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This question is about comics in general, but is focused on Marvel and DC since I know only those two universes. Hence, "comics" in this question refers to those two universes.

Everyone knows (TVTROPE WARNING) that heroes don't kill villains. They simply hand the criminals to the police so the justice system can handle the matter.

However, comics universes take place in North America. I dare say that they take place in the U.S. (Marvel's Spiderman does his business in New-York, for example. For DC, see here).

It has been my understanding that the death penalty still exists in the U.S. (Please correct me if I'm wrong; I'm not familiar with the American justice system -- maybe it exists in some states but not in others?)

So... why aren't criminals as bad as the Joker or the Green Goblin executed? If not by the heroes, why not by the justice system? Do they just escape before the end of their trial? Does the death penalty simply not exist in comics?

Of course, this question concerns only human villains, and not alien/godly ones like Darkseid, Doomsday, and Parallax (DC), or Loki and Thanos (Marvel).

closed as too broad by Valorum, amflare, Blackwood, Mithrandir, Möoz Jan 16 '18 at 20:45

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Most of the super criminals probably use the "insanity defense" which "claims they are not responsible for their actions due to mental health problems" and are put in an asylum, or jailed in some fashion. I blame lawyers. Wikipedia on Insanity Defense – Dylan Yaga Jun 19 '13 at 12:24
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    The death penalty does exist in 32 states in the U.S., with different states varying how often they sentence people to death – The Fallen Jun 19 '13 at 13:04
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    @Dylan: You should blame the media (and maybe your school system a little bit). Real-life cases of the insanity defense play out very differently from what those in opposition to it (often the "tough on crime" crowd) try to portray it as. It's used in less than 1% of criminal cases, and even those have only a 26% success rate. Of the successful uses, 90% of defendants had been previously diagnosed with mental illness, and 100% of them have to go through forensic examination by mental health experts, who would be able to tell when someone's just faking a mental illness. – Lèse majesté Jun 19 '13 at 13:34
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    Also, many American prisons are filled with mentally ill inmates. It's actually such a major problem that many prisons have special cell blocks just to house all of their mentally ill patients. So, yea, just because you're schizophrenic doesn't mean you get to escape prison in the U.S. – Lèse majesté Jun 19 '13 at 13:37
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    It should be noted that many of these superheroes were first created right when the 1950ish "Leave it to Beaver" attitudes about justice and vigilanteism were at their most popular. Having Superman or whoever hand the bad guy over to authorities rather than dropping him into the sun was a way to distinguish them from those who took the law into their own hands. – John O Jun 19 '13 at 13:44

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The death penalty does, indeed, exist within the DC and Marvel comic universes. Typically, however, it is not employed against supervillains. There are many in-universe reasons, but the out-of-universe reasons are twofold: many comics don't involve a lot of death and if they kill off a supervillain they can't use him again (without an elaborate explanation of how he's alive or how the mantle changed hands).

Those are the out-of-universe reasons. In-universe, the reasons are more varied.

  • The villain doesn't warrant it.

There's a huge number of supervillains who just don't deserve the death penalty (which is really hard to be given unless you're convicted of some very bad crimes, in real life). Calendar King, Scorpion, Captain Boomerang, etc - many, if not most, villains commit crimes against property. They steal or break stuff. Maybe they take a hostage spur-of-the-moment or put a civilian (or intervening cop) in danger to attempt to escape the hero. But they don't set out to kill people, no one is seriously hurt, or they plea it down to a lesser crime.

  • The system can't convict them

Superheroes are cool. They swoop down, exchange some witty banter, stop the bad guy, and tie him up. Maybe they leave a note for the cops.

Unless the villain has been extremely public about his actions and the police already have a warrant out for him, there's not much the justice system can do. To the impartial eyes of the law, a supervillain that Batman punches out and drops off in front of City Hall is also a victim of assault and battery. Sure, they may suspect him of other crimes, but unless they can prove it beyond reasonable doubt to a jury the villain is not going to be convicted of most of his crimes. Typically, masked vigilantes are persona non grata so far as the legal system is concerned. Sure, Batman may knock Riddler senseless, drop evidence beside him, and leave him for the cops. But the evidence will be obviously planted, there will be no chain of custody linking it to where Batman removed it from, and Batman (who has no legal identity) can't testify.

  • The villain is outside the jurisdiction of our justice system

Superman is a deputized member of the Metropolis police force. Unlike most heroes he can and does testify in court. Unfortunately, this is of limited use when his foe is Darkseid - Apokalypse is unlikely to extradite him. Even when it is a terrestrial villain, say he helps Batman take down Toyman in Gotham, he will have been operating outside of his legal jurisdiction.

Honestly, the majority of times the villain can't be touched by the courts due to jurisdictional matters, the villain will fall into the list of exclusions in the question. Most of the time, villains would be able to be tried in the city/state/country where their crimes occurred.

  • Political or Legal reasons prevent it

Magneto is committed to the genocide of humanity. He has murdered in cold blood, and ordered or coerced others to do so. In any state which has the death penalty, he's earned it (assuming he acted within their jurisdiction). Will the prosecutor seek the Death Penalty, though? There's many compelling reasons not to do so. Firstly, it may very well create a martyr - judicial murder of Magneto may cause his followers to violently revolt.

Secondly, many super-villains may be happy to sit in prison for a while - they often use this time to plan their next caper, make connections, etc. They may NOT be fine with sitting on Death Row. I pity the guards on duty when Deadpool or Sabertooth decides they're done sitting nicely in the cell.

Third, it may be impossible to execute a criminal in a legal manner. There are very few methods of execution permitted in the eyes of the law. What happens when the convicted serial killer is Deadpool (and he is somehow prevented from getting away)? How do you execute someone who regenerates from almost anything? There ARE ways to kill people/things that regenerate quickly, but all of them would run afoul of the 'cruel & unusual punishment' clause.

Also, to be executed, the prisoner must be of sound mind. Joker is a prime example of this - he is literally certifiably insane (depending on the writer). Many of Batman's villains are similar (which is why they typically go to Arkham Asylum). Some of them (notably Edward Nygma) have even reformed after treatment, becoming law-abiding members of society. The judicial system is set up to avoid putting people with legitimate mental problems to death or incarcerating them with the general population (note that in real life this is not terribly effective). The typical reaction to someone being judged incompetent to stand trial is for them to be treated until such a time as they ARE competent to be judged for their actions (unlike how popular media portrays it). In comics, though, most people aren't easily treatable and will inevitably escape before treatment can be completed.

  • The villain is untouchable

So Doctor Doom came to the US and planted a bomb, threatening to blow up something. The Fantastic Four, as is their idiom, stops him. Doom is the leader of Latveria, who will demand he be repatriated. He may have diplomatic immunity, in which case the worst that can happen is expulsion from the country (though the laws which set down diplomatic immunity DO say that it is against the spirit of the laws to abuse it in this fashion). Many supervillains have foreign political connections, and putting them on public trial (and potentially to death) would have foreign policy implications that make it impractical.

Lex Luthor or Wilson Fisk is another example - they have immense political connections, and vast financial resources. Hell, in Ultimate Spiderman Wilson Fisk (Kingpen) murders a man while being recorded by his security system. He does it in full view of the camera, in cold blood. The police find the body, and Spiderman eventually recovers the security footage, delivering it anonymously to the police. It takes a year, but Fisk's lawyers eventually get the charges dropped (see issues with hero-derived evidence in my 2nd point).

In comics, as in real life, money and power make it really hard for the legal system to convict you with a strict sentence.

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    Out-of-universe reasons, in-universe reasons, examples... what a perfect answer ! Thanks :D I'll wait to encourage other people to answer, though. – Kalissar Jun 19 '13 at 14:01
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    What did you intend when you wrote "Honestly, the majority of times this is the case fall under your exclusions." above? I had trouble trying to edit it. – Mark Rogers Jun 19 '13 at 17:38
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    @MarkRogers - It does read oddly. I think it works better if you realize that "fall" is grammatically attached to "times" and not "case". ie - "These times fall under your exclusions." – Shauna Jun 19 '13 at 19:24
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    About Dr. Doom. I never thought of him as the leader of a country, but it is true. If he planted a bomb in the US with diplomatic immunity then I imagine what should happen is he is deported. Then the US should immediately declare war on his country. It did, after all, commit an act of war against the US. – Zan Lynx Jun 19 '13 at 23:14
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    Death Penalty exists in the Marvel Universe. Punisher War Zone #2 (Feb 2013) has an accomplice of The Punisher in jail awaiting trial. Natasha Romanoff tries to get her to help them (The Avengers) find Frank Castle because his testimony "could save you from lethal injection". – Leatherwing Jun 30 '13 at 21:11
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While I don't know the answer too well for DC as I was never an avid reader, there are a couple of key points for Marvel...

1) What The Heck Do We Do With This Guy? - Some of the baddies faced by superheroes are quite a stretch of the imagination. Magneto, for example, requires an extremely ellaborate set-up just to imprison. How would one get him into the court house? How would one execute him?

2) Anonymous Henchman Galore! - A Supervillain would be a high profile case, and assuredly, there would be plenty of baddies out there willing to spring someone such as the Kingpin or Norman Osborne due to their wealth and status. Not to mention the need for a rather special max security prison (not the Negative Zone, since that's pretty much run by... Dr. Reed Richards).

3) Where The Constitution Ends... - Face it, the modern legal court system isn't ready to face the Rhino as a defendant. Some people can't stop being what they are (i.e. mutants, Spider-Man, etc.), and to convict them would mean they the government would need to have a means to nullify what people have that makes them special/super/amazing. While means do exist (like Genosha's Mutant Collars, and certain abilities) there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution for the wide variety of freaks, mutants, accidents, and experiments... not to mention the beings that have a strange legal status, such as Ghost Rider, the Silver Surfer, and Multiple Man.

4) A Branch of Law Enforcement - We've seen how this worked out with the Civil War and the Inititive. Unless you want to chemically induce comas for everyone that is susceptible to them (a-la Heroes) you will be violating Constitution Rights and legal proceedings. The people to enforce them, too, would be violaters, because face it, if you got a big stick, you are going to use it on the little guy, too.

5) Vigilanttes - Free crime-fighters. Sure, it might be illegal, but you don't pay them. And for the most part they get the job done. And they've saved the world a few dozen times over. So far, it is working... somewhat.

6) Kill The King - Face it, if Superheroes start knocking off bad guys, the repercussions would be severe, to say the least. It really would degenerate into a Super War, and some of those people can probably knock the Earth off its orbit. The Government wants the moral high ground so that surrender is an option and people like Nitro are less likely to kamakzi elementary schools because there is an out.

7) Marvel Is Liberal - Yes. The fourth wall explaination. Marvel Comics is in touch with its times and its readers. No death penalty. No abortions. Pro 'alternative lifestyle' (is that the accepted term still?). Supers of every race, creed, color, and religion. It does well to address very real issues that we deal with.

'Nuff said.

  • There was a Hulk fill-in story about Doc Samson where he has to diagnose a super-powered killer called Crazy Eight and help keep her under control. She gets put on the electric chair at the end of the story. It's a bit of a putdown of the death penalty, though. While Samson assists the system, he later regrets doing so as he finds out all the facts. – uliwitness Jun 19 '13 at 15:43
  • How exactly is Multiple Man a strange legal case? Sure, he can duplicate, but all the duplicates are still him. – Jeff Jun 24 '13 at 20:03
  • @ Jeff having multiple people with the same DNA would be an interesting case. Since we in the real world have difficulty trying identical twins, a guy who can many multiple carbon copies would be interesting. Plus, how would they actually nab the real one, as oppose to imprisoning a clone who can disappear with time/will? You could 'try' the real one, but he's actually cloned himself through bars before. I didn't say impossible, but rather ineffective. – Jersey Jun 25 '13 at 15:29
  • this wiki gives an example of a death penalty in DC, and in the tv show of the flash a guy ways being executed when the particle accelerator exploded. He became a meta-human that way (cant remember his name) – Jungkook Jan 26 '18 at 11:58
  • @Jorrit They named him Blackout, IIRC – Dave Jan 26 '18 at 15:15
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Outside of Marvel and DC, I was going to answer what Richard McP said. But since he already answered Sin City, I'm going to add Judge Dredd to the list of comics where the death penalty exists. The Judges play the role of police, judge and executioner of Mega-City One. Judge Dredd often legally executes criminals.

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Specifically for Joker and Batman's rogue gallery,

You can't really pinpoint where Gotham City is due to changing writers, etc but a lot of references(Specifically, 1990 Atlas of the DC Universe) placed it in New Jersey, where the death penalty is forbidden by law.

Historically, Gotham City is also a nick-name for New York City("Gotham" as a term for New York City was coined by Washington Irving in 1807), and the death penalty has been ruled as unconstitutional there and has not been practiced since 1963.

I think both of these together cover why Batman's villains don't get the death penalty.

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    This is actually a very good answer. Unfortunately it doesn't cover the whole question. – Kalissar Jun 20 '13 at 14:47
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    The dates completely contradict your logic. It might explain why no death penalty has been given in the DC universe since the 60's, but Gotham City has existed since 1939 (or by name since 1940). Why was capital punishment not used during those years? – phantom42 Jun 20 '13 at 14:52
  • A lot(but obviously not all) of the crime that would be punishable by death was done mostly in the modern era in the past few-ish decades. Comics were much more tame during the Golden and Silver ages... at least in my opinion. – user15366 Jun 20 '13 at 15:24
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Marv was given the death sentence in Sin City's "The Hard Goodbye." Dark Horse isn't DC or Marvel, but it's still a fairly well known company. I imagine that the death sentence is much more likely in darker comics where death plays a much bigger part, like Dark Horse and DC's Vertigo.

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Yes, the death penalty exists in comics. The most famous execution in comic book history took place in Captain Marvel Adventures #46 (May 1945) (available at the Internet Archive), pp. 25-32, in "The End of Mr. Mind!", concluding installment of the 25-part serial "The Monster Society of Evil". Captain Marvel (the original Big Red Cheese) is the prosecutor in the trial of the archvillain Mr. Mind, telepathic mutant worm from outer space, who testifies in his own defense:

Capt. Marvel: IS IT NOT TRUE THAT ON THE NIGHT OF AUG. 7TH YOU AND YOUR HENCHMEN ATTEMPTED TO BLOW UP WASHINGTON AND PUT ALL THE PEOPLE TO DEATH IN HORRIBLE WAYS?

Mr. Mind: NO, IT ISN'T TRUE! NOT A WORD OF IT!

Mr. Mind: DON'T TRY TO DEFAME ME! I'M NOT NEARLY AS BAD AS I'M PAINTED! GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY! DON'T LISTEN TO THE NASTY THINGS CAPT. MARVEL SAYS! I'M JUST A POOR LITTLE HELPLESS WORM! SNIFF!

Capt. Marvel: HMM! THEN YOU DENY THAT DURING YOUR CAREER YOU'VE MURDERED 186,744 PEOPLE IN COLD BLOOD?

The worm is, of course, found guilty. He is put to death in the electric chair. Afterwards, his body is stuffed and put on display in a museum.

You asked about DC and Marvel. Mr. Mind was executed in a Fawcett publication, but I think this example counts, because the Captain Marvel character is now a DC property.

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The Punisher is a walking death penalty. He doesn't bother asking where criminals committed their crimes.

Judge Dredd is the second best thing.

Heroes like Superman don't kill, but he should use his phantom zone projector more often, and put anyone who escapes from normal prison there. But then there would be no one staying to fight with over and over again, and this comic character will be shut down. And nobody wants to kill the hen who laid the golden eggs.

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    Thanks for trying to answer, and welcome to the site. For your third point, about Superman, I think the answer you have given might be why the writers keep the villains around, but I wouldn't think the characters would do so deliberately (unless you can find quotes? that would help). As for your first two points, I think the question is asking about the court system in the comics, rather than the characters. – Megha Jan 17 '16 at 23:39
  • @-Megha Jan though Judge Dredd is a duly appointed Judge of the Mega City Justice Department his death sentences are like those inacted by his fellow Judges part of the judicial system. – Sarriesfan Jun 21 at 5:31
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I recall a Superboy story in which a convict was facing the death penalty and had a coded message revealing Superboy's identity as Clark Kent. (Superboy then employed an elaborate ruse to make the secret seem worthless.) But then I also recall that it was stated editorially that Metropolis was in a state with no death penalty except for a convict who killed while in prison (guard or fellow inmate). Can't cite specifics issue numbers for any of this, of course.

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At the very least, in the Marvel universe, the death penalty exists and is practiced. In Fantastic Four #233, a man gets the electric chair for a murder he didn't commit, and the Human Torch works to prove his innocence afterwards.

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Sometimes villains die in a variety of ways, such as accidentally, by another villain, or the good old hero finally does it. However many times this isn't canon and if it is , it usually ends up being redacted by a later issue where the person comes back. Ultimately it all depends on the writer or writers whether the death penalty exists or not (because it has been used in different comic book companies including: Marvel, Dark horse, and Fawcett, in the past. All in all the main reason they can't kill off their supervillains are because THEY SELL. They sell: tickets, comics, novels, merch, you name it. They are a very crucial part of the heroes story, so unless there's an important reason or it's non canon. The supervillains will be around for a long time.

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