The Subversion of the Folk Hero
I can think of two reasons for the popularity amongst studios of the trope of the hero refusing to kill the villain.
1) Compelling antagonists are frequently more popular than the hero. In a serialized franchise universe, killing the villain means you can't use him again (unless you resurrect him, which in fact usually does happen on the rare occasion that the villain is actually put down).
2) Penitentiary morality: the contemporary legal system is extremely reluctant to mete out capital punishment, and uses incarceration in almost all cases. There's a whole thread to pull on about the moralizing busybodies who constructed the modern penitentiary system, which is predicated - as the name implies - on the idea that isolation in a pseudo-monastic environment would encourage penitence and, therefore, moral reform. Which rarely happens, but given this cultural context, there's a strong underlying cultural prior that the good guys (i.e. the cops) don't kill the bad guys, they arrest them and give them a fair trial. As an aside, the case of Judge Dredd is instructive: he was intended as a satire on the idea of a hero who enacts summary capital punishment, but instead became wildly popular; not something the liberal mind likes to dwell on too deeply.
As far as they everyman winning the superpower lottery, this again I think is driven by commercial imperatives. Protagonists built on this model provide ready inserts for the audience. It's all very market democracy.
The subversion of the noble hero, in which they are either expected to ultimately give up their heritage (Thor), are cast as something of an antihero (Batman), or are simply an outright villain, seems very much in line with Nietzsche's revaluation of the concept of the good man in classical or pagan morality, to the concept of the evil in Christian/socialist/slave morality.
I always felt the original Star Wars movies influenced a generation or two's morality. It taught a lot of kids that anger and aggression would make you as evil as emperor palaptine. A jedi getting angry = murderous slaver megalomaniac. I love the old SW, but I always disliked the nonsensical morality of it and the annoyance of hearing people stupidly recite about becoming a monster if you use the same tactics against said monsters.
It seems that the common thread here is basically the influence of US American cultural focus on democracy — each individual being capable of being whatever they want to be — erasing the idea of nobility in blood or any naturally occurring hierarchies or destinies. Everything is up to one’s one choices. Any man can be a king.
Are we surprised, then, at the near-universal lack of heroism in everyday men? They are passive, complacent, waiting for someone or something to come save them, BECAUSE of a dearth of folk heroism. Modern men have been psyopped into thinking that only LEO/military/the state/Superman can proactively take steps to fight evil. And so it is that low-grade and utterly banal evil has become the default.
It's not that hard to understand, despite Vox Day just not getting it because he's letting his shear hatred for the left and love of military matters blind him. What makes the traditional superhero like Supes, Bats, Spidey, and etc traditional superheroes isn't that they eliminate X like they're a bunch of puerile, common, and thoroughly unoriginal punisher wannabes like he's apparently publishing for his comic line, but that they save Y and often times, yes, even X or at least try with everything they have and would literally much rather sacrifice themselves than anyone else if they could help it.
There's a reason why the creator of My Hero Academia says his favorite moments in Spidey comics are when he saves people, because that's one of the core and essential things that makes a traditional superhero a traditional superhero and such a paragon of virtue and stand out of the crowd from your off brand terminators and or Byronic heroes or even your gilgamesh's or hercules' or sun wukongs that Vox is obviously far for comfortable and skilled in writing.
They're supposed to be the ideal cop. Not soldiers. Not a strong-arm vigilante force. They're supposed to protect people from the criminals and yes, the criminals from themselves. If there is a judge, jury, and executioner waiting for the criminals, it's not supposed to be them, and any failure to render a proper judge, jury, and executioner for certain criminals is a fault that falls squarely on the justice system and not on the traditional superheroes themselves because they're the ones actually doing their job effectively. If the DA can't get a conviction on a mob boss, it's not the cops who caught him dead to rights peddling dope that fumbled the ball, and depending on the exact context, it might not even be the DA's fault but someone else higher up on the food chain.
This whole discussion reminds me of a response I had to a couple of Razorfist videos concerning the underrated legend that is Steve Ditko and overrated timey fart that is Alan Moore.
"Much as I love Ditko and find myself dipping a lot into his line of thinking, while it's great to bring up the question of 'Superheroes are just as responsible for what their supervillains do', in most superhero settings, answering that question in the affirmative as Razor and apparently Ditko does is just plain and flat out wrong. It's like blaming the anti-bodies of an immune system for the fact that there's a virus they have to deal with rather, than, say the human being that immune system belongs to for sitting on an AIDs needle bench in San Francisco. In most traditional superhero settings, superheroes are not judge, jury, and executioner. IE, like any ideal cop, they catch the bad guys and render them up to the justice system for judgement. Therefore, it is the justice systems of those settings at fault if anyone aside from the villains themselves are at fault, not the heroes, because the heroes are the only ones actually doing what they're supposed to and often times more effectively than the official officers of said system and even with a lot less instances of justifiable homicide to boot. Could superheroes be more proactive in a lot of ways? Sure. But to suggest they bear culpability with the villains is kind of sus. In fact, if any 'superhero' does, it'd be those non-traditional settings where superheroes are in fact supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner because it actually is their job meaning every time they even had to take a break to sleep they'd be culpable for all the people they failed to save because they were snoozing."
Follow this logic a little further, Saxon. This is the way that war has been fought in the West for a thousand years. The leaders of a country gin up a reason to fight their neighbors. So they draft a bunch of their peasants. They force the peasants to kill the other country's peasants. And then when they prevail and come upon the enemy's king... they take him prisoner and ransom him back to his relatives. All the kings are cousins anyways, right? You don't just murder your cousin on the field of battle.
It's the code of chivalry and "civilized warfare." The dirt people die so that the rulers can squabble over some land. See also the Stigler/Brown incident in World War Two.
A lot of stuff about John Wick just started making sense.
Yeah, I actually got roundly nailed by critics in my book for having my hero, who is possessed of heroic traits (Military career, sense of honor, loyalty) 'interrupt' a villainous monologue by a powerful enemy by sticking a butcher knife down his throat.
Honor is for the Honorable. Chivalry is for protecting the helpless, the weak, those incapable of defending themselves. If a villain tosses away his sword knowing you won't slay an unarmed opponent, he is using an even more vicious weapon against you than his sword, and should be dealt with immediately.
But this is not a new phenomena. This embraces the concept of 'face' in historical literature fully. Endless commoners can be slain, but one does not slay the noble leader... one catches them and holds them ransom.
Miraz is not 'the villain to be spared', he is the sole noble in a field of common soldiers. attempting to preserve his life as an asset is as historically accurate as you can get.
"In the Marvel morality it is actually moral in itself to be an everyman, and almost immoral itself to be aristocratic." One of the reasons why I think the modern west has gotten so retarded is because we are ruled by an anti-aristocratic aristocracy.
Very good article. Good analysis.