining characteristics of James Bond is his “license to kill.”

And yet, there is definitely a strain of Judeo-Christian morality that views killing as somehow wrong.  Many of us grew up learning “thou shalt not kill” as part of the Ten Commandments, and, well, if God thought it important enough to put in his big 10, then maybe we should pay attention to it (many more modern translations read that commandment as “do not murder” which has a very different meaning). Beyond a specific explicit religious command, however, the finality of death makes us wary of inflicting it upon another, except perhaps in situations where given no choice other than accepting one’s own death at the hands of an attacker.  Even then, killing a murderous assailant generally feels like a tragedy more than a triumph.

Comic Book Morality, Superhero Movies and Killing the Bad Guys

Comic book superheroes have been different than other heroes in popular culture, and not just because of the costumes and powers, but because they were largely developed over time to serve as moral exemplars for the children who served as audience for these stories. True, in the earliest days of the characters in the 1930s and 40s, Batman would kill criminals (or act with reckless disregard for their lives) or Superman would casually toss human beings far into the distance. But these heroes weren’t really “superheroes” yet, because the category hadn’t really been defined as something distinct from the detective or sci-fi stories upon which they were based, and those earlier stories had no problem with heroes killing bad guys.

As superhero comics developed as distinct entities, and as editors and regulatory bodies like the Comics Code Authority starting putting restrictions on content, superheroes became moral paragons who didn’t kill other people and were always righteous and smart enough to find a non-lethal solution to a challenge. These standards became more relaxed in the 1980s and beyond, as he kids who read comics grew up and new stories were increasingly written for these now-adult readers rather than for kids.

Superhero movies of the 1980s and 1990s, from the Batman franchises to the X-men movies, reflect both the more adult-oriented superhero comics and the violent action movies of the times, with heroes who killed without second thought or repercussion.  By the time of the superhero rennaissance of the 2000s, however, the development of a distinct “superhero” movie came with developments in the morality presented in such tales. In 2005’s Batman Begins, the title hero attempts to split the moral difference as he leaves a villain to die in a runaway train that the bad guy sabotaged: “I won’t kill you… but I don’t have to save you.” In the sequel, the titular Dark Knight displays a never-stated but seemingly evolved view on lethal force: Batman goes out of his way to save the mass murdering Joker from falling to his death, but then causes the tragic Harvey Dent/Two Face to plummet to his demise in order to save an innocent child.

Writer/director Zack Snyder continues to get flack for his depiction of DC heroes across three films, a criticism that started with his Man of Steel movie, which depicts Superman engaging in a highly destructive superpowered battle throughout Metropolis city (a fight that likely had thousands of casualties, something the director claims was intentional) and then being forced to kill the main villain to prevent him from murdering innocents.  While other superheroes have often been depicted as killing adversaries, Superman, the first superhero, has often taken the role as the ultimate example of heroic morality, and both his seeming disregard for collateral damage and his inability to come up with a non-lethal way of stopping his enemy have been criticized ever since the movie came out (even when Superman appears to kill his foes at the end of 1980s Superman II, that was the result of cutting room edits rather than a plot choice).

Marvel’s big screen heroes don’t go out of their way to kill enemies, but most of them are willing to use lethal force without moral qualms when deemed necessary.  To some extent, especially with the early Marvel movies that were made before “superhero” became its own de facto genre, this merely reflected the action movie precedent upon which the filmmakers were drawing.  Tony Stark kills bad guys because John McClane kills bad guys.  The willingness to use lethal force also fits with the Avengers characters’ fictional background –  a WWII soldier (Captain America), an arms manufacturer (Iron Man), and a Norse warrior god (Thor) – and with Marvel Comics’ reputation for presenting heroes who were more flawed and “human” than those at DC.  The most virtuous of the Marvel heroes, Steve Rogers, lays out his moral calculation when, prior to his change from a 95 pound weakling to a super soldier, he’s questioned by the scientist in charge of the transformation:

Dr. Erskine: Do you want to kill Nazis?

Steve Rogers: Is this a test?

Dr. Erskine: Yes.

Steve Rogers: I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.

Killing is not joy or even a goal, but it may be necessary to stop the bullies, which is more important.

One big screen Marvel hero has been depicted as explicitly wrestling with the idea of killing.  Doctor Stephen Strange, a surgeon turned sorcerer (hey, his name practically dictates the mid-career change) is forced to kill a magical foe in self-defense, and his disgust at his actions and the situation nearly cause him to quit his new job as magical superhero. Again, the conflict is grounded as much in the character’s backstory as it is in a greater sense of morality:

“When I became a doctor, I swore an oath to do no harm. And I have just killed a man! I’m not doing that again.”

This line is not just a throw-away appeal to the Hippocratic Oath. Doctor Strange finds a way to save the day without killing any more of his adversaries (granted, he leaves them condemned to an eternal existence worse than death, but let’s not split hairs here).

The (Dare)Devil Who Doesn’t Kill

Marvel heroes on the small screen have also wrestled with the idea of killing, none more so than the recently-cancelled Daredevil.  Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer by day and blind but otherwise enhanced ninja hero by night, uses violence to both solve problems that cannot be solved through the legal arguments of his day job and also because of a pathological, or at least unhealthy, need to punch someone (being the son of a boxer may have played a role in the latter).

One of the defining characteristics of Matt Murdock is his Catholicism (a good Catholic dressing up as the devil to fight crime is ironic – get it!), which influences his general sense of right and wrong and his specific principle against killing.  This principle is called into question in one issue when, facing an actual ninja who is his physical superior and is on the verge of killing Murdock, Daredevil resorts to killing his assailant, a decision that gives him great distress despite the seeming lack of alternatives.  (Because it’s a superhero show, the dead ninja ends up less dead later, but ninja resurrection is a topic for another post).

Season 2 introduces the character of the Punisher, a long-time Marvel antagonist/anti-hero who is loosely based on the “Death Wish” style revenge sub-genre of 1970s exploitation films.   The Punisher, aka Frank Castle, is a war veteran (now Afghanistan instead of Vietnam, much like Tony Stark) who decides to wage a very lethal one-man war against organized crime after his family is murdered in the crossfire of a gang shootout.

Not an outright villain but definitely an antagonist to the hero who eschews lethal force, the Punisher provides a great foil and challenge to Daredevil: the story arch in which Murdock and Castle fight overlapping battles against the same groups of criminals is probably the best of the Daredevil show (disclaimer: I haven’t yet watched Season 3, and I apologize if my procrastination contributed to the show’s cancellation). One scene in particular stands out as my favorite: Daredevil and Punisher have temporarily teamed up to break into a building filled with bad guys who are trying to kill them, and the brilliantly-choreographed fight scene consists of the two cooperating to fight the bad guys while Murdock also constantly intervenes to prevent Castle from delivering fatal blows to the guys their beating up.

The supporting character Karen Page, a legal aide turned journalist, appears as a close confidant of both Daredevil and the Punisher and deals with the issue of killing in her own life in ways that straddle the struggles of the two heroes.  In season 1 of Daredevil, Page makes a split second morally-ambiguous decision, shooting dead a mobster who is intimidating her but not necessarily putting her life in immediate danger.

Page’s guilt over this decision, which she does not tell anyone about, drives an unspoken wedge between her and Murdock, who’s (self) righteousness makes her feel condemned in comparison, and later drives her to befriend Castle (who gets his own show, because Netflix couldn’t resist the temptation to turn the Punisher from antagonist to anti-hero, much as happened in the comics), who she both uses as validation for her own choice and tries to redeem from his never-ending violent quest as a proxy for saving her own soul.

The cancellation of Daredevil and most of the other Netflix superhero shows (which, like many superheroes, may be brought back to life in the future) has eliminated one of the more compelling examinations of superheroics and the morality of using lethal force for the greater good.  And we’ll miss the hallway fights too.

138 thoughts on “Daredevil, Superheroes and the Morality of Killing”

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