Return of the Jedi (1983) was originally titled “Revenge of the Jedi”. Posters were printed with this title, and can be found on eBay. They were all pulled when George Lucas realized a Jedi doesn’t take revenge. No hero does. Rising above something like revenge is an essential part of what makes someone a hero. But sometimes, it seems, that point is negotiable.
I recently watched a bunch of superhero movies from the 80s and the Oughts as research for an essay on this site. Something stood out: killing and revenge, and how our attitude about them seems to have changed over the years. A bit. It was sort of okay then. It’s sort of not okay now.
In Batman (1989), Bruce Wayne finds out the Joker was the thug who shot and killed his parents - the defining event of his life, which led to him becoming Batman. He comes to get him in the Batwing - a bat shaped plane, firing mounted machine guns and launching missiles. (Batman firing machine guns! And launching missiles! At a person! In a city street!) He misses (although he does seem to kill one of the Joker's thugs), and the Joker shoots his plane down with one shot. Batman climbs out of the wreckage and pursues him up an endless set of wooden stairs to the top of a cathedral. Once there he’s attacked by three of the Joker’s goons, and in the course of fighting them, they fall to their deaths down the shaft of the endless staircases. No further sign of them, and Batman moves right along. He catches the Joker, and beats him severely with his fists (driving him face first into a giant bell and through solid wood), saying, "I'm going to kill you" and "You killed my parents." He punches him hard enough to send him over the edge of the cathedral, in effect, murdering him in his rage. But there’s a ledge, and Batman didn’t know about it, because the Joker reaches up and yanks him and Vicki Vale off the edge, where they dangle for dear life. It ends with the Joker hanging on to the rope ladder of a helicopter. Batman shoots a rope/wire thing around the Joker’s legs on one end, which attaches to a great big gargoyle with the other end. The helicopter rises, the gargoyle gets pulled off the corner of the building, the Joker loses his grip and falls to his death. So Batman caused his death, but didn’t outright kill him. But kind of did. In the end, the city embraces Batman as its hero, and the police proudly unveil the Bat Signal to public acclaim.
In Batman Begins (2005), Bruce Wayne tries to kill the thug who killed his parents (who isn’t the Joker), but is beaten to the punch by someone else, and comes face to face with the enormity of what he almost did. Traumatized, he goes to China and gets involved in the criminal underworld - as a criminal. He winds up in prison, where we see him taking on six opponents at once. He’s recruited by a mysterious stranger (Liam Neeson) to live and train at an elite martial arts monastery. He overcomes his need for revenge - though he does allow Ra’s al Ghul (Neeson) to die in the fight at the movie’s climax, the point very deliberately spelled out in this bit of dialogue (with Batman in a position to kill him very easily with a blade in his hand):
Ra's al Ghul: Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?
Bruce Wayne: I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you.
In The Dark Knight (2008) Batman can be distinguished from the various imitators he’s inadvertently spawned by the fact that they use guns. He has to neutralize them as he fights criminals, and does so without killing anyone. He later has to do this with cops too, and again, doesn’t even hurt them. The Joker, on the other hand, kills gleefully, kills often, and uses a knife. He shoots his own men to increase his profits in a bank heist, blows up his own men as part of an escape plan, and instigates two thugs fighting to the death, each armed with a half a broken pool cue.
Late in the movie Batman throws the Joker off the top of a high building, but, resisting the urge for revenge, catches him with a wire/hook thing, and pulls him back to safety, leaving him for the police. The Joker chides Batman that he (Batman) won’t kill him out of “some misplaced sense of self-righteousness”. Batman does end up killing Harvey Dent/Two Face, but that happens in the course of rescuing the eight-year-old kid Dent was holding with a gun to his head. Dent falls to his death, and Batman takes the same fall and lives. The movie ends with Batman choosing to take the blame for Dent’s rogue revenge killings, in order to preserve Dent’s publicly known persona as a hero and defender of justice. The bat-signal (which had never been officially sanctioned) is smashed.
In Superman II (1980), Superman chooses to relinquish his powers in order to be with Lois Lane as an ordinary man. As they drive home from the Fortress of Solitude, they stop at a truck stop diner, where they encounter a rude bullying trucker. Clark Kent challenges him. The trucker punches him through a glass door. Kent bleeds like crazy, but gets back up, and the trucker elbows him and punches him almost into unconsciousness. He then learns that three criminals from his home planet of Krypton have come to earth and made the President kneel at their feet, and they’re calling Superman out.
Superman goes off and regains his powers, and fights the three villains, their confrontation climaxing back in the Fortress of Solitude. He tricks them into losing their powers, and this is revealed when Superman grabs General Zod (the leader)'s hand and crushes it (we hear the bones breaking). He picks him up, throws him against a far wall, where he falls to his death into the misty, icy depths of the place. One of the other Kryptonians, in attempting to fly, falls to his death. Lois Lane then turns to the remaining Kryptonian - a woman - and says, “You know something? You’re a real pain in the neck,” and punches her in the face, knocking her off their ice pillar to her unseen death. Lois smiles and embraces Superman, and all is well.
The film’s final scene has Clark Kent returning to that truck stop, and that same bully trucker is there, sitting in the same spot. Kent picks a fight with him, and with the trucker's first punch to Kent’s midsection, he breaks his own hand (again, we hear the sound of crunching bones), his face contorting into a mask of agony and astonishment. Kent then grabs him by the front of the shirt, sits him on the counter, and, quipping "this order's to go," gives him such a push that he slides the length of the counter and onto a pinball machine, smashing it, leaving him dazed and insensible. Kent pays the lady at the counter with a roll of bills, and makes a remark about how he’s been working out, smiling to himself. The movie ends with this scene of superhuman vengeance perpetrated against a non-powered enemy, and Superman’s heroic theme plays as the credits roll.
In Spiderman II (2004) (see the end note for why I’m talking about this movie and not Superman Returns) the villain is Doctor Octopus, who’s initially a kind and friendly scientist, and whose imminent mastering of nuclear fusion doesn’t prevent him from giving time to his boss’s son’s friend Peter Parker, or from having a dinner full of loving interaction with his wife. When the high profile public demonstration of his nuclear fusion goes awry, the override chip that keeps him in control of the mechanical arms he’s developed gets smashed - the implication being that he doesn’t have command of his own actions from that point on. Simultaneously he witnesses his wife’s death, and the explosive failure of his life’s work. He loses his mind for a physical reason and for two entirely different emotional ones. Doc Ock doesn’t have thugs, so there are no minor villains for Spidey to battle, much less kill - but as a character I don’t believe he’s ever killed anyone anyway. At the film’s climax, he unmasks himself to his enemy and reasons with him to bring him to his senses over the fact that his renewed fusion experiment is going to destroy New York City. And it works. Doctor Octopus voluntarily sinks the glowing ball of fusion into the river, going down with it to ensure it’s extinguished.
The conclusion I’d draw from these differences is the same as the one I outline in my action movies essay : our moral centre of gravity seems to be rising. A bit. You could kill villains - both minor and major - with impunity in the 80s, even in PG rated comic book movies like Superman II and Batman - because if they really deserve to die, then let’s kill em.
A byproduct of the fact that many superhero characters have been in constant publication for decades (almost eighty years in the case of Superman and Batman) is that we get to see how different generations interpret them. I saw a Superman cartoon from the 1940s that opens in Yokohama harbour. An alarm sounds - a ship (presumably with some crew aboard) starts to sink. Spotlights flash through the air. I expected the narrator to say, “This looks like a job for... Superman!!” - but no - Superman flies out of the shadows and hides around the side of a building. He sunk the ship! He did it as part of the war effort, while Clark Kent and Lois Lane were visiting Japan as journalists under diplomatic protection. As Superman he proceeds to sink another ship - with crew aboard, knocks down a bridge with manned military vehicles crossing it, and blows up an airfield, again, killing Japanese people in the process. Later the Japanese kidnap Lois Lane and post signs all over the city saying: "Warning! Superman One more act of sabotage and the American girl reporter will be executed at once!". He sinks another ship. Lois is marched to her execution by firing squad. Superman flies in the at the last second, blocking their bullets with his chest. The Japanese attack and he fights them off with his fists. I've embedded the clip at the end of this post - check out the way the Japanese are drawn. Their eyes are cold, merciless slits. They have buck-teeth. There’s no humanity to them at all. And that was popular entertainment for kids. We’re definitely more advanced than that now. And a bit more than in the 80s. It seems we’re on an slow but steady upward trajectory of development.
But where will we evolve to? How morally advanced can an action hero get before he isn’t fighting at all? Or will we reach a stage as a culture where all of us disdain violence of any kind as entertainment, always and forever? I doubt it. We all develop up the moral ladder, starting at square one, and there will always be people expressing stages of development only a few steps up from square one, that hold an “us and them” mentality, who see their enemies as inhuman and feel justified and excited when they’re beaten and killed. But if we are growing up collectively (which is debatable, but I believe we are), and continue to do so (which is debatable, but I believe we will), it’s possible we’ll reach a time when those attitudes are seen as an inevitable but temporary stage of childhood, like the Counterwill (or “No!”) years, and the onset of adult teeth. And more importantly, life as an adult would just be too dry and dull if we didn’t allow ourselves to let out the inner eleven year olds we have tucked in some interior compartment every now and then to ride a roller coaster, eat a stacked ice cream cone, make a running leap to catch a frisbee (which sends you into a somersault) and dig a cool action movie full of heart pumping chase scenes and dazzling fight choreography that makes you say “Wooooooooow!!”
There’s a more recent Superman movie I could have used to compare to Superman II, but it wasn’t as successful. Spiderman II is a closer parallel in terms of popularity, and that makes it a more interesting to me as a revealer of the zeitgeist. But here it is - in Superman Returns (2006) he doesn’t kill anyone, or deal out any unnecessary roughness. Even after Lex Luthor kidnaps Lois Lane, stabs Superman in the back with a kryptonite crystal and throws him into the ocean to die, all while in the process of attempting to flood enough of the earth to kill billions of people.
And in Iron Man (2008) Tony Stark does kill his terrorist captors in the course of his escape when he first emerges as Iron Man (using a flame thrower, no less) but this is after they've showered him with a hail of bullets for thirty seconds straight. He could have just taken off into the sky, but he had to destroy their guns, bullets and missiles first - weapons his company had manufactured. Which leads to him changing his point of view to a strongly anti-militarist one. And in another scene he shoots and kills terrorists who hold guns to the heads of hostages. So yes, he does kill people. But not in revenge. And he doesn't crack jokes while doing so, despite the humour shown elsewhere in the movie. And in Iron Man II (2010), when he catches Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) on his first appearance in a Monaco Grand Prix, on disarming him (in a very narrow victory) he doesn’t give him a metal punch to his exposed face, doesn’t handle him roughly at all. And in the climactic fight in The Incredible Hulk (2008), even the Hulk - the Hulk fer chrissakes!! - spares his enemy’s life.