For as long as I’ve been a fan of comic books and superhero movies, I’ve hated the argument that heroes should kill their enemies. So when Dwayne Johnson was all over the trades claiming his new DC movie Black Adam was different from other films in the genre because the titular anti-hero wasn’t afraid to turn bad guys into corpses, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
First of all, it’s an argument made in ignorance. Superheroes have been killing villains for a long time now. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel dropping a powerless Zod down an Arctic chasm in his second Superman movie, Michael Keaton’s Batman causing the Joker to fall to his death, and don’t even get us started on Wolverine and Deadpool because they’ve been turning their bad guys into bloody confetti for years now.
Now we could get into the nitty-gritty details about letting murderous maniacs like the Joker or the Green Goblin enter the prison system only to escape a few weeks later and start their crime sprees all over again. Does it make a lot of sense in the real world? The answer is obviously ‘no’, but here’s the secret: these stories aren’t set in the real world.
They’re fictional stories designed to entertain and inspire. Ultimately superheroes don’t kill their enemies because it’s a narrative dead end that would eventually lead to the hero running out of bad guys to fight. But more than that, this may shock people: you’re not supposed to want heroes to kill.
There are nuanced real-life arguments to be made about the death penalty and the rights of the state to take a life, but on principle, I think we can all broadly agree that killing is an abominable wrong. So to suggest that of superheroes, who at their best are meant to be paragons of humanity’s virtues, is an argument I’ve never understood.
Ultimately, I believe this argument comes from a part of the superhero fandom that thinks gritty and grim films are fundamentally ‘better’ than light and fun ones. They are the type of people who complain that MCU characters make too many jokes and that films in the genre need to take themselves super seriously at all times.
It’s a reductive way of looking at the medium. Comic books, and the science fiction movies they inspired, have such a broad canvas to play with. That’s why there’s room for moody neo-noir Batman movies like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and goofier Marvel movies like Taika Watiti’s Thor movies.
You don’t need to choose, and suggesting one is better than the other is dumb. I’ll give Johnson this, at least – Black Adam‘s always had a complex moral code in the source material, so he’s only being true to the character. But come on, Dwayne, we know you’ve got a movie to promote but telling us you’re playing a murderer isn’t winning you many fans.