Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
“Though shalt not kill.”
There was a time in superhero fiction where one commandment presided over all others. Heroes don’t kill. Unless Joker fell off a cliff to an uncertain fate, he ended up in Arkham. Doc Ock will wind up with his arms tied around a light pole, and Magneto will return to his plastic penitentiary. The good guys would sure put a beating on their greatest foes, but they absolutely, positively would not kill them.
So imagine my surprise when I’m watching Man of Steel (SPOILERS ahead), and mostly enjoying it (some wonky pacing aside), and Superman (the Blue Boy Scout himself) snaps his enemy’s neck. This brutal act of violence at the hands of my favorite superhero was, to say the least, shocking. But should it have been?
Superman’s not the only hero at this point with blood on his hands. I recall watching the first Iron Man and wondering to myself whether the dozen or so terrorists he dropped with mini-missiles in his (pretty awesome) debut were dead, or merely debilitated. At the time I settled on unconscious, but a half-dozen Marvel movies later, and seeing everyone from Captain America to Pepper Potts gun down, blow up, or impale aliens, brainwashed soldiers, and molten men, I know better. The Avengers even goes out of its way to characterize the heroes that comprise the titular team as soldiers, and spoiler alert, soldiers kill. Going even further back it’s easy to recall that Tim Burton’s incarnation of Batman had no problem with the occasional murder. That’s right, Batman, whose last three movies put a huge exclamation point on the fact that he would not kill. All this begs the question, when did superheroes become murderers, and why?
The truth is, superheroes complicated relationship with killing isn’t just part of their celluloid adventures, but also exists in the source material as well, and has since the genre began. It’s easy to forget that the “no kill” rule wasn’t always the industry standard. As the revered Alan Moore discusses in his insightful and incendiary essay “Foment in the Funnies, and Comics as Counter-Culture.” found in Occupy Comics, superheroes could be quite subversive in their humble beginnings, and that included a pinch of wanton violence. In his earliest appearances Batman used a sidearm, gunning down thugs, Namor waged a one-man war against the surface world, and Superman wasn’t afraid to chuck an abusive husband out a window. Our earliest superheroes evolved from the pulp age of heroes that included the Shadow and Doc Savage, characters that weren’t afraid to use lethal force when necessary. Borne out of the depression, it was a hardscrabble time, and the heroes of the age depicted that. In fact, the earliest comics (including Detective Comics, and Superman) were printed by Harry Donenfeld, alleged bootlegger during Prohibition, so there’s that too.
However superheroes proved financially profitable, and particularly attractive to children, and the characters soon lightened in tone. This is probably best exemplified by Batman not only ditching his gun, but gaining a peppy boy sidekick in the form of Robin. Also, in the fifties the Comics Code Authority was founded to allow publishers the opportunity to “self regulate” by submitting their books to adhere to a stringent set of rules in response to accusations that comic books, which were seeing a proliferation in everything from romance to horror comics (pretty much everything except superheroes), spear-headed by the ground breaking EC Comics, were corrupting the youth. These rules prohibited explicit violence, and implicit sexuality, and effectively killed EC Comics, and paved the way for the return of superhero stories, with a renewed focus on morality. The big publishers remained under the comics code until the early 2000’s.
That prohibition on violence obviously extended to killing. Even now though, as superhero comics (freed from the restrictions of “The Code”) have become moodier and more violent in a mostly backwards attempt at relevance, or at least capture that evasive sense of “cool”, many characters still don’t kill (with the likes of Spider-man, Batman, and Superman topping that list), because it has become such an indelible part of their DNA. However there are other practical reasons for heroes not to kill off their foes. The Joker’s, and Magneto’s of the comics industry are incredibly popular, sometimes even more so than their nobler counterparts. Superhero comics were designed to go on infinitely; so having your heroes kill off your best villains isn’t just morally questionable, more importantly, it’s not good business.
Superhero films, on the other hand, are not meant to be infinite. They are meant to be self-contained stories that hopefully lead to dozens upon dozens of interconnected, but also self-contained stories. That’s what’s called a franchise, and due to the dictates of the traditional summer blockbuster, you need a fairly concrete ending, that is to say, “closure” to your big tent pole film. That’s why it wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone to point out the increase in violence when mainstream heroes jump from the paneled page to the silver screen. They are no longer just superhero stories, they’re the next great action movie, and its safe to say that action movie villains don’t typically make it out alive.
I recently watched Fast Five and it is a perfect template for the traditional action flick. It essentially boils down to the adult version of a kid throwing his action figures at each other. The cliché ridden dialogue is only present to drive the film to its next spectacularly fun action sequence, and in each of those action sequences are a ton of mooks for our heroes to gun down. Seriously, while watching the movie (probably because I had this article on the brain) I was astonished at incredibly high (though totally bloodless) body count.
Certain entries within the action genre have begun to deconstruct the weight of the violence they present (of special note The Dark Knight Trilogy and the new Bond films), but for most high-octane summer fare action still equals violence (an ethos that I believe has reverberated back into most current mainstream comics as well). It’s one thing for Wolverine to get all stabby. It’s a well established part of his character. But when the Avengers mow down bad guys (some of which are established to be brain washed colleagues), and don’t even bat and eyelash, things start to feel amiss.
With that we circle back to Man of Steel, and my incredibly mixed feelings on it. It is undoubtedly the most action packed Superman film in history, and also the most violent. The battles are brutally intense, while studies have been done that show how millions would have died in that final attack on Metropolis, and it all culminates with the aforementioned neck snap. Now, if I look at the film as an action movie, all that is par for the course. David Goyer (the writer of the film) even discussed that they added that final showdown with Zod to make the ending more dramatic. Again, “closure”. At least, with Superman’s primal wail after he ends Zod, it’s not treated as another day at the gym. Superman clearly feels torn apart by what he had to do. It’s the most emotionally resonate scene in the movie. The writers may have bent over backwards to make it so Superman had no choice in the matter, but at least they paused for a quick second of remorse before moving on to the jokey finale.
However, as a die-hard Superman fan, I feel less forgiving, and its not even the fact that Superman killed. That’s as close to a deal breaker as you can get, but I feel like there are ways that you could contextualize it properly. I agree with famous comics scribe Mark Waid that the film didn’t go far enough to contextualize it, but I believe there could have existed a Superman movie that did. My problem comes from something more endemic. Instead of the filmmakers testing themselves, and forcing not only Superman to be more creative with his final solution, but themselves, they once again let violence be the true victor. One of the villains even taunts Superman earlier in the film that his morality is a weakness, and that their ruthlessness gives them an evolutionary advantage. Doesn’t Superman just prove them right in the end? Superman, who even within the Man of Steel is discussed as a symbol of hope, falls in line with so many action heroes before him, and simply beats his problem in the face until its dead. Sometimes that can be the only solution, but that by no means always has be a the case, and if any hero should be an example of the alternatives its Superman. In an attempt to create a “daring” ending, Zod’s murder just becomes another cop-out, while also (at least so far) side-stepping many of the practical reasons for Superman’s ban on lethal force.
Now that Superman broke Zod’s neck for putting a family in harm’s way, shouldn’t he also be willing to kill an African warlord for putting guns in children’s hands so they can fight his war? What about a dictator in a far flung part of the world threatening nuclear armament? People are constantly in clear and present danger, where does Superman draw the line on who deserves killing? In fact the plot of the recent fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us revolved around a Superman that decided to murder his foes, and eventually, rule the world with an iron fist. The next Superman film is going to have to tackle these questions in pretty short order, or risk becoming as dumb (but not as fun) as the Fast & Furious franchise.
Lets make it clear, after watching Superman Returns I was desperate for a more action packed Superman movie. Man of Steel definitely fits that bill, but the reason I love Superman is because he represents the best qualities in all of us. Hope, justice, and mercy. As a Superman fan, I have to hope that there is a perfect Superman movie between the extremes of Returns and Man of Steel, and I truly do believe superhero movies don’t need to rely on violence to solve every problem they present. Chronicle writer Max Landis recently posted a rant about Man of Steel on Youtube, and while I don’t necessarily agree with all his assertions, I whole-heartedly agree with his final thesis. Superhero films have recently focused too much on the super, not enough on the hero. Punching evil in the face doesn’t make you a hero. Doing everything in your power to selflessly protect and benefit others, that makes a hero, and its that ideology that has made Superman and the legion of popular costumed adventurers that followed in his footsteps so inspiring and enduring. We need more heroic people in the world, and not just on the silver screen or paneled page, but they’re not bad places to start.
Agree, disagree, or other? Please comment below and let me know your thoughts! Also, you guys can now follow me on Twitter and Instagram, @djtalkstrash, as I #SnapReview the major releases this Summer, and generally attempt to meaningfully goof off!