I can’t even begin to attempt writing a review of Man of Steel without first addressing what I see as the film’s most glaring and unforgivable mistake. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this post is going to be full of spoilers for Man of Steel, especially its finale. So if you’re still here and you don’t want to be spoiled, then it’s probably time for you to go.
HERE BE SPOILERS!
After we have worked our way through loads of CGI explosions and fistfights, the finale of Man of Steel boils down to Superman vs. the film’s villain General Zod; shocking, I know. Zod has just led a genocidal assault against the planet Earth and his showdown with Supes in a train station consists of threatening a cornered family with his heat vision. Superman is holding Zod back, trying to convince him to give up and not harm this family who apparently can’t run to the left. Zod does not listen to Superman, who just doomed Kryptonians to permanent extinction. The Man of Steel’s final solution? He snaps Zod’s neck.
He snaps his fucking neck.
Superman. The hero we all strive to be, the one who inspires us to be better than we are resorted to murder as a last ditch effort. I had shrugged my shoulders at many of the film’s deviations and story decisions, deciding to tolerate an average Superman film, but once Supes did the dirty deed, I lost my mind; the entire film was ruined for me.
Now many of you may argue “what’s the big deal with Superman killing someone? What difference does it make?” to which I answer, it is a HUGE deal. When it comes to Superman, the first and greatest superhero, it makes all of the difference in the world. Most superheroes have a rule against killing and nearly every major superhero film (Batman films especially) have struggled with the moral implications of its hero taking a life.
Why is it such a huge deal? Superman is the paragon of superheroes, and is a template for what mankind can become if they turn off the cynicism and selfishness that we are accustomed to. Man of Steel itself gives us this lesson, as Jor-El tells Kal-El that he can be this source of inspiration for the world, thus undercutting its own values with the snap of a neck. Superman has had to fight to stay relevant in the past few decades because we like our heroes dark and gritty, and we don’t mind them getting a little blood on their hands now and then. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was so successful because of this; Bruce Wayne was a violent and troubled figure who took his anger out on criminals. Comic book fans have long feared what the “grim and gritty” Superman film would be like, and while Man of Steel was certainly tonally different from The Dark Knight, it corrupted its hero in the end, without even batting an eye.
Of course it must be said that in Man of Steel Superman is visibly upset that he has come to this decision, letting out a scream of regret. But that’s all that happens in term of consequence. Lois comforts him, but doesn’t even offer the solace of a “you had no other choice,” and the film simply moves to its conclusion as if killing is a completely natural progression of the character.
You yourself may argue that there was no other option for Superman but to kill Zod. While I respect your right to this opinion, it is fundamentally wrong. Superman is a fictional character, one that was created by the oppressed as a champion for the oppressed as a beacon of hope to anyone to look up to. There are dozens of different ways Man of Steel could’ve ended that scenario. They chose the most “believable” one for the year 2013, which was an unforgivable mistake.
It’s not like this is a consistent choice across the board either. There are countless tales of Superman over his 75-year lifespan where he has flat-out said that killing is never an option, especially for a hero with near infinite power. This past year saw two major DC Comics/Warner Brothers collaborations focusing on this idea. The animated film Superman vs. The Elite was based on a 2001 Action Comics story called “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” which depicted the stalwart Superman refusing to change his no killing policy in the face of new young heroes who don’t mind the body count. And just a few months ago we saw the launch of DC Comics successful video game Injustice, whose plot was built around the idea that once Superman takes a life in an act of revenge, it puts him on the path to becoming a megalomaniac dictator.
Superheroes get darker; it’s the nature of the beast. But the bottom line is that heroes like Superman should NEVER kill. If they do, if they are impossibly forced to take a life, there should be tremendous consequences. The hero should be filled with immense guilt and regret, forever living with their deplorable decision and feeling the weight of it. Man of Steel opted to forego all of this.
We live in the 21st century and Superman is a product of the 1930s, so he must adapt to the times. But if you don’t see any problem with Superman, the greatest of us all, taking a life, then you have missed the point of Superman entirely.