The line between superhero and supervillain in comics can often be blurred. Morality is a tricky thing in the battle between good and evil, and comic book characters often provide an interesting representation of this dichotomy. But there’s one key choice every hero makes the second they don a costume: The choice to kill. Every superhero has some semblance of a policy, ranging from The Punisher (will murder almost indiscriminately) to Batman (no murder ever). Batman on the far end of the spectrum has come to represent the gold standard, with his policy known as the Dark Knight’s “one rule.”
It’s a philosophy that’s made its way into the TV and movie universe for both Marvel and DC, and is an important distinction to make for every hero in their beginning moments. In many ways, it reflects upon their entire philosophy as a hero, and in turn dictates the tone of the entire movie or series. It’s why Arrow on the CW shocked so many people in its opening moments, featuring a title character who wasted no time breaking necks and asking questions later. The big turning point in the show at the end of Season 1 centered around this, with Oliver Queen vowing to never kill again.
Batman isn’t the only hero to feature a “no kill” policy, and yet somehow he’s become the one most known for it. So why is this? In modern iterations of the hero, there’s a clear answer to this. More and more, Frank Miller’s broodier and angrier iteration of the Dark Knight is the one that resonates with audiences most. There’s something to be said for an emotionally disturbed and generally terrifying superhero that still draws the line at murder. It in turn causes an audience to question their own morality, asking themselves how far they’d go when there are potentially world-threatening stakes on the line.
Over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we see much more blurred lines. Most of Batman’s opponents throughout his numerous films have traditionally been other human beings, making the decision to spare their lives easier to sympathize with. For Marvel though, oftentimes the opponents of the various members of the Avengers are so unequivocally evil or alien, that no one can question their disposal (Loki excepted). On the list of superheroes in Marvel movies that killed their respective villains: Captain America (Red Skull), Thor (Malekith), Ant-Man (Yellowjacket), The Vision (Ultron), Starlord (Ronan), and Iron Man (Obadiah Stane and Whiplash).
It’s interesting to see the differing morality between Marvel and DC’s movie universe. Even Superman killed Zod in Man of Steel, leaving Batman as one of the only heroes with a set-in-stone rule that restricts him from actively ending the life of his opponents. Over in Marvel’s Netflix world, Daredevil follows a similar model; He’s a tortured ninja-trained vigilante with few scruples about putting villains in the hospital, but also with a strict “no killing” policy. It’s a choice that some heroes make lightly (aka a majority of the Avengers), and that others still take all too seriously. It clearly defines the boundary of a comic book universe, and lends weight to every action a character takes.
We imagine Marvel’s fast and loose policy with their heroes will likely continue on. The two-part Infinity War plotline featuring enemies that will be more alien than ever certainly kick the door wide open for this. Without giving any spoilers away, the Batman/Superman rumble that composes Dawn of Justice challenges the Dark Knight’s moral choices, and in turn provide us with an intriguing dilemma. The “one rule” policy is important to every superhero, whether or not they choose to adhere to it.
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