(This post contains spoilers about the combat styles and some plot details of Daredevil, Captain America, Oliver Queen/Arrow and the Agents of SHIELD)
Imagine this conversation. A few friends come by and tell you that they’ve started spending their nights fighting crime. You express some concern, and one of the re-assurances they give you is that they never kill the bad guys, just knock them out. Ok, you ask, well do you do that? So they start telling you about the guaranteed non-lethal forms of combat they employ, like…
Hitting people. Hard.
Hitting people while you also happen to have super strength.
Hitting people with a metal shield in the head, throat, or chest, while also having super strength.
Shooting people with arrows, but only with non-lethal tips or avoiding vital organs. (this friend might admit he used to kill people, but he’s changed.)
Intentionally or unintentionally causing cars to crash with people in them.
Shooting the bad guys with ‘knock out guns’ designed not to kill.
Hitting people in the head with metal rods.
Wrapping a chain around someone’s neck and throwing them down a stairwell.
Blowing things up near, but not too near, the bad guys.
Smashing someone’s head into a wall.
Are your eyebrows pretty high about now?
Don’t get me wrong- I love that fact that so many superhero movies and TV shows are confronting the moral weight of killing, even killing a ‘bad guy’. There are many questions that surround that issue, and I hope to explore many of them on these pages in time to come. But today I want to focus on one particular aspect of this equation- the idea that someone can enter a fight, especially using the methods we so often see, and tell themselves they aren’t in danger of accidently killing someone.
The fact is- human life is a terribly fragile thing. All the more so when people start fighting. In our own world, it’s not unheard of for someone to be killed in a boxing or MMA situation. Punch or kick the head in just the right (wrong) way and someone can die. Such events are happily quite rare but they do occur. And that’s in a controlled environment with at least some degree of safety gear. Once you take that away and start adding things like metal rods, or dangerous surroundings or bows and arrows (bows and freaking nonlethal arrows!?!) it becomes harder and harder to tell me that no one is ever going to die in one of these fights.
My problem isn’t just the suspension of disbelief- it’s that it muddies the moral question so many of these show are actually trying to ask. Daredevil’s back and forth over whether or not to kill is one of the best parts of the show, made even better when the Punisher appears to make him question those beliefs. But acting as through there is a simple binary between killing or not killing is too simple.
There is a distinct difference, morally and legally, between being comfortable using lethal force in a fight and recognizing that, try as you might, fatalities are a risk when fighting. Different again is the decision to kill a ‘bad guy’ once the fight is ended and they are no longer a threat. Each of those carries moral weight and when we conflate them, we’re losing the chance to talk about all of the nuances around violence and force, lethal and non-lethal.
Especially since it is generally not our heroes who introduce lethality into the fight. Killing a person who is trying to kill you, or is about to kill others shouldn’t be seen lightly, but is certainly miles away from killing the person you don’t have to. But so often it seems the things I watch tell me this isn’t a problem because you never have to kill a person. You can always beat them unconscious, but stop just before you cross that line. I only wish it were that easy.
Because like so many of the issues that this genre touches on, intentionally or otherwise, it mirrors issues being talked about in the real world. As just one example, here in the United States, there have been numerous debates, with even more needed, about how police departments define lethal force, and how many times the application of what is theoretically nonlethal force winds up with someone dead. Every time I see a hero proclaim their dedication to not killing, as though they can make sure no one breaks their neck as they fall, or suffers brain damage from being bashed against the floor or any other of the multiple ways we could imagine someone being unintentionally killed, I have to wonder how many believe that’s physically possible.
Agents of SHIELD found a cute workaround for this issue, by giving the characters knock out guns that incapacitate without killing. And if you’re not willing to accept “Science!” as an answer to the question of, how does that gun make sure you don’t kill people, you’re never going to enjoy any of this genre. But even there, my assurance of the nonlethality of combat took a few hits once Bobbi pulled out the metal rods she likes to hit people with – frequently in the head.
I love that the genre is paying more attention to the consequences of violence. Civil War highlighted the dangers of collateral damage, and while Batman vs. Superman bungled the issue, at least they tried. The moral weight of death is one of my favorite parts of Daredevil and I look forward to seeing more shows and movies explore that. And I know that there are a few people out there who for some reason find the fight scenes to be more enjoyable than the weighty philosophical navel gazing that I adore, so I’m sure we’ll continue to see epic battles, in some of which people die, in some of which they don’t. Or we’ll just keep battling aliens or robots, where there’s less moral qualms about killing them. (Captain America did something similar when he kills Nazis.)
I don’t expect every superhero or related character to wonder if killing the bad guys is wrong. I just want to make sure that if they’re asking that question, they’re answering it honestly. I can buy aliens and super soldiers and a pair of British scientists who can use science to figure out anything except how to get into each other’s pants. But claiming you can bash people in the head, shoot them with arrows, hit them with shields or anything else, but you won’t kill them because you’re a hero and that’s an easy line to find- that’s something I just can’t buy.