Watchmen and Man of Steel director Zack Snyder was back in the news this week, defending his decision to have Batman kill people in Batman v. Superman. “It’s a cool point of view to be like ‘my heroes are still innocent… My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’ That’s cool. But you’re living in a fucking dream world,” he said, in a profanity-filled rant captured on video and posted on Reddit. Bat-fans reacted predictably on social media, insisting that Batman shouldn’t kill, and that Snyder’s dark vision is a betrayal of the character.
To which I say: a pox on both your Batcaves. The entire argument about Batman killing people is ridiculous, and people should stop obsessing over it. Superhero movies take a fundamentally unserious, dumb stance on what violence looks like and what it means, regardless of whether superheroes actually choose to kill people. Batman isn’t a more moral character if he declares his actions don’t kill people, and he isn’t a more grown-up one if he does.
People who don’t want their superheroes to kill are arguing that characters cross an absolute moral line when they murder people, and that heroes are meant to be aspirational and make better moral choices than most people. But the actions those heroes engage in constantly belie the “no killing” rule. Are heroes who regularly punch people through walls, or hit them in the face hard enough to knock them unconscious, actually showing any sort of absolute commitment to the sanctity of life?
Superhero codes against killing rely on the fantasy that heroes can subject their enemies to massive violence and somehow assure that no one dies, just because they’ve declared that they aren’t killers. In Netflix’s now-canceled Daredevil series, the main character regularly tortures people, but none of his victims ever suffer a heart attack. Superman can pulverize concrete with his bare hands, but somehow when he hits the bad guy, he doesn’t fracture every bone in their bodies.
Superhero comics declare that the stated intent not to kill is important, even for people who are entirely cavalier about applying lethal force. But in real-life law enforcement, supposedly non-lethal methods of restraint like Tasers can actually result in more deaths, because police deploy them casually in instances where they wouldn’t shoot their guns. As a practical matter, it’s often more dangerous to say, “Our methods aren’t expressly intended to kill, so they aren’t dangerous” while using violence than it is to consciously, judiciously deploy lethal force. The body count for declared non-killer Batman, who regularly leaves people lying around unconscious, presumably with concussions, skull fractures, and brain bleeds, would very likely be higher than that for killer Batman, if either one lived in the real world.
So does that mean Snyder is right to boast about the realism of his murdering Batman? Of course not.
Snyder claims that when he says Batman is a conscious killer, he’s critiquing fan naiveté and exposing the gritty underbelly of heroism. But it’s not like heroes who kill are some kind of daring innovation. James Bond has been murdering bad guys for more than 60 years now; Clint Eastwood’s half-century-long filmography is packed with proudly murderous vigilantes. Killer Batman isn’t an insightful commentary on our heroes. He’s just yet another reminder that people like the tidiness and catharsis of seeing heroes kill bad guys on film.
Snyder’s use of lethal violence in Batman v. Superman is indistinguishable from that in, say, 2018’s Skyscraper, in which Dwayne Johnson’s veteran character kills a bunch of terrorists while trying to protect his family. Skyscraper, needless to say, is not a hard-hitting exposé of our cultural naiveté. It’s a big dumb action movie with lots of explosions, and a casual hand at disposing of characters it’s done with.
This isn’t meant to forestall critiques of the ways violence is used in action stories. Daredevil’s advocacy of torture is disturbing; the glorification of gun violence in Netflix’s The Punisher is ugly. The way superhero films and action movies generally present violence as the first, last, and only solution to injustice is obviously limiting, and there’s plenty to discuss in the way that obsession with simple violence and killing off evil reflects America’s obsession with guns, lethal force, and simple fantasy solutions to complicated social problems.
But the bottom line is that it’s impossible to square the escapist fantasy of vigilantes doling out lethal force in cool action sequences with any kind of thoughtful take on violence and morality, regardless of whether you acknowledge that the lethal force actually kills people. People who want nuanced discussions of violence and law enforcement probably shouldn’t be watching blockbuster fantasies where heroes punch and shoot evil out of the world. For people who don’t care about the real moral issues of violence, gun control, and abusive policing, it’s ridiculous to quibble over whether a given Batman throat-punch happened to result in a death. The entire debate is mashing up fantasy action with real-world consequences in a way that muddies both.