This is part 1 of 2 in a post about how villains are defeated in recent superhero films. For part 2, covering DC films, please click here.
I’ve been thinking about what it means when superheroes kill on the big screen. Part of what superheroes are for us is “bigger” heroes: they do things we can’t, whether it’s fly, or survive a bullet, or talk in a scratchy voice while hanging upside down dressed like a bat. But our heroes are also a mirror inviting us to become more like them in the ways that we can: Steve Rogers proves he should be the trial case for the Super Soldier Serum when he throws himself on the grenade his squad thinks is real, as everyone else backs off in fear; Spider-Man runs into a fire to rescue someone from being burned alive.
That raises the question: when we see superheroes kill, are we watching them do something we can’t, something we shouldn’t but sometimes have to, something they do as soldiers, or … something we’re supposed to be inspired by?
There are a number of offerings that could raise the question. 2016’s Deadpool cheerfully slaughters all manner of ne’er-do-wells. 2017’s Logan shows a hunted and hurting Wolverine return to compete in the brutal contests of mutant politics in order to save an innocent. The original Iron Man arranges a technological execution for the pretender to the throne of Tony Stark’s technological business kingdom.
And on the other hand … the revenge-focused T’Challa stays his hand against Baron Zemo, after spending the movie prepared to serve as executioner in Captain America: Civil War. 2016’s Doctor Strange is willing to spend eternity locked in a time-loop of suffering in order to stay the destruction the demon Dormammu wants to visit, rather than kill Dormammu’s minion, Kaecilius. And even the Incredible Hulk — friends, the HULK, here: that monster whose power is fueled by unstoppable rage — stayed his hand all the way back in 2008 against the Abomination born of Hulk-blood and Super Soldier Serum, after a brutal battle.
This summer has seen two new contributions to the list of lethal and non-lethal heroes: Diana Prince, in Wonder Woman, executes her divine half-brother Ares to stop him from doing any more harm. And Peter Parker, in Spider-Man: Homecoming, rushes forward to rescue the man who has just left him for dead under a collapsed skyscraper, then beaten him to a pulp in an aerial battle, nearly killing him in a plane crash along the way … and Peter does this in spite of the fact that this man knows his own secret identity, and could ruin his every relationship and chance of normal life by “outing” him to the world.
Friends, I’m biased: I’m on the side of non-lethal heroism.
And I think the genre should be, too.
I’ve written elsewhere about some of these heroes. I’ve got a post about Black Panther here. I wrote an extensive review of Wonder Woman here. And I followed up with some Spider-Man: Homecoming thoughts here.
But the question of “What makes a hero?” is an important one when you’ve got superpowered beings standing in as moral-deciders on the silver screen. As I asked above: are these soldiers, who sometimes must kill in the “warfare” they experience? Are they figures of true pathos, forced by circumstance to become death-dealers against foes that cannot otherwise be stopped? Are they showing us the sorts of evils that “deserve” death — “demonic” forces that must be purged through the “myth of regenerative violence” described by Walter Wink, John Shelton Lawrence, Robert Jewett, and others?
I made a cursory glance over how the villains meet their various fates in the recent superhero movies. A number bumble their way to their own demise: The Green Goblin kills himself when Peter Parker dodges the Goblin’s attempt to impale Spider-Man (2002). Whiplash detonates his suit, killing himself, in Iron Man 2 (2010). The Red Skull disintegrates when he tries to handle the Tesseract Infinity Stone in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
Others become self-sacrificing heroes: Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (2004) sacrifices himself to drown the unstable reaction his previously-crazed self had nearly unleashed on the city. Peter Parker’s reformed-villain friend Harry Osborne also sacrifices himself in Spider-Man 3 (2007), jumping in front of a glider-spike meant for Peter (and thereby dying in the same way as his father, the previous Green Goblin). Jean Grey as the Dark Phoenix in X-Men 3 (2006) seems to have a moment of clarity at the film’s end, asking Wolverine to kill her before her power destroys a significant chunk of the world. And this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy II features the anti-hero Yondu Udonta, who sacrifices his own life to save Peter Quill’s at the film’s end, showing that he is, after all, the film’s true noble father figure.
A number of villains are “brought in for justice.” Notably, as above, T’Challa’s quest for a revenge killing (Captain America: Civil War 2006), and the Incredible Hulk’s battle with Abomination (The Incredible Hulk 2008), both end with the exercise of restraint and the promise of trial by law. Magneto is imprisoned at the end of the first X-Men (2000), as is a different Green Goblin in the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man (2012). Thor takes Loki to an Asgardian prison at the end of The Avengers (2012).
Then there are the elegant solutions. Doctor Strange’s bargain: he cannot beat Dormammu, and he was previously unwilling to kill Kaecilius … but he can time-lock Dormammu until the raging demon is willing to promise to leave earth (and take Kaecilius for eternal torment — the “eternal life” Kaecilius thought he wanted!) in exchange for freedom. Or take the somewhat confusing X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), in which the film’s conclusion winds up altering the timeline such that the world is no longer at war, restoring many previously killed heroes to life, though the tension between human and mutant continues. Mystique’s past-era restraint, seen as a mutant sparing and saving the president’s life, plays a major role in shifting the timeline to this more-peaceful future: look what happens when one side puts down the gun.
Very few comic book heroes, as it turns out, take up the role of executioner. Strikingly, Captain America — an actual soldier, whose mission and training include wielding lethal force in warfare — doesn’t execute the big bads of his films. Red Skull kills himself seeking power; the Winter Soldier fights Cap to a weird stalemate because Cap holds back, trying to redeem him (the Winter Soldier then rescues Cap from drowning); and Cap spends the entirety of Civil War trying to keep Bucky from being executed, and then stops well short of a death blow in his brawl with Tony Stark, as Black Panther meanwhile spares Baron Zemo’s life.
The nature of the exceptions may be telling: the villains are nearly always seen as inhuman or demonic. Loki may survive The Avengers, but not so the Chithauri aliens. When The Amazing Spider-Man teams up with Gwen Stacy to overload Electro, dispersing him throughout a power grid, we don’t shed many tears for the no-longer-human force attacking them (Amazing Spider-Man 2, 2012) — our tears are reserved for Gwen herself, later in the film. An earlier incarnation of Spidey willingly killed off the alien Venom symbiote, but first wrested it from its human host, Eddie Brock, with powerful sonic vibrations (Spider-Man 3, 2007). The Guardians of the Galaxy do in both the alien Ronin the Accuser (GotG Vol 1, 2014) and the “small-g” god, Ego the Living Planet (GotG Vol 2, 2017). Both Logan‘s “Reavers” and Deadpool‘s foes, Ajax and Angel Dust, have pushed their bodies past their intrinsic humanity to acquire a capacity for greater violent power. So too, Iron Man 3‘s Killian, who drugs himself with the “Extremis” syrum to become a magma-like, regenerating force. The computer viruses Ultron (Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, 2015) and Armin Zola (Captain America: the Winter Soldier, 2014) are hardly even seen as killed.
For Marvel, it seems, restraint is a virtue. The villains are the unrestrained ones, and often that lack of restraint leads to their death (the Green Goblin’s self-inflicted glider wound, etc). The heroes will behave in a restrained way even if it might cost them something (Captain America: the Winter Soldier, Spider-Man: Homecoming). In a way, Iron Man can be seen most clearly as the villain in Captain America: Civil War, when Cap tries to explain that Tony’s being manipulated and Tony replies, “I don’t care; he killed my mom.” When heroes do kill, the villains usually are not human (the Chitauri, the Ultron virus, Ronin, Ego), or they have done something to make themselves seem less human (Killian, the Reavers, Ajax). There are some nuances, but this holds true somewhat.
Marvel is also exploring alternatives to violence. The rule of law is a major one (The Incredible Hulk, Baron Zemo), as is redemption for the villain (Doc Ock, the Lizard, Bucky the Winter Soldier, Yondu). Doctor Strange stands as a unique Christ-figure in this mix: self-sacrifice, rather than the exercise of violent power.
This is by no means a perfect morality. In our world, where we can easily view one another as “less than human” for belonging to the wrong political party, it’s dangerous to show “heroic” justice end in the death of the “demons” and the “aliens.” Shooting attempts such as those targeting George Tiller in 2009, the Family Research Center in 2012, Gabriel Giffords in 2011, and GOP members including Stephen Scalise in 2017 may be among the most sober examples.
But it is a morality, and I’ll be voting with my ticket fares for more movies whose heroes show restraint and stay their hand from executions, whenever I’m able.
Part two of this post considers recent DC films, and can be found here.