A Tale of Two Choices—Reflections on Man of Steel

Warning: If you somehow have managed to not see Man of Steel or had its controversial ending spoiled, turn away.

In The Man of Steel from 2013, Superman faces a man that appears to be more than his match both physically and tactically in General Zod.  With the choice to either allow the genocidal maniac to run free to kill—and continue to kill those immediately around him—or kill the madman and put an end to any future deaths, Superman does what many would not have expected:  He breaks the Kryptonian general’s neck.  No doubt, many fans of the preeminent superhero will find this directorial decision to be diametrically opposed to a long-standing vision of the Clark Kent and Superman fans have come to know and love over the past 75 years.

Admittedly, it is shocking to actually see the event take place; and while the hero is clearly distraught over the morally challenging choice he made, it does not lessen the shock of seeing the Man of Steel’s moral compass appear to bend.  Was there no other option?  With aid from Lois Lane and Jor-El, Clark was able to banish the rest of the evil Kryptonian’s without resorting to lethal force.  Moreover, the allegories to Christ in this film were quite obvious.  From the discovery of his alien parentage with a father from the heavens who reveals himself to the son at 33 years old, the cross-like body positioning in space mirroring Christ on a cross, the sacrificial nature of willingly handing himself over to authorities whom he recognizes have no authority over him but does so for the greater good—not to mention the direct marketing to pastors on how to preach according to the gospel of Superman—the list goes on.  Yet, Christ is not shown to have killed anyone in any of the accepted records of the gospel or anywhere in the New Testament.  While he does display righteous anger in the temple with the moneychangers and drives them out of his Father’s house, no one dies in this episode.

Regardless of whether readers of the comics and viewing audiences accept the parallels to Christ in this film, there is still little doubt many of these same fans view Superman as a sort of secular savior—a sort of Platonic ideal to which all men strive to be like.  Therefore, many viewers viewed it as near sacrilegious to see Kal El depicted in this way.  He is supposed to be able to find a way out of any situation no matter the circumstances. And yet, comics history shows us that the Big Blue Savior has killed before when the circumstances allowed for scant few options both in the comics and in the live adaptations.  Starting from the present and working backwards, I found a few examples to consider:

  • In the 2011 company-wide reboot, DC’s “New 52” Superman kills some of Darkseid’s “parademon” henchmen;
  • In the sixth season of the Smallville television series from 2007, Superman killed a super-powered individual (accidentally), Titan who escaped from the Phantom Zone; and following the event, Clark was emotionally distraught over the event;
  • In the “Death of Superman” story arc from 1992, Superman sacrifices himself in the fight against Doomsday killing the monster in the process;
  • In the John Byrne run of Superman, Issue #22 from 1988, Superman uses kryptonite to kill an alternate universe version of General Zod, Zaora, and Quex Ul under the auspice of preventing billions of deaths on Earth;
  • In Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” form 1988, Superman kills Mr Mxyzptlk, and recognizing he should never kill, exposes himself to gold kryptonite—rendering himself powerless—and then walks off to die in the arctic out of grief;
  • Finally, in one version of the Richard Donner classic, Superman II, the evil Kryptonian general slides off into a chasm and is never heard from again.  While Donner is nowhere near as explicit as Snyder, it seems extremely difficult to believe a de-powered General Zod would have found any other fate apart from death from the fall Superman allowed him to take.  Donner doesn’t need to tell us this when he’s pretty clearly shown us enough to infer what’s happened to the not-so-good general.

It’s not just more recent iterations of Superman that found the Man of Tomorrow in a position of choosing the death of one individual over the lives of thousands, if not millions of others.  Going back to only the second appearance of Superman, the penchant to deal with opponents of “truth, justice, and the American way” could be seen:

  • In Action Comics #2, Superman wraps machine guns around the necks of three gangsters and chases them out of a window—no doubt,  a fatal ending as one gangster exclaims “Good heavens! He won’t die!” while Superman responds with “Glad I can’t say the same for you!”  In the same issue, he enlists in the Army where he is shown picking up and throwing what is presumably a German solider torturing his fellow comrades for information.  The interrogator “vanishes from view” after being throw so hard and far—yet another likely casualty at the hands of Superman.  Finally, Superman even engages in fisticuffs with a fighter plane pummeling it and sending the plane and its pilot crashing to the earth to face a grim demise.

I’m not justifying the actions of Superman—be it in any of the aforementioned instances or the most recent occurrence in Man of Steel. But I am trying to point out that amidst the cries of sacrilege and blasphemy that have occurred in the aftermath of the film’s release that fans need to understand it’s happened before.

But I suspect it’s not an uncharacteristic act without historical footing that truly has fans upset with Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s vision of Superman.  Instead, it much more to do with what Superman represents to readers, viewers, and fans worldwide.  Mark Waid echoes the question Snyder and Goyer posed to viewers when Kal-El  was faced with either letting Zod live only to incinerate the family cowering mere inches from the mad general’s heat rays blasting threateningly near them or to snap the neck of the man locked in his arms.  If we were in a similar position, what choice would we make?  From Waid’s position, there wouldn’t even be a choice—Superman simply does not kill.  He is perfection.  And in his perfection, he would find a means of both defeating Zod and the choice to kill.  Snyder and Goyer, however, opt to take the icon and bring him down to earth.  Instead of a perfect savior who inspires the earth to overcome, the creative team behind Man of Steel chose to explore the human experience of what it must have been like to live on earth and overcome the fallibility of humanity to become an inspiration.

Is Waid right?  I’ve certainly grown to respect his authorial voice, and the works he’s written have no doubt informed my understanding of Superman for the better.  On the other hand, there are elements to this film that provide a vision of exploring the human element of this alien savior that I can’t help but feel needed to be brought to the silver screen.  Which vision of Superman is correct:  The Christ-like, Platonic ideal whom man strives to emulate but will never fully become… or the Transcendentalist image of man who, inspite of his flaws, still manages to become something greater than what he or she originally was?  My answer to that question necessitates two detours…

The proudest moments of my life will always be the days I held my newborn sons.  My oldest son just turned four and my youngest is not far from two years old.  I now find myself at that point in my life where I have to help instill life-long moral values into these little boys.  The lessons I teach them now and in the years to come will help inform the type of men they will grow up to be.  I will be honest when I say this is also one of the scariest propositions of my life.  I know that one day I will be gone, but hopefully, those lessons will help them make the best possible decision when faced with difficult choices—the sort of circumstance where there is no clear cut “right” answer, but there are better responses than others where we do the best we can.

As an Army veteran, I have a number of good friends who found themselves in a world far from their homes.  They found themselves placed in circumstances they would have likely not wanted to be in but were there because they made an oath to stand for certain ideals.  For six months in 2003-04, I found myself in a similar situation when deployed to Baghdad, Iraq.  I also know these men and women are good people but were faced with awful circumstances that more than 99% of Americans have not experienced as many service members have.  Decisions were made, and sometimes, lives were lost.  But these things happened so that others would be safe.  Unless a person has walked a mile in those boots, it’s a hard perspective to truly wrap one’s head around.  So, what do these anecdotal experiences have to do with my reaction to watching a movie?

I bring all of this up not to make some cheap appeal to reader emotions.  I would never intend to cheapen the experiences of both my home life nor of my time in the service alongside those who have and those who continue to defend our country.  I bring this up because I believe in the power of storytelling, the power of a story to reach out and communicate experiences of different people from different places and even different times.  I thought this movie powerfully conveyed the difficulties of sending our children out into a world that is not always going to embrace them for who they are. I felt it depicted the desire of one man to good and yet be placed in a circumstance where doing those acts of good come with a price.

I experienced shock at what I witnessed in the theater watching Man of Steel as a beloved hero believed himself to be in an impossible situation where he felt he had no choice but to take a life.  I was also both disappointed in and somewhat disgusted at the audience with whom I was watching this moral crisis unfold as they all cheered Zod’s death.  This was not a moment to celebrate Superman’s but one to sympathize with him in this dark point in his life.  Certainly Superman, if not his viewers, recognized the arguably necessary choice that took place with his killing Zoc.  If I take any argument with Snyder and Goyer over this creative decision, it was in the light-hearted follow up immediately after this emotionally heavy scene especially given great pains they took to introduce us to the human side of Kal El, that is, Clark Kent.

I’m not trying to write an academic article here.  If I was, I’d spend at least an equal amount of time addressing some real concerns and inconsistencies with the movie of where there were more than a few.  I’m a dad to two little boys who run around my home in their Batman and Superman capes.  They believe superheroes help people.  I want them to learn this message because it’s an important one.  It’s one I grew up with, and I believed in it so much that I was inspired to go into the world and try and contribute to making this a better place—foolishly idealistic and overly romantic on my part or not.  I want them to know that there will be hard times ahead and difficult choices they will have to make. And yet, there is inspiration they can take from something as simple, and yet moving as a story.  When they are older, I’ll look forward to watching this movie with them and sharing a conversation or two.

I really do understand the position of informed, thoughtful reviewers such as Mark Waid.  His vision—one shared by millions—is not wrong.  There is something transgressive in Snyder’s vision from this perspective, and it comes down to the idea that a flawed, human Superman who is not perfect suggests our world is not only imperfect but our heroes are as well.  That’s a hard thing to accept.  We live in a world that is broken, but who wants to live in a world where our ideals are “sullied” as well?  It’s a valid point to argue; however, that doesn’t invalid other interpretations of who Superman is.  It’s equally valid to find hope and inspiration from heroes who are flawed and still manage to rise above those life-and-death decisions.  In Alan Moore’s  story I mentioned above, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” Superman does kill a serious threat to humanity when it seems no other choice is before him.  But as it is not considered continuity, both fans and critics seem to have little concern about its continued presence as one of the all-time great stories of Superman lore.   Yet, this Superman offers a cold and hopeless picture when he effectively commits suicide at the end by nullifying his invulnerability and walking off into the subzero temperatures of the arctic wastelands.  The vision of Superman offered in Man of Steel, however,  provides the picture of a man who picks himself up, and continues to try and do good.  That’s a version of the story I’ll buy into.  It might not be one other fans accept and will take with them, but that’s okay too.  That’s the beauty of stories:  There are many for us to pick and choose.  Perhaps, it is the burden of continuity that is what is at fault here.  After all, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight was out of continuity, but it is arguably one of the greatest and most influential of all entries in the Batman mythos.  While I’m not arguing Man of Steel is anywhere near the same level, it does dare to offer fans something different.

The last thing I want to see happen, though, is for storytellers to stop trying to explore new facets of the old, enduring characters.  Waid himself took Superman in a dark and twisted direction with his Nietzschian creation, the Plutonian, from Irredeemable. In this series, we encounter the answer to the question of what might happen if Superman became utterly evil and turned from his role as earth’s foremost guardian and provider of hope to its worst menace and greatest source of fear.  It’s a psychological exploration into the world of “What if…” that generates a valuable discussion about our superheroes.  In like fashion, this most recent film attempts a similar trajectory of asking “What if…we explored a flawed Superman—one who struggles with his role as opposed to the more perfect and unshakeable icon he has become over the years?”  It’s not a question many fans will want to explore, and the shock of seeing this depicted no doubt elicited a raw emotional response.  I can respect that, as it’s not a story that’s necessarily easy to take in.

But that’s the beauty of any story: Some we keep with us and cherish while others we can put back on the shelf for others to enjoy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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4 Comments

  1. I agree with you that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a story in which Superman kills, although I prefer that he doesn’t for all of the reasons others have raised. But the reason I found the killing of Zod in Man of Steel distasteful is because it didn’t feel to me like a natural, necessary progression for this story. The final battle with Zod, post-denouement, felt like a cheap horror movie twist, or worse an awkwardly tacked on sequence added only because the writer and director wanted Superman to kill. They created an extraneous scenario to serve that end rather than to serve the film’s narrative.

  2. Hi, Rob. Thanks for the response. I think one of the problems with that particular is seen is it could be seen as a bit rushed. Had Snyder taken even a moment or two to allow Superman the chance to process the human cost of the battle he was waging with Zod, it might have provided added context that helped him come to the conclusion that the mad general *needed* to be stopped. But we do not see that, and the result is many viewers (such as yourself) felt it was “a cheap horror movie twist, or worse an awkwardly tacked on sequence.” I’m not sure what I’m suggesting would have been enough for all, but perhaps it might have been a move in the right direction. Certainly, amidst the many high points that I found from this film, there were still a good number of areas that could have been done better.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

  3. Thanks, Forrest. I wanted to add (because you probably can’t tell from my previous comment) that I liked the movie. I made a concerted effort to judge it for what it was rather than what I expected it to be. As you say, there was much to enjoy, but I did find the final battle sequences tedious.

  4. My issue with this iteration of Superman has less to do with him killing Zod because, as you have so accurately pointed out, he has killed and destroyed some enemies before. I think what really gets me is the fact that he and the Phantom Zone Kryptonians caused so much collateral damage–and certainly cost many, many more lives because there is no way everyone got out of those buildings just in the nick of time–and he is only really depicted as getting upset when he snaps the neck of a madman that murdered his own father. Then after that, as Rob mentions, he seems all carefree and willing to just do whatever he wants while thumbing his nose at the humans. There is no acknowledgement of all the other many lives that were maimed or destroyed that day: just a whole bunch of fighting sequences, one dramatic moment with Zod, and then up, up and away.

    The film just felt like it was on crack and rushed through. It was interesting and there were many good parts in it, but I think there is always so much emphasis on Superman’s powers that people forget that he has other attributes as well. Aside from his morality, there is his mind and everything just rushed him on into that costume and into being Superman while just being all over the place and not taking some time to see the significance of something. Just a moment to acknowledge the fact that he couldn’t save all of those people *after* killing Zod might have been a nice touch.

    But yeah. The film had some interesting elements, as I mentioned before, but it could emphasized some parts over others and made it flow better. Also, in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” it might be true that “Superman” might have died that day but his death in the Arctic that Lois mentions to the reporter is not the ending that I saw winking at me on the final page. That is all I will say on that. ;)

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