The no-killing rule in comic book movies

Feature Mark Harrison 7 May 2013 - 07:00
Iron Man

Is Iron Man a cold-blooded murderer? Mark explores the eroding no-killing rule in recent comic book blockbusters...

Note: this article contains minor spoilers for Iron Man 3.

With Shane Black at the helm, Iron Man 3 is arguably the 80s action movie of the Marvel cinematic universe. It's an approach that suits Iron Man surprisingly well, and though the poetic profanity of a Lethal Weapon or Last Boy Scout hasn't been carried over to this family-friendly flick, the laissez-faire attitude to killing was already present in Marvel Studios' films.

In one scene, Tony Stark has to improvise some weaponry out of bits and bobs from a hardware store for an assault on a villain's lair. The film is set at Christmas, so one of the most memorable tools in his slap-dash arsenal is a bauble bomb, which explodes like a grenade. At one point, he throws one of these over his shoulder to finish off a nameless henchman, who he's already tasered into unconsciousness.

It's a cool moment, sure, but one that feels out of place, if you stop to think about it. There's a great gag shortly after this scene that has Black written all over it: after taking out a room full of heavies, Tony turns his repulsor on the last guy, who surrenders and says he hates working for the villains, and they're too weird for his liking. Tony lets him run away.

We've been watching Iron Man blow up tanks and shoot down enemies with extreme prejudice since the first film, but it sets up an unusual double standard that's actually present in a lot of Marvel's films. Perhaps it's something we're not used to, since action movies traipsed in the direction of 12A homogeny, but aren't the good guys generally less predisposed to kill people so casually?

Many protagonists have more qualms about killing. Even in Black's own Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, we find Robert Downey Jr playing a character who reacts with disgust and horror when he's actually forced to pick up a gun and shoot someone, even though it's apparently to punish another murder. But really, you'd expect the morality to play into superhero movies a little more prominently. 

For instance, Batman doesn't kill people. There's a great line in the published script of The Dark Knight Rises, where Alfred describes the pre-retirement Batman as “someone whose anger at death made him value all life.” The line was ultimately deleted from the finished film, but it sums up how Batman's reaction to his parents' deaths separates him from the criminals that he fights, and explains his no-killing rule.

Batman's moral conundrum about killing forms a major part of The Dark Knight, in which our hero is confounded by the Joker - an unstoppable force pitted against his immovable object. That conundrum applies to many of the good guys in The Dark Knight. Pitted against a true force of chaos, they're crippled by their compulsion to fight corruption by doing the right thing, which frequently allows both the Joker and the various corrupt cops in the film to get their own way.

Near the end of the film, Batman has to resort to using sonar technology to find the Joker, which Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox denounces as a mass invasion of privacy. This is played up as a massive abuse of power on Bruce Wayne's part, but Batman holds true to his code of not killing.

I'm recapping all of this, because of a small but crucially similar scene in Marvel's The Avengers. While hunting for Loki, Agent Coulson casually mentions that they're sweeping every wirelessly accessible camera on the planet. “If it's connected to a satellite, it's eyes and ears for us.”

It makes for a near comparison, to show how something that is seen as massively problematic in Nolan's hyper-real and philosophically thoughtful drama, is literally a routine tool for S.H.I.E.L.D. One film tries to place the actions and behaviour of comic book characters into a context in which they can be held responsible, while the other is far more relaxed about its heightened reality. 

This isn't to say that either series is any more or less responsible or thought-out than the other - only that the crucial difference in their respective pitching makes the mortality rate all the more surprising. The Dark Knight trilogy is a take on Batman that's principally for adults, while the Marvel cinematic universe is more family friendly.

Marvel Studios essentially appeal to their core audience of younger viewers, which probably explains the lack of Black's usual sweary dialogue in Iron Man 3, but seemingly keep the stakes high for more mature viewers by refusing to sugar-coat the violence of super-powered crusades.

The source material has plenty of violence, and characters die and return all the time in comics. Looking at the other films in Marvel's franchise though, you can give Captain America the same exemption as Indiana Jones gets, for killing Nazis who are after supernatural power, and most of Thor's hammer-wielding antics fall into the bracket of fantasy violence, smacking down powerful alien enemies.

Even Black Widow and Hawkeye each have their respective moments of remorse for their murderous pasts in The Avengers, but Tony Stark continues to breeze along, killing people off left right and centre. While many of the enemies he kills remain nameless, most of them have faces, and they're killed as a first resort. 

Tony Stark is still a fundamentally different character from a Batman or even a Spider-Man (who kills off pretty much every villain he faces in the Sony movies, but at least that's usually accidental), and doesn't have the cares or concerns of either of those characters. But it's not like he's this cavalier about killing in the comics.

Iron Man 3 takes most of its inspiration from Warren Ellis' Extremis arc, which also inspired the updated origin story seen in 2008's Iron Man. In that story, Tony's progression as Iron Man is to try and rise above killing, with a poignant note at the end of the story where he's forced to destroy an opponent by exploding his head with repulsor rays. “Damn you for making me do that”, he says, after the deed is done.

Movie Tony isn't plagued by such insecurity. As far as movies go, it seems like Downey's interpretation of the character is going to be as definitive as Sean Connery's James Bond, but perhaps Shane Black's brand of action movie fits best with his Iron Man because he doesn't quibble over whether or not he has the right to kill anyone who comes up against him.

He's a damn cool character. It's not like we're saying that you have to feel guilty about finding him cool, even while he kills people as he pleases. Nevertheless, it's interesting to observe that Marvel Studios have made wildly popular movies while running counter to the traditional no-killing rule of recent times.

The characters aren't afraid or hesitant to use lethal force, and its most popular character doesn't even seem to have much of a conscience about it. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a somewhat regressive trend in movies, and if and how other action heroes will follow suit.

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Reading this made me realize how much I want Michael Mann to direct a Punisher movie. Great stuff!

I think you over-analyse the no killing rule in comics. Batman for example used a gun and killed in early issues but the no killing rule was introduced for practical rather than moral reasons. If you have serial format like comics killing the villain every month is problematic as creating new and exciting villains every few issues would be difficult when its much easier to just have an existing character to escape from jail again and go on a new crime spree. These rules don't apply to the cinematic versions because at the most there will only be a couple of sequels to any given superhero franchise and they always have a new villain so there isn't the pressure to keep old villains alive and reuse them.

I was spoiled by the picture and title before I even clicked on this article. TY.

I get why they do it in the films though. You have 120 minutes to show the rise and defeat of a villain, what better pay-off is there in knowing that they will never return? If they're still alive or captured at the end you think there's a chance they'll return (when in reality they probably won't). To Batman's credit, Scarecrow and The Joker survived the first two films, and he didn't even kill Bane, that was Catwoman.

On a slightly associated topic, I recall being pleasantly surprised that the A-Team movie had them kill people when in the TV series, no matter how devastating the crash of say, a baddies helicopter into a cliff, you would still have a shot of him stumbling from the wreckage in one piece.

Ah, come on. Like Iron Man said to Supes and Bats in the How It Should Have Ended Iron Man video on YouTube: 'Haven't you learned yet, that when you put your super villian in prison, they vow revenge and just break out again?' Bats: 'Yeah... That never happens.'

This is why the Batman and Spider-Man of the comics, will always be my favourite superheroes: because they actively go out of their way not to kill people. That to me is a lot more heroic and inspiring than the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which, as enjoyable and brilliant as those films are, their rather gun-ho approach to human life does not sit well for me, and is especially disturbing because, like the article says, these are films that are primarily watched by children.

I don't think any of the MCU heroes have a don't-kill rule. Iron Man, as pointed out, kills bad guys as he likes, Captain America is a soldier, it's his job to kill bad guys, I'm pretty sure Thor killed lots and lots of Frost Giants (don't tell me they don't count as people, that's racist), Hawkeye and Black Widow are assassins and as for the Hulk... well... we didn't see much human death, but I think there were lots of reports of death in the title sequence of his film, and he sure as hell killed a load of Chitauri in The Avengers. It'd actually be interesting to see a hero that doesn't kill introduced into the MCU.

It's funny you should mention this. I was planning to write a whole follow-up article about how Batman's no-killing rule is the reason for his massive rogues' gallery, and has caused untold misery. With that in mind, I edited out a paragraph about how Arkham Asylum is basically a revolving door, to come back to it later. Thanks for the comment! :)

What do you mean? Iron Man kills people in all four of the films in which he's featured.

Well, thank you, sir! I also loved the DC animated movie The Dark Knight Returns (Part 2) where he finally kills the Joker, with the comment that a lot of people would still live if he just killed him the first time. That also why I love the Arrow television series, just shoot the bad guys full with arrows!

O, a really big spoiler up top here. Sorry for that. I hope everybody has seen it or that one of the mods what to put a spoiler tag or something on it.

I have to admit, this is a very good article. Apart of me feels that you might be over analysing, although Batman and Iron Man are both comic book movies they both go down very different routes. Batman is more thought provoking in that there's a lot more philosophical questions going on - especially in the first two films. You could argue that the same applies to Iron Man but to me it's more about entertainment and It's much more of a popcorn flick than Batman. I feel the Marvel films take after Indiana Jones where he shoots the guy with the whip. Its less about questioning morals and more about seeing the good guys triumph over the bad guys. Batman is more like a crime-thriller in many ways - except for the third one.

Batman did kill Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, even if it was an accident

That always used to make me laugh, they should provide the exclaimer "No bad guys were killed or harmed in the making of this series"

I agree. It's basically the difference in approach where the Nolan's DCU can't get past the 'what if this was in the real world?' question, whilst taking some fantastical liberties. Marvel have just thrown out anything to tie itself to the real world other than where it serves as a contrast to the more fantastic elements and is generally all about the character arc and having popcorn movie set pieces.

As Kevin Feige is fond of saying, Marvel movies are usually films of a different genre masquerading as superhero movies, so Marvel tend to follow the narrative rules of the hidden genre movie rather than having an overall 'hero' approach in handling things like avoiding killing bad guys. IM3 was Tony Stark as Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson.

Watched Iron Man 3 again last night and the first time I saw it I was really annoyed that he killed the henchmen but on second viewing he doesn't actually kill anyone. All the stuff he makes is non leathal, the fist bloke is knocked out by stark, the second gets a taser to the chest, 3rd is knocked out by the flash bang decoration, 4th is shot with a nail gun in the leg and shoulder the the bauble is dropped behind his head to knock him out. Just before he lets the last one go he just repulsers a guy in the leg and slams one in to a wall. The only person he could be held accountable for is when he shoots through the extremis bloke on Air Force one but even then extremis should bring him back and it was the explosion of the plane that finished him off.

Not to mention the picture is a generic promotional shot from the first movie...

You know, not all superheroes have to have a rule against killing. Obviously people like The Punisher go without saying, but I mean for the majority. Batman and company have a specific rule why they don't want to kill people, but Tony Stark has been killing people by proxy for years before he was Iron Man. Hell, Cap was throwing people into the air from thousands of feet up out of the Helicarrier, Hulk causes death by product of accidentally being the Hulk, the two assassins are assassins, as you say. Responsibility is a huge part of Spiderman's character, Batman has his anti-guns parent's-murdered thing, Supes is for the good of all humanity, but... Why exactly should others have to adhere to this rule to be superheroes?

The Dark Knight Returns has been out since 1986..You're probably safe enough

Yeah, that right, but I meant the animated movie. Not everybody takes the time to pick up a graphic novel. But again, you are probably right. ;-)

TIm Burton's Batman was all out to kill the Joker (dropping in chemicals, flying wing shooting bombs and bullets, etc.) and purposely strapped a bomb to the Penguin's clown henchman. Didn't care about offing them.

I thought the same. When i saw the film i didn't think "those henchmen are dead" just "he kicked their asses".

You just have to look for a flaw so you have a reason to post a stupid article. Seriously...

Yeah that always confused me as a kid when I read the comics he was very clear on the no killing rule and yet in the movies he's more than willing to straight up murder them.
There's a brilliant bit on the extras of Batman Forever where Joel Schumacher says "I decided that I didn't want Batman to kill anyone" like he had came up with that idea clearly the guy hadn't done his research.

On the point of the phones being used to track people in both films, you kind of suggest that the Nolanverse version is more realistic. That's not really true, both are realistic when put in context, I think SHIELD accepts it is bad but given that is it the super-version of the CIA or FBI i.e a government run intelligence agency who have a mandate from the people as a result. I think national security issues are probably higher on the priority list ala the Patriot Act. CIA and FBI would probably use something like that if it had the resources. Batman's version is realistic for an individual being given this power, which is what Lucius Fox says in the film itself.

Action heroes who kill villians? Or dear me! What would the 80s think?

It seems like the makers of Dredd never got the memo about the no killing rule.

Mark I was just talking about this with a friend last night after watching Batman: Under the Red Hood which brings up exactly this point. Superman vs. The Elite is also the same path - is Superman's ideals of not killing outdated and too old fashioned for our modern world?

It's interesting with Arrow, because I think they're doing the 'rise of a hero' thing slightly differently. Whilst he started out, basically, as a murderous vigilante, he's been slowly changing to a more moral crusader. I can imagine that he will eventually have a 'no killing' rule. Surely it wouldn't be that hard - if you're the world's best marksman - to aim the arrows such as to cause non lethal wounds....

The funny thing about Dredd (in the film, anyway) is that he's a by-the-book lawman in a fascist world. It's weird when you think about that. He's like Dirty Harry except he's not breaking any of their rules.

The funniest is in the Arrow TV show where the guy slaughters a dozen (relatively innocent) bodyguards to get to the real bad guy, who he then leaves for the cops.

This is why my favorite comic book adaptations are Dredd and The Crow.

Not that I need to see blood, sex, and hear a lot of profanity But to me, it gives it a gritty feel that makes it more real.

Spider-Man has a "nobody dies, while I'm around" rule.

Batman killed Ducard (or Ra's... I'm still confused) on the train through inaction in Batman Begins.

What about the henchmen flying the helicopters?

That was simple self-defence. They were firing missiles at him and he had little choice.

Self-defence would come along with each henchmen, they're still trying to murder him and you'd expect after sending the Mandarin his resolve, he'd prepare before hand.

Ok in the first iron man movie he flamethrowers his weapons and takes revenge on his captors because of what happened to yinsen later when the bad guys are holding women and children hostage he had little choice but to kill them he blows up the tank not because he wants to but because he was shot out of the sky. He didn't kill iron monger or whiplash he had little choice on the helicopter the two extremis guys he had no choice and he didn't kill any henchmen killian was killed by pepper but tony wanted to kill killian out of revenge but regrets it

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