It’s totally fine for Superman to kill people. He’s done it before, he’ll do it again, and in every instance he’ll most likely have strong reasons for doing so.
Obviously this question came up over the summer when Man of Steel hit theaters, but it has sustainably permeated the cultural conversation and returned with enthusiasm now that writer David Goyer has weighed in on the subject. Fanning the flame wars of a divisive issue, it’s launched a thousand opinions from those standing their ground on why Superman (as a representation of God, or America or merely the best of the superheroes) shouldn’t take lives. The intention is understandable and powerfully compelling, but it’s still wrong.
First up, here’s Goyer:
“This is one area, and I’ve written comic books as well and this is where I disagree with some of my fellow comic book writers – ‘Superman doesn’t kill.’ It’s a rule that exists outside of the narrative and I just don’t believe in rules like that. I believe when you’re writing film or television, you can’t rely on a crutch or rule that exists outside of the narrative of the film. So the situation was, Zod says ‘I’m not going to stop until you kill me or I kill you.’ The reality is no prison on the planet could hold him and in our film Superman can’t fly to the moon, and we didn’t want to come up with that crutch.”
That feels right from a storytelling standpoint. Not that they had to include something like murder in the story, but it would have been childish to shackle the writers to a limitation like that when the character’s own history doesn’t preclude it as a battle option. Particularly against Zod (see: Superman II). Yes, it’s extremely rare – which is part of what gives it so much weight.
But what about the ethical question of whether the Kryptonian God should kill?
It’s a concern that’s not easy to dismiss because it gets to the very heart of our moralistic thinking both as individuals and as members of a peaceful society. If we think of him as a benevolent vigilante, the answer is clear that he shouldn’t kill – nor should he be allowed to by the greater law enforcement structure.
However, Superman is also a weapon of mass destruction. He’s a sentient, brutal instrument of violence boasting untold strength, durability, speed and red murder beams that spawn from his eyes.
That dichotomy is where the tension in this argument comes from, regardless of whether you see Superman as a cipher for “Truth, Justice and The American Way” or as a superhero par excellence who should always be able to solve a problem without killing. One is a pacifistic dream where the United States (embodied by Supes) is always above the fray when it comes to doling out finality (we’re not), and the other reduces the character to a binary boy scout who ludicrously believes that sending people to a flat window pane prison is always a better option than ending them (until they escape for a new mankind-enslaving adventure).
That serial nature of the hero may be the core of the problem. On a single-story basis, you could argue that anyone writing a Superman adventure could adhere to a code of no-killing, assuming that watching the baddies carted off to super jail will be as fulfilling as seeing them suffer as they’ve made others suffer. That’s not how it works, though. We can’t help but think of Superman’s collected exploits since 1) there are so many of them and 2) they’re so popular. That complicates his options.
(Coincidentally, it’s also what makes Batman’s rule about not killing skew into the absurd – if the choice is between killing The Joker or waiting until the shoddy Gotham PD allows him to escape for the 47th time to kill crowds of people, the ethics get cloudy really quick. And I doubt the thousands of new mourners would be comforted by your assessment that Batman needs The Joker like the yin to his Batarang.)
With a sharp counter, here’s Rob Bricken at io9:
“Marvel characters, and most mid-tier and lower DC characters are simply people. They try to do good, sometimes they fail, they learn, sometimes they’re stupid. They kill people because they get angry, or by accident, or because it’s personal, or just because they can’t think of another option.
But Superman is a myth. He – and Batman too – are on totally different levels from these other guys, which means they have different rules. Just like Batman is always prepared, Superman always does the right thing. Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man all have personal problems. Do you know what Superman and Batman’s personal problem is? Evil.
Superman is especially the character that is supposed to inspire us to aspire to something greater. That’s his whole damn point. He is supposed to represent humanity at its best. He’s supposed make the right decision even when they doesn’t seem to be one. When faced with two impossible choices – like, say, killing Zod or letting an innocent family die – he’s supposed to somehow figure out a third option, so he wins without compromising his principles. That’s his greatest superpower – to always do the right thing.”
Bricken is great here as usual, but it’s a viewpoint that reduces the Problem of Evil and ossifies ending an evil-doer’s life as something wholly outside of “the right thing.” It also places Superman’s actions strictly within the purview of crime-fighting (where you capture someone, read them Miranda and see them in court) when he more often finds himself fighting unmistakably in the theater of war.
That isn’t to say that killing someone who does evil will eradicate the evil itself. That’s an even more reductive view. But to say that the ultimate option for stopping his or her reign of terror is completely and forever off the table? Not only does that create the exact problem Bricken applies to the killing act – in the form of us constantly wondering why he doesn’t just kill the man who is in the process of breaking California off into the ocean – it also shuts down the more interesting conversation about super-ethics. What if killing Zod really is “the right thing”?
Ultimately, I like that it complicates the character. Superman is amazing, but he also runs the risk of being powerful to a boring degree. He is the God looming large over the world of cardboard. That his human failings are magnified by his abilities and the question of his limits is a good, enriching thing, not a deficiency.