This is part 2 of 2 in a post about superhero movies and the defeats of their villains. For part one, please click here. Spoilers ahead for most of the recent DCEU films!
While both DC and Marvel have had plenty of wild stories and galaxy-spanning adventures, Marvel’s reputation is as the more-restrained of the two. Its heroes are heroic men, women, and occasional aliens.
DC’s pantheon are, well, more godlike. The Flash could be a modern Hermes. Aquaman could be Poseidon (if he didn’t occasionally battle him). Batman is a brooding Hades (god of underworld, wealth), to the point that one of his villains — the psychotic human who believes himself to be Zeus — frequently calls Batman by that name. Wonder Woman deals with literal gods and goddesses on a daily basis. And Superman floats above our world, musing about whether he can ever live a mortal life, or if he ever must be the guardian of our imperfect, childlike natures.
DC’s heroes have told some incredibly moral tales over the years, including stories about whether heroes can and should kill. The DCAU — that is, the Detective Comics Animated Universe — even has several titles that treat the topic explicitly. Off the top of my head, there’s the recent The Killing Joke (2016), which is an adaptation of a Batman comic story of the same name: in it, the Joker gives Commissioner Gordon the worst day of his life, pushing the point that any person will become as twisted as the Joker if they have just “one bad day.” That film is rightly rated R.
Still somber, but less traumatic, there’s Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010), in which a new anti-hero, the Red Hood, arrives in Gotham and begins executing villains. When Batman finally tracks him down, the Red Hood demands to know why — even if every other villain is “only” imprisoned — the Joker, uniquely, is allowed to live? He will surely escape and kill again, and the body count may be in the thousands or millions.
Want a Superman take on the same question? The boringly-titled Superman Vs the Elite (2012) shows Superman facing public opinion turning to support a new team, The Elite, who enter the public spotlight by executing a rampaging villain. The citizens cheer, and turn on Supes, who too long has locked them up, only to “allow” citizens to be terrorized again. Superman’s resolution of this challenge is pretty elegant, and is every bit a Superman story. The comics version had a much better title: What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?
Which brings us to the DCEU — the recent live-action films. They’re troubling. They seem to let go of the desire for the heroes to be godlike paragons, perhaps trying to follow Marvel’s successful footsteps along a path filled with stories of flawed human beings trying to make sense of what to do with their powers (see my Spider-Man: Homecoming review here for my discussion of Stan Lee’s own take on why Spidey’s “Charlie Brown” aspect makes his stories great!).
The trouble is, DC heroes are still dealing with godlike terms. Superman — and Zod and Doomsday — have powers beyond anything earth can come close to matching. We cannot realistically imprison Superman, and so neither can we put Zod in jail. This narrows the narrative possibilities: death or imprisonment in the Phantom Zone (a la previous films and comics). And if you’re not going to give Superman the full range of technological powers the comics assign to him as a legacy, the Phantom Zone is out. And without even Kryptonite (Man of Steel, in a pretty much universally detested move, re-worked that as Kal-El’s lack of adaptation to his home world’s heavier gravity and atmosphere, rather than a power-sapping radiation), you really can’t imprison Zod.
Hence: execution. Superman kills. After the ever-mentioned civilian casualties inflicted by their “epic” battle already deal a ton of damage to earth’s civilian population.
On the heels of that, DC’s Suicide Squad (2016) tried to play a lighter tune. The “big bad” is only mostly killed: the demonic witch, Enchantress, is destroyed, allowing the human host to be freed. So that’s a resolution at least as moral as Spider-Man 3′s take-down of Venom on the Marvel side. Suicide Squad even shows the government handlers mercilessly kill a red-shirt character early on … shoving our nose into the question of who the real bad guys are?
In Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), the title match characters each fail to land a death-blow (spoiler: their moms have the same name, so they’re friends instead). But they team up with Wonder Woman to kill Doomsday, who takes Supes with him. Another foe that had to be killed, and could only be stopped by the heroes. Batman, who began the film trying to stop Superman because nothing on earth could match his power if he were to go rogue, responds to this new villain by laying plans for a Justice League of heroes to stop threats of that scale, as a psychotic Lex Luthor tips his hand and tells us just that sort of threat is on the way.
Finally we arrive at Wonder Woman. In the comics, this character has been written a number of ways. She was originally written as an alternative to the only-male strength of heroes at the time: a female hero, intended by her creator (William Marston) to expand the range of superheroic virtues beyond the macho men on comics pages. After what was, to modern eyes looking back, a cringeworthy start (her original “kryptonite” was being tied up by men, and she was originally the Justice Society’s “secretary”), Wonder Woman became a Detective Comics A-lister, and for several decades has been part of the starting lineup, along Batman and Superman. Diana Prince from Themyscira has been variously imagined as a woman out of time, this world’s greatest warrior, a killer, a peacemaker and diplomat, and a Heidi-esque civilizing force on the male heroes around her.
But in her movie, she follows in Superman’s Man of Steel footsteps, killing her opponent, Ares. The movie sets this up as inevitable: it was the destiny of the Amazons, and a task her mother was too frightened to complete. Not so the headstrong and fearless Diana, who “grows up” by recognizing that men’s hearts aren’t perfect even if you kill Ares. Unfortunately she never does get around to showing us what “love will save the world” might look like … unless it merely means that compassion for victims causes mighty warriors to be willing to kill their murderers in an avenging act? The film had clear feminist accomplishments, but fell short of offering a real discourse on heroism, nor any serious alternative to resolution through violence.
Wonder Woman’s villain, Ares, is once more a god (although he presents more as a re-imagined Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, jealous of humanity’s place under Zeus and whispering temptation at them as he tries to gain his father’s place in the heavens — an actual Greek Ares would have presented warfare as a civilizing force and a noble and glorious part of human nature, rather than as a corruption from a literally fallen former member of the heavenly host … Lucifer, anyone?).
But with Ares, it is less clear why other options aren’t available. On the one hand, he bested Zeus, so perhaps Diana’s warrior’s victory over him (she is, after all, the [spoiler]) is the only opportunity to end his future machinations. On the other hand, he has already clarified that men will go to war without him — a statement that neither the film nor Diana disputes at the time, and which Diana seems to accept in her epilogue musings about imperfect human hearts.
On yet another hand, Diana has access to an arsenal of divine powers and relics, including a lasso wrought by gods. She furthermore has clout with Themyscira, for all she was told she couldn’t return if she left. Was there really no resolution that included imprisoning or stalemating Ares? One thinks of the end of the first X-Men movie on the Marvel side, when the imprisoned Magneto muses that he’ll escape the plastic prison, only to have Charles Xavier tell him that he’ll always be there waiting as a check on him. That, surely, would have been the more compelling finale to a film whose great psychological reveal is that human hearts aren’t wholly innocent!
Instead Diana does what she has efficiently done throughout her warfare in the movie, and kills him. And a generation of women watch one of the mightiest female heroes do exactly what the boys — including Superman himself — can do … but nothing better.
For those who, like me, don’t want superheroes holding up a mirror that suggests that violence should be met with greater, heroically-purging violence, the DCEU movies have been disappointing, especially after we saw those same heroes exercise restraint and more sophisticated principle in the DCAU.
In the meanwhile, Hollywood will surely keep showing what sells. I’m just not sure I have the heart to buy another ticket to an execution. I’d rather vote with my dollar and buy their DCAU films on DVD.