Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sons of Legacies

This is the second post in my series on “To Kill a Villain!” For the Introduction post go here!

The first factor we will be studying in our discussion of why some heroes kill their villains without angst while others don’t is the upbringing of our four superheroes. Our parents have a profound impact on all of us, even an orphan is strongly impacted by their lack of parents and any legacy their parents left behind. But while most of these four particular heroes were orphaned at some point in their life, most had parents long enough for them to deeply and profoundly impact their children directly with taught values, unspoken expectations, and parental example.

In today’s post we specifically look at our two billionaire superheroes, Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. Both are men who have been deeply affected by their fathers and their fathers’ view of the world. While Bruce and Tony are very similar—since in many ways Iron Man was created to be Marvel’s version of Batman—we will see that their fathers were nearly polar opposites of each other. It’s no wonder that two heroes raised by men who believe such diametrically opposing things would grow up to view killing differently.

Bruce Wayne

Martha and Thomas Wayne
Bruce Wayne was born to Dr. Thomas Wayne and his wife, Martha. The movie Batman Begins unfortunately does not give us much insight into Martha Wayne, other than she was a woman who loved her husband and son, but it tells us quite about Bruce’s father, Thomas. Though he owned (or at least was the majority shareholder of) Wayne Enterprises, Thomas did not work there in any capacity. He left the running of the company to other men, and instead Thomas was a doctor. We also know that Thomas used his incredible wealth to build the public transport system that runs through all of Gotham, a city riddled with crime that Thomas still had hope could be saved. In fact, Ra's al Ghul later indicates that Thomas Wayne was the only thing standing between Gotham and complete destruction, that Thomas Wayne’s generosity and indefatigable belief in people countered the League of Shadow’s efforts to bankrupt Gotham.

Thomas Wayne was not a soldier. This was not a man who when confronted with a mugger could take him down. Instead Thomas Wayne was the sort of man who calmly confronted the man pointing a gun at him, and when that gun turned to point at his wife—instead of tackling the man or any other form of self-defense or attack—Thomas stepped in front of the gun. (Note: I will save talking about the effect the death of his parents had on Bruce for his origins post.)

Was Thomas Wayne a pacifist? In the macro-sense, I think we can safely say no, since the company he was majority shareholder of readily accepted DoD contracts. Though Thomas left the running of the company to “better men,” I would think if he was an outspoken, political pacifist, he would use his considerable leverage to direct his company away from accepting contracts that help war efforts. However, in the micro-sense, it’s clear that Thomas Wayne was not a man who ever resorted to violence, even in the face of death.

Thomas believed he had a responsibility to help Gotham. He was not satisfied to merely be rich and live off of his wealth—which he could have easily done. He could have become the playboy Bruce Wayne later pretended to be. Instead Thomas became a medical doctor, a career that devotes him to helping individuals. Most people would probably call their civic duty as done, but Thomas Wayne was not satisfied with that. Helping individuals wasn’t enough. He had to help all of Gotham, which he did through financing public works like building the train system.

Thomas having a moment with Bruce
It seems clear from Batman Begins that Thomas—despite his work and many civic projects—deeply cared about his son and spent a fair amount of time with him. Thomas and Bruce seem to have a close and loving relationship. Bruce isn’t afraid to cry in front of his father, isn’t afraid to ask for his father’s help, and when Bruce gets scared at the opera, Thomas covers for Bruce—telling Martha he needed a bit of air, instead of the truth that Bruce was frightened. Bruce’s trust and confidence was clearly very important to Thomas, and Bruce obviously adored his father.

If there is one clear lesson that Thomas teaches Bruce in Batman Begins, it’s that the reason why people fall is so they can learn to get back up. While this phrase is often used in the movie as Bruce’s motivation to continue—a catchphrase that encourages him to keep trying even as he fails—I don’t think we can underestimate it’s importance overall and how it affects how Bruce views the entire world.

Thomas carrying Bruce in (with Alfred) and reminding Bruce that it's okay to fall
The League of Shadows wants to destroy Gotham, because Gotham has fallen. But Bruce, ever his father’s son, believes that Gotham can rise from the ashes and become better than it was before—that Gotham can learn from its fall. It’s harder for Bruce to apply this lesson to villains, but it’s something that Rachel Dawes tries to teach him. While it is not and never will be okay that Joe Chill killed Bruce’s parents, that descent to the very bottom did allow Joe Chill to change his view on life and to want to testify against one of Gotham’s crime bosses. Joe Chill fell—a fall that hurt multiple people including Bruce Wayne—but he was learning to get back up.

Every villain has fallen. And like Gotham, every villain has the possibility of learning from that fall. 

With a worldview that claims anyone can rise from their fall, it is no wonder that Bruce is unwilling to kill anyone.

Tony Stark
In direct contrast to the Wayne family, we have the Starks.

Tony Stark was born to Howard and Maria Stark. We know next to nothing about MCU Maria Stark and have no canonical interactions with which to even speculate about Tony and Maria’s relationship. Howard Stark on the other hand we know a good deal about.

Howard Stark, piloting Cap and Peggy across enemy lines
Howard Stark was born in 1917, a few months after Bucky Barnes was born and nearly a year before Steve Rogers was born. This means that when we first meet Howard Stark in Captain America: The First Avenger, he is merely 26 years old. I say “merely” because a 26-year-old Howard Stark was already the best mechanical engineer in the country (and he considers that a “modest” assessment of his intelligence), an extremely skilled pilot, the founder of his own company (Stark Industries), and the head engineer/contractor of the Strategic Science Reserve—the premier R&D division of the Allies (not just America). So though Howard Stark was not a soldier, this was a man devoted to the cause of the war, the man who built the machine that created Captain America. After the war, Howard Stark devoted all of his efforts to Stark Industries, which became the premier weapon’s manufacturer for the United States. Clearly Howard Stark believed that the world had many bad guys who needed to be killed.

Tony Stark was born in 1970, when Howard was 53-years-old. The movies show little direct interaction between the two men, but we know a good deal about Tony’s perspective of Howard and their relationship. He thought Howard was a distant, cool, impossible to please man that a young Tony Stark nevertheless tried to please. We know that Howard often spoke about Captain America, that Tony was raised with this idea that Steve Rogers was the ideal human being, a good man, a role model, and a hero—someone Tony himself could never actually live up to.

Howard showing Steve Rogers the prototype shields
I don’t think we can underestimate how the generation gap affected Tony and Howard’s relationship. Howard had Tony very late in life. From the one scene of interaction we see between them in Iron Man 2 when Tony is a child, Howard often probably viewed Tony as a nuisance and in the way of his ambitions. And while it’s clearly stated that Howard loved Tony—viewed him as his greatest creation—I think it’s also very clear that Howard had no idea how to relate to his son. The only thing they had in common was engineering, and I think it’s fair to say that Howard pushed Tony into the career path.

Howard talking about Tony in Iron Man 2
Which isn’t to say that Tony doesn’t love engineering, because I think the movies make it very clear he does. He has a natural aptitude for it and love of it. But very few four-year-olds are asking to make circuit boards. Howard, in trying to share his passion with his son, clearly set his son’s path before him. Tony wanted to please his father, and engineering was all they had in common, so of course Tony dedicated himself to it. Howard probably didn’t even mean to push Tony to his career as fast as he did (Tony graduated from MIT at 17, which is obviously really young to graduate from college). But I doubt the 50-something Howard Stark knew how to talk to a child. He probably treated Tony as a lab assistant, and the incredibly bright, if incredibly young Tony probably raced to keep up.

After Howard and Maria Stark died in a car accident,* Tony continued his father’s legacy and became the leader of Stark Industries at the age of 21. And while Tony actually is the playboy Bruce Wayne pretends to be, I think it’s fair to say that before his capture by the Ten Rings—which we will discuss in detail in his “origins” post—Tony Stark not only thought it was okay to kill but that he was obligated to provide the weapons he did. Tony was following in the footsteps of his father. And while Howard Stark himself may have never killed anyone (we can only speculate), he provided weapons and technology for Captain America—who did. Howard raised Tony to believe that Captain America was the standard to which he should hold himself to. 

Tony is a man whose entire existence is shaped by a soldier and a weapons manufacture. It shouldn't shock anyone that he is okay with killing in battle or for a just cause. 

Note: Tomorrow we will continue this discussion of how our heroes were brought up, but this time we will discuss Marvel and DC’s pillars of morality: Steve Rogers and Clark Kent.

*We later learn in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that this accident wasn’t an accident at all, but since Tony didn’t know that (presumably) until Natasha Romanoff dumped all of SHIELD’s files on the internet—which takes place after all of Tony’s current movies, it is immaterial to the point of this discussion.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

To Kill A Villain: Introduction

I recently saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the fifth time. As I watched the Lemurian Star sequence—near the very beginning—I appreciated for the first time that Captain America straight up kills a lot of bad guys.

Admittedly most of these guys aren't dead, if any. Still a cool scene.

At the time I didn’t think much about it, other than to really appreciate it. Steve Rogers felt like a breath of fresh air among superheroes, someone who isn’t angsting over whether or not bad guys should die. Steve Rogers doesn’t worry about whether or not the Red Skull should be imprisoned. He worries about how many innocents the Red Skull will kill if he lives. (Yes, I know that’s from the first movie, but I didn’t want to open with spoilers for The Winter Soldier.)

Other than appreciating it, I didn’t think much more beyond it, until the other night when on tumblr when the-cellist-in-portland described Steve Rogers as “a precious, goofy, awkward death machine who no doubt makes the best waffles ever.”

I really enjoyed her comment. I still think it’s one of the greatest descriptions of Steve Rogers I have ever seen. And I have no doubt Steve makes fantastic waffles. It was also awesome to see someone else who appreciated that Steve Rogers is a killing machine. (Seriously, re-watch the Lemurian Star sequence sometime. There is no mercy there what so ever.)

So I responded with: “Speaking of Death Machine, it wasn’t until I saw CA: TWS for the fifth time this weekend, that I truly appreciated the fact that Steve just effing kills people. He doesn’t angst over it like Superman and Batman. He just does his freaking job and gets rid of the bad guys. If Steve Rogers was up against the Joker, that dude would be dead. None of this put him in jail just to have him escape in the next movie business. THANK GOODNESS FOR STEVE ROGERS.”

The-cellist-in-portland responded: He does get the job done. Damn yes, we need to let him loose in the DC Universe and let him host seminars on ‘How to Get Rid of the Bad Guy…Permanently and Without Angst’.”

At this point I was prepared to end the discussion with an “Amen, sister” and a fun gif, never to think about it again. But then a-long-way-from-here brought up the following, amazingly excellent point: “I feel like Steve Rogers doesn’t have to have all the angst about killing bad guys because y’know he is a soldier for a worldwide recognized government/institution. If Batman kills a guy he goes on trial for murder.”

My gut reaction was “Well, Batman is a vigilante. He’s already going to jail, what more is murder?” Then I realized all DC heroes are vigilantes and most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) heroes are not. I started thinking if that was the difference on their views of killing people, and then I realized it was so much deeper than that.

In the end it comes down to three factors: how the person was raised (upbringing), what made the person a “hero” (origins), and whether or not the hero has a higher authority they’re answering to (vigilantism). To explore this idea, I’m going to use two examples from the Marvel movies and two examples from the DC movies: Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Clark Kent, and Bruce Wayne.

Why these four characters? I chose them because they are counterparts to each other in the different universes. Steve Rogers and Clark Kent are both the virtuous leaders of their respective superhero organizations, and while it’s true that Steve cannot match Clark’s power, they both stand for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are almost perfectly matched in every way, except in how they go about their superheroing. Both are men whose only super powers are their wealth and intelligence. Comparing such similar characters will hopefully allow us to understand how Marvel and DC have ended up with such incredibly different views on whether it’s okay for a hero to kill a villain.

For the sake of simplifying this discussion, I am going to limit my discussion of the characters mainly to movie canon. For Batman I am going to specifically reference Christopher Nolan’s Trilogy. For Superman, I will reference Man of Steel. For any Marvel characters, I will stick to the MCU. But basically, for the sake of this argument, the true Steve Rogers is movie Steve Rogers. 

Let me be clear about something. This is not a discussion of whether it is actually the correct action for a hero to kill a villain. This is not a discussion on whether we want our superheroes killing villains. Clearly I have already expressed my admiration for Steve Rogers for doing so, but my feelings are neither here nor there. This is ultimately going to be a discussion on how these different characters feel about killing and why they feel that way. And if we’re lucky we perhaps might be able to draw some conclusions about the differences between Marvel and DC, and why these movies appeal to the people they do.

Note: Read the next installment here! It's a study of the upbringings of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, specifically focusing on how deeply their fathers impacted them!

Comments? Anyone have any opening thoughts? Or do you think there are more than three factors that affect whether or not a superhero is okay with killing a villain? Also since I already expressed my opinion on admiring Steve Rogers for his willingness to kill, what do you guys think about that? Are you okay with superheroes killing their villains?