If you haven’t read Justice League #22 yet, go away somewhere and come back when you’re done. There are spoilers for the Injustice comics series and the Man of Steel movie, too. You've been warned.
The first issue of DC Comics’ Trinity War summer crossover event features the Man of Steel doing something that he rarely does: killing someone.
The victim this time is Dr. Light, a reluctant superhero caught up in the battle between two superteams. After he inadvertently attacks Wonder Woman—who Superman happens to be dating—Dr. Light gets his head burned off by Kal-El’s heat vision. It's clearly set up as an accident with any number of outs, and Superman expresses shock and regret right after it happens. There’s a vast evil conspiracy going on that’s trying to get the public to distrust the Justice League and this apparent murder at the Man of Steel’s hands is part of that campaign.
Justice League #22 marks the third time in recent months that Superman’s killed someone. The previous incident comes at the end of Man of Steel, the blockbuster film that’s re-introducing Superman to a new generation of fans. In the Zack Snyder film, Superman snaps the neck of fellow Kryptonian General Zod when faced with the reality that someone just as unstoppable as him will kill as many people as possible. It’s presented by the movie’s creators as the only possible out.
The moments where Superman kills in this year's Injustice: Gods Among Us comic are both similar and different as Man of Steel and Justice League #22. He kills Lois Lane by accident but ends the Joker's life with clear intent.
Between the Injustice comic, the Man of Steel movie and today’s issue of Justice League, the questions of the moment now seem to be these: "Is Superman still Superman if he kills?" "Should Superman kill?"
Comic book creators have toyed with the idea of a Superman who kills before.
In fact, a quarter century ago, writer-artist John Byrne climaxed his revolutionary revamp of the character by having the Man of Steel reluctantly kill three Kryptonian criminals who had murdered the entire population of an alternate Earth.
In the ensuing months, Superman was wracked by grief. The comic's post-Byrne creators had Superman temporarily exile himself to outer space for a bit of soul searching. He committed himself to not killing again, which seemed to be the character's default moral position. Comics creators kept him from violating that oath for years.
Many people believe that Superman’s supposed to represent the best of humanity’s ideals. He solves problems by punching them, yes, but that use of force has generally been portrayed to be judicious. There’s an implicit trust that Superman will use his powers and judgment in the best way possible.
But that steadfastness gets read as boring by lots of comics readers. And a fear of being seen as staid seems to be what’s driving the most recent instances of Super-killing. With the exception of writer Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run, DC’s New 52 reboot has struggled to make Superman feel as vibrant as other competing characters. And Man of Steel hit theaters in the wake of superhero movie successes where the lead characters could be more human, with more snark or attitude. So the more scuffed-up, less-than-perfect Superman that we're getting now may just be a sign of the times.
Yeah, Superman kills. Human beings kill, too. But that last resort is seen as a moral failing if there are other possible solutions. Of course, the failing here isn’t necessarily at the character’s hands. It’s at the creators’.
Super-killing seems to happen when creators want to convince readers that their take on the character is radically different from the baseline iterations of the character, as in the Injustice: Gods Among Us prequel comic. The problem with continually having Superman send folks to the cemetery is that it robs death of its power as a plot device. Super-Killing-Man also implies a lack of ideas, too. When you have a character who can do impossible things, he shouldn’t be resorting to the most regretful of actions once a month. There've been three Super-killings in 2013, the year of Superman's 75th birthday. It's a really weird way to commemorate his creation.