The Justice League cartoon has only been off the air for a decade, but it's already a bona-fide classic. Everyone who complains about DC movies wishes it could be more like the animated series, and it's tough to blame them. Not only has the show held up over time, it's become the definitive interpretation of these superheroes for an entire generation.
Since new episodes were initially broadcast on Cartoon Network, these versions of the characters were held firmly to the "No-Kill" rule -- though some heroes on the team are a little more uh, morally flexible about it than others. Batman in particular has always stood out as the gold standard when it comes to mercy. His entire ethos is built on top of that line that separates good guy and bad guy. Then there was that time he grabbed a gun and shot a guy into an electrical panel.
If murdering someone with a gun doesn't sound like Batman, well, that's because that's technically not Batman. When the villain Devil Ray was about to blast an unaware Wonder Woman in the episode "Dead Reckoning," the spectral superhero Deadman leaped into Batman's body and took that shot.
Needless to say, when Batman awoke from his possession to find a gun in his hand, he was downright disgusted.
Any court of law would call this self-defense, but that doesn't mean anyone is happy about it. Deadman is crestfallen about the "overreaction," and is summarily punished by a goddess for his crime of protecting a friend. And yet, we don't blame Deadman -- he couldn't communicate to anyone in ghost form, so this seems like a reasonable course of action. A man was fried to a crisp, but shooting an armed man who's about to kill another counts as justified for most people. The Justice League holds themselves to higher standards, but it's tough for them to admit when lethal force is necessary.
Batman had nothing to do with the killing and couldn't have prevented it if he wanted to, but he's the type of guy that will spend the rest of his life looking back on that moment in horror. Which is funny, considering that Batman later blew up tons of Parademons without blinking.
There are plenty of ways you can try to excuse Bats' actions in the final episode, "Destroyer." You can say that Parademons are mindless automatons spawned from evil incarnate and don't really count as "people." You could back up that claim by pointing out that Superman seems okay with pulling off sweet laser vision headshots right next to his teammate. Someone out there would even argue that Batman calculated three simultaneous batarang throws so precisely that he was able to knock out a dozen enemies without permanently harming them.
Even if we take that into consideration, it still seems as though the Justice League is willing to violate their "no kill" rule for aliens. If they don't come from Earth, they apparently don't count as living beings with rights. Look at what Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman did to the alien ship at the end of the very first episode.
You can't see it in the GIF, but at the very end there we zoom in on the Imperium hivemind and it lets out a terrible wail of anguish before it's incinerated. Yeah, it was evil and was otherwise going to invade Earth, but it was also alive. You'd think that a team with several prominent aliens would acknowledge that.
Each member of the team seems to have different definitions for "justice," and when that includes killing someone. Or at least, not saving someone. In the episode "The Darkness Below," Aquaman is put to the test after he and his infant child are left to die by his brother Orm. Arthur straight-up cuts his own hand off to save himself and his baby, then battles his wayward sibling on a surface-side cliff. When Orm slips and pleads for help, Aquaman considers his options.
God damn. Even Mr. Freeze would say that shit is ice cold. Arthur's eyes are hard steel, even when watching his own brother fall into a crevasse. There's not even a glimmer of regret there. To Aquaman, justice has been done.
To be fair, there's a difference between straight-up killing someone and pulling a Batman Begins and just peacing the fuck out and letting Ra's Al Ghul die in a train crash. Hawkgirl always seemed like she was willing to provide permanent solutions for supervillainy, and she proved that capability in "The Return." After a newly-resurrected Solmon Grundy rampaged mindlessly across the city, Shayera found her old friend and did what she thought was best.
Every time Grundy comes back, he's a little different. But every iteration of the monster is in agony, missing a part of his soul; being alive is sheer torture for this guy. By putting him out of his misery, Hawkgirl is essentially participating in assisted suicide. For Batman, sparing his enemies' lives is a mercy. For Hawkgirl, killing Grundy is the same thing.
A little less morally murky is the opening of "A Better World," which sees a furious Superman beat down President Lex Luthor's door after the execution of the Flash. As the Justice League storms the White House, Lex is as calm as ever. He knows how this ends. Or at least, he thinks he does.
Batman wouldn't perk up for just the scent of smoke. He's might be asking aloud, but Batman is pretty sure he knows what he's smelling: The burning flesh of a newly-minted corpse.
We don't see the fresh body or the act itself, but it's clear that Superman finally cut down Lex Luthor. The creepiest part? Superman seems thrilled about the situation. In his eyes, he's finally free to stop being a "hero" and start truly making a permanent difference. Of course, we soon learn that we're seeing an alternate universe, and the events that transpired were what caused the evil "Justice Lords" to form up and rule the planet with an iron fist.
The episode is meant to show us what would happen if the Justice League ditched the "no-kill" rule and went full on "ends justify the means." But as we've seen, even the most virtuous of superheroes have limits. Almost everyone on the team has been in a situation or scenario that forced them to reconsider whether ending a life was necessary. Just because Hawkgirl and Aquaman bent or broke The One Rule doesn't automatically make them supervillains -- the difference between the Justice League and the Justice Lords isn't as simple as who kills and who doesn't, but who recognizes the tremendous responsibility and weight of terminating a living person. That inner-struggle and how it plays out is a large part of what makes Justice League a bona-fide classic.
It's all on Netflix you know, in case you have nothing to do this weekend.
Tristan Cooper can be found on Twitter.