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Superheroes and Killing By Joshua Elder
Superman doesn’t kill. Ever. It’s one of the ironclad laws of comicdom. And not just Superman, either. Aside from the hard-edged “antiheroes” (a perversion of a perfectly good literary term, by the way), it seems that every member of the long underwear set shares Big Blue’s deep-seated aversion to killing no matter the circumstances. This is simply nonsense. Mercy towards one’s enemies is not always a virtue and given the situation it can be downright immoral.
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The only time in established continuity that Superman has ever killed was in the landmark Superman (vol. 2) #22. Written by John Byrne, this highly controversial story put Superman in the role of judge, jury and executioner for three Kryptonian criminals who had murdered the entire population of an alternate reality earth. The Kryptonians’ powers had already been removed by Gold Kryptonite, but that was little more than a temporary setback. They taunted Superman by saying that they would regain their powers, travel to his reality and then destroy him and his world. And given their near-godlike power, it was doubtful that anyone could have stopped them. The Man of Steel was left with little choice but to execute the unrepentant mass murderers.
In the months that followed, what he had done in the pocket universe began to weigh heavily upon him. Nearly driven insane by guilt, he resolved to never again take a life – no matter what the circumstances. This represents a complete abdication of moral responsibility by the Man of Tomorrow. No longer must he actually decide whether or not lethal force is necessary; he has an absolute moral code to make the decision for him. This is not nobility… it’s cowardice. Nor was his code adopted for purely noble reasons. It was little more than a coping mechanism. A way for him to deal with his guilt and avoid taking responsibility for his actions – past and future.
Throughout the years Superman’s code has often been forced to question his prohibition against killing – and in almost every case he has made the wrong decision. A hallmark of Superman’s conflicts is extensive collateral damage. Buildings are destroyed and innocent lives are lost. Much of that could be avoided if Superman were willing to use lethal force against his superpowered opponents and take them down before they could wreak havoc across Metropolis. The blood of those innocent people is on his hands, whether he wishes to acknowledge it or not. Police officers aren’t anxious to use lethal force against their assailants either, but they are willing to do so when the alternative is allowing innocent people to die. Superman refuses to see that distinction.
He has fared little better when the stakes are raised. In Action Comics #719 the Joker poisoned Lois. The cure, and this was devishly clever of him, could only be obtained by injecting him with a lethal dose of the anti-toxin. To save Lois Superman would have to kill the Joker. For anyone but Superman, this wouldn’t be much of an ethical quandary. Exchanging the life of an innocent woman for the life of a murderous psychopath – the same one who had set this plan into motion, no less – is an easy bit of moral calculus to figure. Superman should certainly find it unpleasant and regrettable that he was forced to kill the Joker, but that should not stop him from discharging his moral obligation to his fiancée. Of course, Big Blue refused to kill the grinning madman. Then he had the audacity to say that he was doing it for Lois’ sake! “If I’d killed the Joker, you would have had to deal with it, too. Knowing I’d killed for you… I knew you wouldn’t want that, you wouldn’t want to… live with it.”
Sure she wouldn’t, Clark. No woman would want her future husband to be forced to kill a human monster just to save her life. That would be so selfish of her. Fortunately for the beleaguered Mrs. Superman, the toxin was designed to only take her to the brink of death. It was little more than an elaborate “prank.” Once again the writers let Superman off the hook for his truly appalling lack of moral fortitude. I can still recall how disgusted I was with Superman’s behavior after first reading this comic. I certainly didn’t know why Lois still wanted to marry him. When she broke off their engagement a few months later I couldn’t really say I blamed her.
Although Superman clings to his dogmatic moral code with all the intensity of a religious fanatic, he still finds ways around it when it suits his purposes. For instance, he has no problem destroying inorganic creatures – even if they show sentience – because, well, they’re not organic. As evidenced in Action Comics Annual #7 when he battled the machine race known as the H’tros: “[A]t least knowing they’re not organic should simplify things. I won’t have to pull my punches!” He then went on to purposely obliterate every last H’tros he could find. Machine genocide. Though I actually agree with what Superman did in this situation (the H’tros’ sole reason for existing was the destruction of organic life – there was no way to stop them save destruction), this only proves how shallow and self-serving Superman’s “morality” really is. He only respects life if it resembles his own.
I believe in the sanctity of life (I’m pro-life and anti-death penalty), but I also realize that sometimes reality intrudes on one’s ideals. Sometimes killing one’s enemy is the only way to serve the greater good. This is a lesson that Superman needs to learn as well. Moral absolutism is for fools and cowards, and I refuse to see Superman as either.
Note: Slushfactory.com congratulates Joshua Elder on his successful bid to become Wizard Magazine's newest Associate Editor!