The no-killing rule in comic book movies

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

Iron Man

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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