Did you see Man of Steel? I did. I liked it well enough for a summer blockbuster, but as usual, the Batman movie was way better. All of them. This is as it should be. Below is not a full review of the movie, but a discussion of a very specific issue that occurs in it. It’s super big spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you should stop reading. Instead, since you are a good person and have already seen The Dark Knight Rises, you should go check out the podcast I did with Mr. Swungover, Bobby White about that far superior movie. Spoilers below the video
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I dislike the very concept of Superman. Too powerful. Too perfect. What’s the point? However, a lot of people have been complaining about his execution of Zod in “Man of Steel.” There are a lot of problems with that movie, but that was actually the most sensible thing he did in 2 and a half hours.
Probably the most full throated and cogent denunciation is from comic book writer Mark Waid who has contributed quite a bit to the Superman canon himself over the years including “Superman: Birthright,” which covers a lot of the same territory as the movie. His bottom line is that Superman doesn't kill. Ever. Why? Because 75 years of canon says so. It's just not what he does because he's Superman. And Superman doesn't kill.
If it sounds circular, it’s because it is. The reason why the comic book hero Superman doesn’t kill has very practical roots of avoiding persecution from would be censors in the 1950’s. Since then, it’s been assumed that Clark Kent’s good upbringing has somehow been translated into never killing under any circumstances.
Right off the bat I’m going to call bullshit on any criticism that relies on prior knowledge or precedent of the character. It's not enough to know that Superman doesn't kill. This should be that story where we find out why.
As far as Clark Kent played by Henry Cavill and the audience seeing “Man of Steel” is concerned, none of those precedents or interpretations have happened. Thankfully. Nor should they matter for the purposes of following this movie. Clark Kent was never Superboy. He never time traveled to the future to hang out with The Legion of Super Heroes, and he sure as hell didn't have a flying sidekick dog to watch his back. As far as we know, the kid in the movie had a pretty tortured adolescence, capped by a storied career as a fisherman and a bus boy, interspersed with petty theft and identity fraud.
If you’re looking for a morally upright Superman, then the first clue as to why that character isn’t in Man of Steel is in who birthed him, and then those who raised him.
Kal-El didn’t suddenly absorb Kryptonian values after he finds the lost ship, and even if he did, we are clearly shown that Kryptonian culture obviously didn’t value pacifism. Also Maximus-El didn’t have a problem getting his hands bloody when the situation called for it. Earthside, he was raised by post-Watergate and Viet Nam influenced middle Americans in the final run to the end of the Cold War.
As portrayed in this film, the Kents are a good counterpoint to their freakishly brilliant and dedicated Kryptonian counterparts. In the comics, the Ma and Pa are usually cast from the noblest of molds complete with timely folksy wisdom whenever Clark needs it most. In “Man of Steel,” they're just folks. We don't know much of their background. They farm. That's it. Probably never went to college. Maybe didn’t even finished high school. They may have never ventured beyond the Kansas state lines. They sure as hell didn't risk going anywhere after that fateful night when the answer to the biggest mystery in the world landed in their field.
Should Clark have let those kids drown in the bus? “Maybe” Pa Kent wonders, but not definitively answering the question. It's an interesting response because he's probably been thinking about it for years, and he still didn’t know the right answer after his son gives voice to the question. He’s no uncrowned philosopher king nor does he have any wry understandings of human nature a la a modern day Mark Twain.
He thinks the world will freak if they find out about Clark probably because that is exactly how he and Martha reacted. And he could never ask anyone else for advice. Not any family if they had any left. Not his priest or minister. Not doctors or therapists. Certainly not the government. Imagine going to bed every night wondering if that will be the last one before people in lab coats and dark suits finally bust down the door.
He admits to "making it up” as he goes along on the fateful day he perishes. It’s all he knows to do. All he can do. The final lesson he can impart on his son is that you do what you can to protect the ones you love. Jonathan chooses to go save the dog because it makes the most sense to send the most powerful being you know to ensure the safety of the woman you love. He stops Clark from rescuing him because even if his life is saved, their lives will become more threatened than by any natural disaster.
Sacrifice is supposed to be a major theme in this movie. What can Superman sacrifice? Keep that in mind.
The other major theme is identity. What is Superman? Is he an alien? A human? A god?
The proper answer is that he is a superhero, but what does that mean within the confines of this movie?
To be a superhero is to be pushed past your limits and finding a way to persevere. But the eternal dramatic problem with Superman is that he has no limits, and this movie is no different. No physical ones at least (as long as kryptonite and magic aren’t involved). So what’s left?
Seriously, look how powerful this guy can be.
A major fault in the movie is that it never sets up a moment where Clark decides that Killing is a Bad Idea. The upside is that it leaves the door opening to the final resolution with Zod. Besides,anyone can swear never to kill anyone. But most of us are never going to be tested on that principle in a meaningful way. (For the record to my NSA overlord reading this: I have no plans to kill anyone ever.)
General Zod was that test for Clark Kent.
Until he goes one on one with Zod, Clark Kent was never put in a spot to make a truly difficult decision. He spent most of his life hiding from those choices. In the beginning, he was shielded by his parents. That period ended after Jonathan’s explicit last instruction not to save him from the tornado. However, Clark still avoided public conflict out of a need for secrecy.
The actual circumstance of Zod’s death is irrelevant. The more important point was the bit of monologueing before where he reminds Clark that he was bred to be a soldier; how his entire purpose was to bring back krypton and that Superman has the key. He cannot stop. He will never stop. There is literally no force from earth that can stand up to him.
Even if Clark were able to subdue Zod without killing him, what are his options? Maybe there was some magical mystery krytonian science techy thing that would have neutralized zod, but that just would have been a bullshit Star Trek: Next Gen level cop out. Likewise, the Green Lantern Corps wasn’t going to show up and take Zod away in cuffs. Although that would have been cool to see.
Clark can’t simply walk away because Zod isn’t some schoolyard bully. Sacrificing himself physically in this situation only dooms the human race.
What he does sacrifice is this notion that he is beyond making the truly hard decisions. That is the responsibility that comes along with . . . wait for it . . . great power.
Maybe he's not actually human, but by taking responsibility of his power, he proves that he has some idea of what the rest of us lowly humans must endure.
I’ll be the first to admit that this justification is not without its flaws, especially as it’s presented in the movie proper. It would have been nice to see a bit more fallout from that killing. It’s implied that Superman regrets it, and this is probably the incident that makes him swear off ever doing it again. But in the rush to get to the credits, we don’t get to really see the affect on Clark. I suppose that’s what a sequel is for.
I think that this movie does show how very new Clark Kent is to super heroing. Mark Waid mentions how he was disappointed that Superman doesn’t do a better job of mitigating collateral damage. I’m not sure how much a farm boy who just figured out that he could fly a couple days ago can do against a cadre of seasoned, genetically bred, Kryptonian soldiers. As an origin story, he’s very much like his earth father, figuring it out as he goes along. At least he knew well enough to wear his underwear on the inside.
All that being said, Bruce Wayne would have definitely figured out a way to stop Zod without killing him or anyone else because, well, he’s the goddamn Batman.