If you asked me last Saturday where I would be today, I would tell you that I’d be going to see MAN OF STEEL with my family. But, instead, I am sitting here at home, writing this blog. I remember how happy I was when Henry Cavill was first cast Superman, and I still think he is an excellent choice for the role. But I did feel conflicted when the first promo’s for the film started airing, including the original poster of Superman in handcuffs surrounded by the military. It just didn’t give off the inspirational hopeful vibe that I thought a Superman movie should give. But, despite that, I was still willing to give it a chance. But then I found out a very disturbing fact about this film.
Superman deliberately kills Zod at the end.
To me, that is just so wrong, on every level, and constitutes a complete lack of understanding of the basic fundamental element of the character, who he is, and what he is supposed to represent. Superman does not kill. He believes that it is ALWAYS wrong to willingly take a life. Yes, as originally conceived by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman did occasionally kill bad guys in the early years of his career, but he was also a much different character then, and has evolved over the past 7, almost 8, decades, to where he is now. Superman is basically a demi-God on Earth, raised by humans, to protect, defend, and inspire us. He is what we all could be, and therefore must be beyond our base desires, including revenge.
I’ve seen people try to defend this by talking about the context of the action. Apparently, Superman snaps Zod’s neck in order to stop Zod from using his heat vision to kills some innocent civilians. So he killed the bad guy because it was the only way to save other lives. That still doesn’t make it okay, because the whole point of Superman is his belief that there is always a better way. And Superman, with all of his powers, will find some other way. Plus, the context defense only works if he were real, and these events were really happening to him. But this is all fiction. The writers of this film specifically created the situation and the context in order to justify this action, as if it was out of their hands. They chose to write a story where Superman’s “only option” was to kill someone. They should not have done that.
Of course, the supreme irony is that I first heard about this, thanks to a thread I was lurking on the John Byrne Forum, as they discussed the film. Byrne and his fans (the few he has left) are mostly, naturally, outraged about this, despite the fact that Byrne also had Superman had deliberately kill people at the end of his run on the Superman titles, back in 1988. Superman was taken to a parallel Earth, where his doppleganger had disappeared years earlier, and three rough Kryptonians (including a version of ZOD) had tried to take over the world. But after years of resistance from world’s militaries they just decided to kill everyone on the planet, over 5 billion people. After they did that, Superman used Kryptonite to kill them as punishment for this crime. Byrne, in his usual hypocritical fashion, attempts to use technicalities to explain away why it was different, and therefor okay, when he did it. It wasn’t a “murder” it was an “execution” that Superman had to carry out as the last representative of any type of law on that world.
That is still bullshit. For the same reason I just explained. The context in which Superman felt justified in killing (I mean, EXECUTING) the villains was all created by Byrne. He did not have to write this story. He just wanted to. He wanted to push his own pro-death penalty agenda onto the character of Superman, so he went out of his way to create this extraordinary set of circumstances in which he could justify doing it. After all, surely even the biggest pacifist would agree that killing over 5 BILLION people is a crime that deserves to be punished by death, right?
But let’s take a look back at that particular storyline, to see the illogical hoops Byrne had to jump through, just to get to the ending that he wanted to write. I’ll skip the intricate details, because if you’re not a long-term comic-book fan, it’s probably too confusing, and involves things like a Crisis on Infinite Earths, and time travel, and cloning and other things. But here’s the basic storyline: Beginning in Superman vol. 2 #21 (& continuing in Adventures of Superman #444, and ending in Superman #22), Superman meets a character called Supergirl, who didn’t exist in this particular continuity, and had been discovered frozen in Alaska. After a typical superhero battle in the sky, and some confusion, as Supergirl suffered from temporary struggled to regain her memory. After she does, she explains where she’s from, and takes Superman to her parallel Earth, where she introduces him to Lex Luthor.
We learn that in this world, there was a Clark Kent who began his superhero career when he was young, protecting the city of Smallville as Superboy. But this Superboy disappeared to go fight in the future (trust me, it’s a long story), and was never seen from again. So this particular Earth had no superheroes noq. Then a young scientist, Lex Luthor showed up, wanting to help Superboy, but it was too late since Superboy was gone. Lex starts going through Superboy’s equipment, and is tricked into releasing the Kryptonian criminals, Zod, Faora, and Quex-Ul, who immediately begin using their superpowers to try to take over the world, causing millions of deaths and devastation in the process. The world’s militaries fight back, and the war wages for three years.
Eventually, the villains got tired of their inability to completely conquer the Earth, so they decide to just kill everyone and be done with it. They each fly to different points around the world and drill holes through the planet right into the core, causing the oceans to fall into the holes and then spurt back up into the air, destroying the the Earth’s atmosphere, killing most humans, as well as animals and plant-life, and drying out the oceans, leaving the Earth a barren planet. All that’s left is the city of Smallville, which is encased in a special dome, with an artificial atmosphere, where Luthor leads what’s left of the human race in resisting the Kryptonians.
But let’s stop right there, and look at the Kryptonians’ plan. They tried to wipe out all life on Earth. And then what were they going to do? Just the three of them hanging out on this barren lifeless rock, for the rest of their natural lives? They could survive without an atmosphere, and let’s assume they also didn’t need to eat or drink to live. But, seriously, what would they do next? Wouldn’t they just die of boredom? It had already been established that there were no more planets with life on them anywhere in that universe, it was just Earth, so it’s not like they could fly off to somewhere else. You see how stupid this is? Yeah, I know that supervillains aren’t always the smartest, but this was a really stupid plan. The truth seems obvious, Byrne just wanted to show how utterly ruthless they were, so that’s why he wrote them to do that. But it makes no internal sense.
Anyway, that’s where we pick up now. The situation was so desperate that Lex devised the plan to send this clone of Lana Lang, disguised as Supergirl (again, long story), to another universe to bring Superman over to help them. This is despite that fact Superman is not as powerful as the Kryptonians in this universe. So now Superman joins with Supergirl, Lex, and the parallel versions of Bruce Wayne, Hal Jordan, and Oliver Queen (who never became Batman, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow in this world) to fight the Kryptonians. It doesn’t work as the Kryptonians are much more powerful than Superman, they kill everyone (except Supergirl, who is knocked out but survives @ the end) and destroy the dome around Smallville, until it is just Superman and Lex left. @ the last minute Lex tells Superman where to find the last remaining samples of Kryptonite. Superman gets it and uses a piece of Gold Kryptonite on them, which has the effect of removing the Kryptoninan’s powers, then he locks them in a steel cage that he creates, and goes back to see Lex, who is dying from injuries, and asks him why he didn’t use that Gold Kyrptonite years before. Lex says: “Call it…ego, Superman. It was my fault Zod and the others escaped from the phantom zone. I…wanted it to be by my hand that they were defeated. This world…has paid…a terrible price…for my follow…Superman. You must…make sure…it never…happens…again.” And then he drops dead.
Another clear example of a man who had a story that he wanted to tell, with an outcome already in mind, but didn’t know how to get there. He needed the Kryptonians to eventually be defeated so that Superman could kill (I mean EXECUTE) them, but he also had to establish that they were so evil and ruthless that Superman would feel compelled to do it. But by doing so, he’d made them so powerful that there was no way Superman could defeat them, so Byrne pulled the Dues Ex Machina out of his arse, and brought in Gold Kryptonite at the last minute. How convenient.
And Lex’s explanation for why he never used during the three years the Kryptonians were waging war on all the planet or even after they destroyed the atmosphere, is so absurd. He didn’t use the Kryptonite because he wanted to stop the Kryptonians himself, but he created a clone of Supergirl and sent her to a parallel Universe to bring Superman back so he could try to stop the Kryptonians? Forget it, my head hurts trying to figure out that logic.
So Superman then goes to the cage that he locked Zod and the others in. Points out that they murdered over 5 billion people (saying “The Nazi Holocaust pales in comparison!”), but they show no remorse. Taunting Superman with the fact that Superman can’t do anything about it and that they’ll find some way to get their powers back and then they’ll find some way to get to Superman’s universe and destroy his world too, while mocking his “pathetic idealism. You cherish life, even ours. And that’s what makes you weak!” And Superman responds: “What I must do know is harder than anything I have ever done before. But as the last representative of law and justice on this world, it falls to me to act as judge, jury…”
We do see a tear in Superman’s eye after they’re dead, just to show he has some compassion I guess. But I always hated this story, and never bought Byrne’s weak excuses for it. This was the final story of his mostly otherwise awesome 3 year run on the Superman titles (excluding that horrible 2-part story he wrote where an alien tries to force Superman to make a porno film…no, seriously, THAT HAPPENED). And subsequent writers tried to show Superman facing the guilt of his actions, including developing split-personality disorder and then temporarily exiling himself into space, then later seeing a psychiatrist who helped him come to terms with what he did. But this just never should have happen. Superman should never kill. The only time it worked for me in a story was when Alan Moore wrote it in Action Comics #583, the 2nd half of his story “What Ever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?”, which began in Superman #423. But that was only acceptable because that was written as a hypothetical “last” Superman story. So Superman deliberately kills an evil being, in order to save innocent lives, and then he uses Gold Kryptonite on himself, to remove his own powers, and settles down with Lois to live the rest of his life as a normal human being.
And that’s exactly why Superman doesn’t kill (& why writers who “get” the character wouldn’t put him in that situation in the first place) because the day that Superman deliberately kills someone is THE DAY HE STOPS BEING SUPERMAN FOREVER.