Ben Robins on Marvel’s murder problem…
With the most celebrated of all the cinematic universes very much knocking on the door of its 10th anniversary, there’s all sorts of retrospective business going round. And something that becomes more and more glaringly obvious within the Marvel world, especially moving forward, is its attitude towards death. Well, not just death – hundreds upon thousands of bad guys and onlookers die without so much as a second’s notice in almost every Marvel movie to date – let’s rephrase: let’s talk about murder.
In the most recent MCU effort to date, Tom Holland’s fresh-faced kiddo Spider-Man makes a fairly throwaway comment to the “computer lady” who runs his extra-special techno suit. When asked if he wants to use “lethal force”, Holland’s Spidey very quickly decides that killing people is not something he wants to do. Which definitely makes sense for a 15 year-old from Queens who’s just trying to make a difference. The same can’t be said of every other hero in the MCU though.
Considering the serious backlash when Ben Affleck’s massively over-roided new Batman started burying skulls in last year’s DC effort Dawn of Justice, it’s a wonder no one stopped and thought about Tony Stark’s one-man army escapade from 2008’s Iron Man, where he basically picks off entire squads of enemy soldiers. Or the very good and proper Captain America, who pops so many shots in 2011’s The First Avenger, the poster might as well take a page out of Quentin Tarantino’s books, and depict the red, white and blue hero himself standing atop a big ol’ pile of Nazi corpses.
It’s not really spoken about, but I guess in some ways, it’s kind of understandable; these first phase tentpoles are war movies, and Cap is a soldier after all. A soldier, that is, who’s apparently totally fine mentally with everything he experienced in the war, and so never suffers from any sense of PTSD. Because something as dark and real as PTSD could never exists in a movie universe about super colourful, spandex-suited superheroes. Except it does – Tony Stark struggles with it all the way through Iron Man 3, where it’s triggered by his own heroism, and seems to have nothing to do with the fact that he killed lots of actual human beings at one stage in his life.
To be fair, Marvel do a thoroughly good job of accounting for the collateral damage that lies in the Avengers’ wake. The Battle of New York from 2012’s Avengers Assemble is still seeing repercussions even now, several phases and many years on. Hell, even the biggest superhero shuffle on the studio’s cards to date, last year’s Civil War, is entirely based around the idea of the Avengers themselves taking the blame for all the death and destruction they’ve caused since forming. Tony Stark feels bad because a lady shows him a picture of her son, who was killed when Sokovia collapsed in Age of Ultron. Scarlet Witch feels bad because part of a building blows up on her watch during the opening scenes of Civil War. But neither seem to give so much as a passing glance to all of the actual human beings they’re regularly flinging off highway overpasses and blasting out of third-story windows in the name of justice.
I know, I get it: “they’re superheroes, it’s what they do”. These are bad guys being killed. Thor is a warrior god from a distant realm, known for tearing apart his enemies and racking up humongous body-counts. Black Widow is a trained Russian assassin who’s probably handled more contract kills than you’ve had hot dinners. It’s part of the furniture in these sorts of worlds: character-building badassery. But then where does The Punisher fit in? A disgruntled war vet who’s kept well away from all the mainline cape-twirling and day-saving, because heaven-forbid he kills people.
In fact, in Mark Millar’s original Civil War comic run, The Punisher even gets a glorified cameo. Where he shows up, kills some people, then promptly gets the sack because his morals are apparently “not in check”. The difference here is just that The Punisher is a very unhappy individual who dwells on the humanity of his victims, whilst someone like Black Widow doesn’t. Both use guns. Both shoot bad guys dead. What separates the two is how they’re depicted on-screen: one as a clean-cut, strong-willed Avenger, the other as a dangerous menace who’s not allowed to play with the big boys because he’s “disturbed”.
I’m not even for a second saying that Jon Bernthal’s Punisher should get a nod in Infinity War or any other big hero team-up; I agree, it wouldn’t work. But what I am saying is, Marvel’s interpretation of its characters is getting a little – well, actually, rather mightily – hypocritical. Can you really spend series after Netflix series jostling with an anti-hero’s moral compass because he shoots people, only to have a flamboyantly dressed ‘superhero’ with big wings and goggles (in case you didn’t guess, Falcon) essentially doing the same thing, with absolutely no repercussions, in an adjacent movie?
There’s a very fine line between the Avengers’ casual super-heroics – Spider-Man tying a bike thief to the wall – and Falcon unloading his uzis on a bunch of mercenaries, or Cap walloping people in the face at breakneck speeds with a shield made of the most indestructible metal on Earth. It’s clearly not something Marvel particularly want to address in the films themselves; to be fair, who the hell wants to sit through a 2-hour plus movie of Tony Stark sitting in therapy rambling about his fears and dealing with all his internal demons? Oh, wait: again said film already exists and again it’s called Iron Man 3.
No one’s saying they have to have a huge court case about it all or have Steve Rogers spend the rest of his days in a veteran’s hospital shivering in fear. But when your roster of films gets to the point where it’s not only directly addressing your heroes’ collateral damage and the effect they have on the community, but also the morality of taking lives in a quest for justice, shouldn’t the fact that some of these superheroes are straight up killing other human beings, actually be part of the conversation too?
With Peter Parker’s comments in Spider-Man: Homecoming and the upcoming Punisher Netflix series very much opening the door for it, it’d be a shame to see Marvel miss out on an opportunity to gain even more ground in the superhero arena. It’s an age-old quandary that dates as far back as superhero comics have been around, and it’s one that deserves to be addressed.
Ben Robins / @BMLRobins