Regarding Superhero Movies, 'Blue Beetle,' and Murder
One of the most important elements of most mainstream superhero comics is this: The good guys don't kill.
Granted, it has not always been this way. Batman, for example, famously utilized guns in his earliest adventures, and had no compunctions about putting criminals six feet under. The no-killing thing was actually born out of the need to appease politicians who feared that comic books might turn America's youth into homosexual communists or whatever. But in the ensuing decades, creators found a way to both justify and make the most of it, using the heroes' refusal to end lives as both a potential weakness to be exploited and a subject to be debated. In other words, it has become one of the dramatic and philosophical cornerstones of superheroes as represented in that medium.
And y'know what? Superheroes probably shouldn't kill... because at the end of the day, they're ethical parables for kids and adolescents. I'm aware there are a lot of people who don't like hearing that superhero comics are for young people because it makes them feel like they're not allowed to enjoy those comics. Those people, presumably, do not see the value in stories about showing mercy to our adversaries, or the maturity it takes to truly absorb and enact that position.
So while I'm aware that there are some very notable exceptions, the fact remains that the vast majority of the superhero pantheon, as recognized by the general public - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, etc. - have very strict anti-killing policies, and have for most of their existence.
Thing is, for reasons I can't quite understand, Hollywood has a real problem with this concept.
Oh, sure, back in 1978, director Richard Donner managed to get through all of Superman without having the Man of Steel snap anyone's neck. But by Superman II, Clark Kent was throwing powerless villains into bottomless chasms.
Sam Raimi, at least, had everything play out so that any villain who died did not do so at Spider-Man's hands. Today, the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe not only routinely snuff out their enemies, but in one instance, they commit mass genocide - and it's a celebratory moment.
That this has presented a problem for so many filmmakers who have tackled Batman is especially baffling to me, because in the comics, Batman, along with Superman, probably puts more emphasis on the "no killing" rule than anyone else.
And yet, Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns both feature versions of the title character who is, for all intents and purposes, just Rambo with a kinkier costume. Joel Schumacher pivoted for Batman Forever, kind of - his Batman warns Robin off of killing Two-Face... before killing Two-Face. Christopher Nolan did something similar in his trio of Batman films: The character pays lip service to non-lethal measures, but keeps finding moral loopholes by which he can justify capital punishment (the most blatant and irritating of these being the whole "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you bit" at the end of Batman Begins, which is so stupid and childish it almost retroactively ruins the entire movie). In an interview included with The Dark Knight Trilogy: The Complete Screenplays, Nolan admits that he struggled with this aspect of the character: "I didn't know Batman didn't kill people when I signed on for the project. It was David [Goyer, co-screenwriter] who broke the news. And I was like, 'How do you make that work?'" The answer, apparently, is equivocation by way of semantics.
And then there's Zack Snyder... the guy who couldn't make it a whole movie without having Superman snap someone's neck.
Snyder apologists might argue that the director presents Superman with an impossible decision and shows that Superman is not happy about that position. But the issue isn't exactly explored in a meaningful way - by the next scene, Superman is back to flirting with Lois Lane and cracking wise.
(And before some smart-ass says something about Nolan being a producer with a co-story credit on Man of Steel: That's true, but he argued against having beloved children's hero Superman break Zod's neck.)
There was a mini-uproar over Snyder's distinctly not-Supermanish Superman of Man of Steel, and trailers for the movie's sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, suggested that the film would actually wrestle with the consequences of Superman's actions. Instead, Snyder doubled down: A scowling Superman executes a (non-super-powered!) terrorist in his goddamn introductory scene.
And Batman, who we're supposed to believe dislikes Superman because he's already proven to be so dangerous, kills routinely and without even the slightest hint of regret.
Zack Snyder's Justice League, a.k.a. 'The Snyder Cut,' has a scene where Wonder Woman earns the admiration of a little girl by vaporizing an already-defeated enemy, and concludes with Superman and Wonder Woman taking turns sawing off pieces of the antagonist's head.
The craziest part about all this? Snyder's defense:
"Someone says to me, 'Batman killed a guy.' I'm like, 'Fuck, really? Wake the fuck up!'... Once you've lost your virginity to this fucking movie and then you come and say to me something about like 'My superhero wouldn't do that.' I'm like, 'Are you serious?' I'm like down the fucking road on that. It's a cool point of view to be like,'My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn't fucking lie to America. My heroes didn't embezzle money from their corporations. My heroes didn't commit any atrocities.' That's cool. But you're living in a fucking dream world."
Yes. A fucking dream world. Not the really-real world Snyder is depicting, with an invincible flying man in bright blue tights and a red cape, the unaging daughter of Zeus, a merman, a cyborg, a guy who can run so fast as to be able to travel through time, a shape-shifting Martian, and a billionaire who fights crime dressed like a bat. Y'know, truly non-fictional shit like you see on the news every day.
(I'm almost as bumfuzzled by Snyder's assertion that the public might continue to deem someone who lies, embezzles, and commits atrocities "a hero." And don't even get me started on the "lost your virginity to this fucking movie" thing. There are several ways to interpret that comment, none of which make Snyder look good.)
In other words, until Matt Reeves' The Batman, there hadn't really ever been a cinematic representation of Batman who didn't kill (which I appreciate - but The Batman has all sorts of other issues regardless).
Which brings us to the newly-released Blue Beetle. Much like the Schumacher and Nolan Batmen, director Angel Manuel Soto and writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer outfit protagonist Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) with multiple speeches about the importance of not murdering our enemies - it even has a scene near the end where Jaime wants to kill a foe, and the magical entity with which he is now symbiotic stops him and reminds him "We're not a killer" - but then finds ways to assassinate its bad guys regardless.
One of these is the eventual demise of the big bad, carried out by her highest-ranking henchmen in a kind of "We belong dead" moment. But the ones that really bugged me (no pun intended) were those carried out by members of Jaime's family. Is it funny to see his elderly grandmother (Adriana Barraza) wield a gatling gun? Yes. Is it weird that Jaime watches her mow down a whole cadre of attackers and has almost no discernible reaction whatsoever? YES! Just as weird as when, a few scenes later, his uncle (George Lopez) impales a guy with a giant robot leg and Jaime remains silent. Like, why bring it up at all if he's gonna look the other way so often? Perhaps we're meant to infer that the Blue Beetle believes non-lethal defense tactics are a personal choice, not an ethical responsibility?
Because - again - "ethical responsibility" is largely the subject with which superhero movies should be concerned. I completely understand why, in real life, we just go in an shoot Osama bin Laden in the head... but again, these movies aren't anywhere remotely in the vicinity of "real life." Having the heroes obliterate their nemeses doesn't make them more mature (which I'm guessing is the defense some might attempt) - it makes them less interesting. It means the only thing separating the good guys from the bad guys are their ends, not their means. They actually might as well lie and embezzle while they're at it.
The best superhero stories are aspirational. They make us feel inspired to do the right thing, even when the cost is high. Is that not a lesson worth teaching?