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Superman’s Best Exploration of Morality Happened With Hitman

Superman’s encounter with a hired gun forced him to confront some serious moral complexities over the potential justification of murder.

Superman’s friendly demeanor has been a feature of the character for decades, with the Man of Steel quick to forge bonds with anyone he meets if they’re willing to. One of his most unlikely friendships came from Gotham City and had almost nothing to do with the Bat-Family.

But instead of just being a briefly seen bond, the connection between Superman and the star of Hitman actually laid the groundwork for a fascinating reflection on morality and mortality in regard to superheroes. This came as they explored whether Superman could ever agree in the concept of a justifiable murder.

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Hitman #34 by Garth Ennis and John McCrea focused on Superman following an accident in space. Although the Man of Steel had been able to save most of the astronauts endangered, one of them died. This left the hero shaken as he dealt with the fact that he couldn’t save everyone. Looking for privacy to think, he ended up on a random building in Gotham City. By coincidence, someone was already on the building: Tommy Monaghan, a C-list contract killer with a conscience. The star of Hitman, Monaghan was a street-level Gothamite who’d been granted minor powers during the Bloodlines crossover.

Despite Tommy’s criticisms about superheroes, he had nothing but respect for Superman. Tommy offered inspiration and advice to Superman. But as the Man of Steel left, he was unaware that Tommy was really on the roof to murder a target. The two eventually encountered each other again in JLA/Hitman by Ennis and McCrea, which was released after the conclusion of Hitman. The framing device was that someone discovered the connection between Superman and (a by this point deceased) Monaghan, and sought answers.

As Clark Kent, Superman recounted to the reporter how the superhero eventually encountered Tommy again when he was forcibly brought into an unlikely Justice League mission. Tommy ended up being crucial when an alien fungus attacked the League, saving Earth’s most powerful heroes. But without the training, powers, or gadgets of the Justice League, Tommy only had his guns to help him. This meant he was forced to kill numerous corrupted astronauts, enraging the heroes and seemingly costing Superman’s faith in Tommy.

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Tommy’s casual attitude towards killing caused some inner turmoil for Superman, who was still shocked that someone who’d given him clarity of purpose could also be a killer-for-hire. During the mission in question, Superman confronted the gun-for-hire about their time together, and Tommy sadly noted that you can’t help who will believe in you. Superman couldn’t condone his actions but his impulse was to offer to speak in defense of Tommy at any proceeding trial. The story saw Superman reflect on what occurred and admit that Tommy’s actions were justified to save the Justice League.

Superman considered Tommy’s actions to have required moral courage, doing what others consider unthinkable to save the day. The story ended with Superman visiting an unlikely memorial to Tommy etched into a restroom of the Watchtower. Superman’s encounter with Tommy Monaghan approached the kind of tricky moral questions that Zack Snyder’s take on the character would tackle.

The concept of morality as it pertained to murder and the question of if there’s ever a justifiable murder has been a longstanding dramatic beat in the superhero genre.Superman’s resolve to not give into it but acknowledgement of how a terrible act can be performed with noble intentions is the character’s most interesting explorations of one the superhero genre’s most enduring questions.

Brandon Zachary is an Associate Writer with Comic Book Resources and has written for CBR since 2018. He covers breakouts on comics, film, television, video games, and anime. He also conducts industry interviews, is a Rotten Tomatoes certified film critic, and knows SO MUCH about the X-Men. For requests, comments, or to hear his pitch for a third Avatar series that incorporates robots, you can contact him through bs.zachary@gmail.com.

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