A few episodes into the second season of Daredevil, the eponymous hero and his opponent — Frank Castle, the Punisher — finally talk out their differences. Well, it's more like they yell their differences at each other in gravelly voices. One of them is a man who takes the law into his own hands to make sure criminals face the legal repercussions of their actions. The other is a man who takes the law into his own hands to viciously murder criminals with large guns.
"You're both wrong!" I yelled at the screen. "I mean — Daredevil's right! But his argument SUCKS!"
I credit superheroes with my opposition to the death penalty; it could be a side-effect of 20 years of Batman fandom. But that also creates a high rhetorical bar: It's one thing when you have to defend a character refusing to kill the Kingpin, Green Goblin, General Zod or whatever.
Come back to me when you have to defend not killing the Joker.
Meta-textually, there are two simple reasons why superheroes don't kill:
- At his inception, Batman used guns and spouted one-liners like "Death to Doctor Death!" He and Superman were editorially mandated into non-lethal heroes a year or two into their existence, once it became clear that the nascent superhero genre was so popular with children that parents were starting to take notice. Historically, American comics have needed a fig leaf to show that publishers weren't feeding reprehensible garbage to children. There were congressional hearings at the height of the McCarthy Era that examined a proposed link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. There were literal book burnings.
- Editorially, publishers of indefinitely long serial stories need characters to stay around so that they can be used again. Readers like the familiarity, marketing likes the brand stability and writers and artists on a grueling monthly schedule like that they have a well of established characters and character designs to pull from. The "never kill" mandate lowers stakes, but it makes sense. Comics exist in the same sort of continuum as sitcoms (and Greek and Shakespearean comedies): Regardless of the crazy events of the story, ultimately the status quo must be maintained.
But if you're asking "why don't superheroes kill," those aren't the answers you want. You want the in-universe reason, even if the external realities of the comics industry created the question in the first place. You're not wrong. The best stories have understandable internal logic for the facts of their setting, whether or not those facts were mandated upon creators by whatever sort of outside constraints.
Unfortunately there are still a lot of half-assed attempts to write a superhero who explains why they don't kill. I'm a Batman fan, and "Because we can't cross that line," from a character who is routinely depicted as maiming criminals or torturing them for information becomes ludicrous. "Because it makes us like them," from a guy who repeatedly puts mass-murderers into a system that cannot hold them is dumb. "Because all people deserve a second chance." Seriously, dude, the Joker is on his, like, 400th chance.
"Because we don't." Holy tautology, Batman! It's not that I think Batman should kill the Joker. I don't think he should kill anybody, ever. I just wish writers were better at articulating why.
Here's the good reason why superheroes don't kill
Whether or not they know how to say it, superheroes don't kill because they believe the system needs help, but isn't irreparably broken.
We know this for two reasons: one, they talk about it so dang much. Fixing Gotham. Saving Hell's Kitchen.
And two: If they didn't believe the system was ultimately fixable and desirable, they wouldn't be punching criminals and corrupt officials while befriending the good cops and lawyers.
They'd be tearing that system down. They'd be Nolan's Two-Face, Moore's V, they'd be Ra's al Ghul or Magneto. They'd be the Punisher.
Editorially, Batman is never going to fix Gotham, he's never going to retire (except in stories where he lives long enough to become physically incapable of being Batman) and he's never going to stop being needed. But textually, the vast majority of superheroes are trying to create a world in which they are not needed.
The characters who have formed our most standard superhero tropes are characters who ultimately believe in the system while acknowledging that it's broken. By definition, a vigilante works outside the law — but at the end of the day (or, maybe, at the beginning of business hours), Matt Murdock is still a defense attorney. Bruce Wayne still uses the power of his wealth and influence to support political candidates and outreach programs. Clark Kent and Peter Parker still spend their days working in investigative journalism.
Which brings us to the Punisher. Like Batman, he's motivated by direct personal tragedy, but unlike Batman (most of the time), the men that destroyed his family are alive, known and active criminals. Like Daredevil, Frank Castle looking to clean up the streets of Hell's Kitchen. But unlike Matt Murdock, Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, Frank doesn't have the skills, influence or education needed to interact with the legal system in any substantive way. Instead, he's just very, very good at killing people, and very, very motivated to do so. That doesn't make him right. It just gives him the internally consistent motivation of being a lot less likely to feel like the criminal justice system is worth a damn.
If you kill criminals instead of assisting the proper authorities in apprehending them, you are replacing the criminal justice system. If nothing else, it's clear that defense attorney Matt Murdock believes that due process should be respected. You'd think a lawyer would be able to present a more eloquent argument for that than a screaming match with the Punisher.