Villains Killing Themselves to Keep the Hero Sympathetic

Some heroes are killers. They save the day by defeating the bad guy in an epic duel, leaving their enemy crushed and defeated so that they’ll never pose a threat again. When the villain is especially evil, this can be very satisfying for the audience, because they want to see that villain taken down for good.

Other times, however, heroes refuse to kill. Some heroes have a moral code that simply won’t allow them to take a life. Or in other cases, if they do take a life, it’s rare. Batman, Superman, and Spiderman are prime examples of heroes who usually don’t kill. Looking at the movies (since I’m only semi-familiar with the comics), you can see that most of the time, they send their villains to jail instead of killing them. Lex Luthor escapes prison again and again to continue being a thorn in Superman’s side. In the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, the Scarecrow escapes again and again so that he has a role in all three films. There are some exceptions to the “no killing” rule, such as in Man of Steel when Superman snaps General Zod’s neck. But in general, you don’t see these heroes killing very often.

In the comic books and other long-running series (such as TV shows and cartoons), keeping the villains alive serves the purpose of making sure they can appear again in a recurring role. But in the movies, each villain is usually limited to one film. The above examples of Lex Luthor and the Scarecrow are exceptions; in most other superhero films, each villain appears once and once only. Consider the original four Batman films before the Christopher Nolan reboots. We go from the Joker in the first Batman movie to Catwoman and the Penguin in Batman Returns to Riddler and Two Face in Batman Forever to Poison Ivy, Bane, and Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin. You only see the same villains again when the series has been rebooted. The same with the Spiderman movies; the three Toby McGuire movies each had a different villain, and while the reboots with Andrew Garfield might reuse the same villains from the old set, they don’t repeat any within the new series of films.

A common trend in these, and other films, is for the villain to bring about their own death. This allows the closure the audience needs and clears the way for a new villain in the next film, but without getting the hero’s hands dirty. Again, there’s exceptions, but quite often the hero isn’t the one who kills the villain. Here’s a few examples:

-In the first Toby McGuire Spiderman movie, the Green Goblin tries to ram Spiderman with his bladed hoverboard. Spiderman jumps out of the way, and the Green Goblin impales himself on his own weapon.

-In Spiderman 2, Dr. Octopus sacrifices himself to save the day after he realizes the error of his ways, declaring that he “will not die a monster.”

-Red Skull from Captain America dies when he grabs the Tesseract and i tears him apart.

-In Batman Returns, the Penguin kills himself in his attempt to kill Batman.

There’s some other examples that could be seen as “gray area,” where the villain’s death is technically an accident. For example, in the first Batman movie, the Joker falls to his death after Batman tied his leg to a gargoyle to prevent him from escaping, in Batman Forever, Two Face falls to his death after Batman distracts him during a coin flip, and in The Dark Knight, Batman is trying to save a child from Two Face and ends up knocking him off a ledge and falling himself. Whether you count these examples as “Batman killing the villain” or the villain dying by accident depends on whether you consider motive or intent, since Batman definitely didn’t mean for the villain to die in these cases.

There will always be heroes like Jack Bauer who simply aren’t afraid to kill, who do what it takes and let the ends justify the means. And even the most “pure” hero might end up having to take a life in some cases. But if you have a character you want to portray with more complex morals, someone who you just think won’t kill someone intentionally, the accidental death is a trope you might want to consider. And if you write a character who keeps their hands clean 99% of the time, when when they finally do cross the line and take a life, it’ll be all the more shocking and suspenseful.


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4 thoughts on “Villains Killing Themselves to Keep the Hero Sympathetic”

  1. This is definitely a trope that I see a lot of, and as you point out, there is a good reason for that. Once a hero starts racking up a large enough body count, it starts to change the character, which can be a bad thing if the change doesn’t lead the way you want. (In the superhero genre in particular, too high of a body count generally forces the character into a ‘dark’ role, which doesn’t help if you want him more sympathetic.)

    There’s another aspect of it, too. This was a bit more of a thing in older times- the play ‘Brigadoon’ was the first time I saw it, but I’ve seen it in some others- but the idea is that, if a character kills another, that’s negative. It’s vengeance, it’s retribution, it’s murder, so forth and so on. But if a character dies by accident, with no malice aforethought? Then that’s cosmic justice- karma, divine judgment, what-have-you. And I think that there’s still an element of that in storytelling nowadays. Not as much as it used to, again, because of how much it’s been used, but still there, with the underlying assumption that the villain deserved to die and the universe gave what was coming to him.

    1. Definitely a good point. Though, as someone on Twitter pointed out that you want to avoid making it seem like a Dues Ex Machina. Which might be why it’s better for the villain to die as a direct result of their own actions, instead of by a pure accident. If the villain dies because of their own actions, is cosmic justice, but if they just die in a random accident, it might seem forced.

  2. I’ll have to keep this in mind next time I teach crime fiction (I guest at Michigan State University). How about the villain killing himself by letting go? That seems a common sub-trope, as in In The Line of Fire. Villains’ hanging onto a ledge or something and refuses to take the hero’s hand. The hero is even more burnished by the offer; the villain seems even crazier.

  3. That’s an interesting trope. There’s also a counter-trope to that one: The hero reaches down to save the villain who is hanging from the ledge, and the villain tries to pull the hero in, forcing the hero to drop the villain in order to save their own life. Since the villain forced the hero into that situation, it removes any judgment the audience might have on the hero for killing the villain.

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