WARNING: The following editorial contains SPOILERS about the ending of Man of Steel and several other classic Superman stories.
When I saw Man of Steel I knew I loved it. I also knew that, perhaps, not everyone would. It humanizes Superman quite a bit and, Superman being a character whom many exalt to godhood (sometimes literally, in the case of All-Star Superman for example), that might not be a universally popular characterization. But strangely enough, what turned out to be the biggest point of contention for Man of Steel actually completely escaped my attention when I first saw Zack Snyder’s film.
The Man of Steel controversy seems to be this: “Superman doesn’t kill.”
As a rule, yes, he doesn’t. Superman isn’t The Punisher. He moves heaven and earth most of the time to avoid anything bad happening to anyone anywhere on the planet ever-ever-ever. But at the end of Man of Steel he kills General Zod, a fellow Kryptonian, threatening genocide of the human race, and actively killing civilians at that very moment. Some people think that’s a betrayal of the character. Because, apparently, “Superman doesn’t kill.”
Except he does.
Although Superman is seen as a paragon of virtue, and a symbol of hope who always finds a relatively peaceful solution to the world’s problems – even if that peaceful solution immediately follows an enormous fistfight – the argument that “Superman doesn’t kill” would have to depend on a lack of precedent. It’s only fair to be angry about Zod’s death in Man of Steel if Superman has never killed any of his enemies before. And he has. He’s killed at least seven of them between the comic books and previous Superman feature films.
In 1988, in Superman (Vol. 2) #22, Superman encountered General Zod and his fellow Kryptonian criminals Zaora and Quex-Ul, and won the day by removing their super powers. But when they vowed to take revenge by regaining their powers and killing Superman, the Man of Steel – who “does not kill” – killed them. He killed them with Kryptonite. As the Last Son of Krypton, he was the only member of his species left to pass judgment on these Kryptonian criminals, and he made the calculated, careful decision to murder Zod, Zaora and Quex-Ul even though they posed no immediate threat to Superman, or anyone else for that matter. They were defeated and powerless, and he murdered them.
Too obscure? Let’s go back further to the theatrical film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which ended with Superman killing his enemy Nuclear Man by dropping him into the core of a Nuclear power plant.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a “bad movie,” you say? What about Superman II? Most people seem to agree that Superman II – both the original Richard Lester version and Richard Donner’s (mostly) director’s cut – is a pretty excellent Superman story. I’ve read a lot about the film over the years, especially lately (now that interest is high), but I’ve never heard anyone complain that Superman murders General Zod and his fellow Phantom Zone criminals Ursa and Non at the end of the movie, also after they were powerless. He drops them from a great height, and they fall so far we never hear them land. They’re dead, and Superman did it. (Well, Lois knocked Ursa down there, but let’s not pretend that Superman couldn’t have saved her if he wanted to.) And then of course Superman robs Lois Lane of her memories and picks a fight on a normal guy for no better reason than petty vengeance, but I digress.
Superman does kill, in two classic stories (and one all but universally reviled one). The thing is, he doesn’t usually kill. He’s usually better than that. Like Dr. Who, Superman tends to find a solution to the problems in his stories without resorting to lazy bloodshed. This is the Superman that most people grew up with, and those people – apparently – define Superman by this quality. It’s the more hopeful, optimistic version of Superman, and it’s not the Superman we got in Man of Steel.
Which makes sense, because Superman isn’t “in” Man of Steel.
The movie appears to have avoided calling itself “Superman” for a reason, because we are not seeing a version of Superman that is fully formed as yet. Man of Steel, despite its enormous scope, is the origin of Superman. It tests the limits of the character on a physical and moral level. It is, for all intents and purposes, the first half of Batman Begins, where the hero is placed into a high-pressure situation for the very first time. And he makes mistakes, as all superheroes presumably would when they’re just starting out.
This version of Superman has never been Superman before. He’s never fought anybody before. He’s never done anything “super” at all, at least around other people, except rescuing people from a fiery oil rig at the beginning of the film and a brief incident with a bus crash back in Smallville many years before this incident. And now he’s fighting a genocidal supervillain with the same powers, but who hasn’t been weakened by a recent fight with a machine that replicated the atmosphere of Krypton, and who – unlike Superman – has been trained to kill.
Zod doesn’t allow Superman too many opportunities to stop fighting and save civilians, and when he’s finally bested begins using his laser vision to kill what few people remain in Metropolis. Zod vows to kill every human being on the planet, and no prison on Earth could ever possibly hold him. The only way Superman could have possibly accessed the Phantom Zone has been destroyed (or at least sent to the Phantom Zone itself), and there’s no hope of building another one. Superman makes a horrible but seemingly necessary decision to end the conflict decisively, by killing General Zod. Just like in the classic comic book, except the threat was immediate. He even screams in emotional pain because it was the last thing Superman actually wanted to do.
Superman doesn’t kill, but under those specific circumstances, it hardly seems like an unreasonable decision for a young, inexperienced superhero to make… especially one who has literally never fought anyone at all until, essentially, that very day.
You can say, if you want, that you would have preferred Man of Steel to tell the story of a Superman who was already confident enough about who he is that he could have made a better decision in that moment, but honestly, that’s a tricky line to balance on, and not a terribly dramatic journey for a hero to make over the course of a film. He’s perfect, and then he saves the day? Sure it could be done, but that’s not the course of action these filmmakers took, and given that there is specific precedent for Superman killing in the comics and feature films, I would venture to say that the plot point is justified. Perhaps not ideal, but justified given the context of the story.
But there is another, related point of contention surrounding the climax to Man of Steel. Many have complained that the fight between Superman and General Zod – which destroys a large part of Metropolis, which had already been devastated by an alien attack earlier that day – resulted in too much collateral damage. Surely, it has been assumed, the death toll from their superpowered beatdown would have killed hundreds if not thousands of people throughout the city. And why wouldn’t Superman have stopped fighting to save them if that were the case?
To this I respond: Where, exactly, did you see them die?
Movies are a visual medium. Have you ever noticed that if a character dies off-camera, then nine times out of ten they probably never died at all, and come back at the end of the movie as a “twist?” If you don’t see it in a movie, then it didn’t happen. That's "Cinematic Storytelling 101." And I didn’t see anyone die as a result of Superman’s battle with Zod, so I didn’t assume as I watched the film that anyone actually did.
But allowing for a moment that, given the nature of the damage Superman and Zod cause to Metropolis, it would be reasonable to “assume” that they all died, allow me to posit the following: If we are making assumptions about what must be happening off-screen based on what we “do” see on-screen in Man of Steel, then what makes you think that Metropolis hadn’t been evacuated already?
The city is being attacked by aliens. If you were a citizen of Metropolis, wouldn’t you leave? We already saw people running away from the destruction caused by Zod’s “World Engine.” Sure, the folks at the Daily Planet stayed until the last minute, but they’re reporters. That’s what they would do in that situation. When Superman and Lois embrace after the World Engine is destroyed, do you see thousands of onlookers, like you would in an unevacuated city?
Sure, some people are there – you might have noticed them in the train station at the end (in a train station, so we can assume they were leaving the city) – but by and large I had assumed that the city was mostly uninhabited by the time the final fight began. I did not assume that Superman was unintentionally killing people, because why would he? And even if he was, he was fighting a genocidal supervillain who wanted him dead. Zod wasn’t giving Superman too many opportunities to yell “time out” and rescue people who, by the way, we never saw in any form of danger.
Granted, neither interpretation of the scene is cut and dry. I suspect the filmmakers just found themselves in a bit of a quandary. There has to be a big fight between Superman and Zod at the end (at least, that’s what most audience members would be expecting), so where do you stage it? I’ve heard some people on Twitter suggest that Superman could have moved the fight to a more isolated location. First… maybe not. If Superman left Metropolis to try to lure General Zod away, there’s a halfway decent chance that Zod would have taken advantage of the situation and just murdered countless people while Superman wasn’t around.
And second, that’s not a terribly interesting location for a big superhero fight. A big field, for example, doesn’t offer as many opportunities for interesting fight situations as a city full of skyscrapers. Superman fights in that environment all the time in the comics. Sometimes people are thrown into buildings. In “Justice League Unlimited” Superman fights Darkseid and throws him into buildings, but we don’t see Superman save anyone. We assume that nobody died, because why wouldn’t we?
Man of Steel could have put a finer point on the evacuation of Metropolis and solved a lot of these problems, granted. But even that can be distracting. Watch Superman Doomsday. In an early fight with the title monster, buildings in Metropolis are destroyed, but they cut to a sign that indicates these buildings are abandoned. In the commentary track, the filmmakers point this out, and say that they find it distracting but felt it necessary to show that Superman didn’t accidentally get anyone killed.
So the makers of Man of Steel happened to make the opposite choice. They decided not to distract the audience by constantly reminding them that nobody is dying, to keep the pacing tight and the peril relatively high. Maybe that was a mistake too, but it seems like a conscious decision to solve a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem. Remember in Ang Lee’s Hulk, when the Hulk threw a tank across the desert and we heard a radio call afterwards where the crew of that tank said everyone was okay? Wasn’t that a little distracting?
Man of Steel is not a perfect movie, but I like it an awful lot and I accept it as a Superman story. It’s not “the” Superman story, and maybe it’s not indicative of Superman stories as a whole. But it’s at least as valid as the versions before it – many of which are accepted as pretty darned good – that also showed Superman deciding to that killing his enemies was necessary under certain circumstances. These are but a handful of stories amidst a plethora of tales that contradict them, but that doesn’t necessarily make them invalid, especially given their prominence in the popular culture. And while perhaps the storytelling wasn’t clear enough to indicate that Superman "didn’t" get hundreds of civilians killed in his fight with Zod, I don’t see any clear indications that they actually died either.
You can interpret Man of Steel either way. Based on the observations I personally made while watching the movie, I choose to interpret it in a way that gives the hero a little credit. Why wouldn't I?