The most boring complaint a comic book fan can make about a comic book movie is “They Changed Stuff!” A superhero movie can, should, must be different from the source material. That’s partially just a matter of simple narrative physics.
The typical superhero has several decades of history to draw from, with generations of comic book creators putting their own distinctive spin on the character. The typical superhero movie is around two hours and 20 minutes — a running time that, plotwise, allows for maybe three issues’ worth of content. More importantly, filmmakers should never feel shackled to what’s come before. The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is radically different from any earlier version of the Joker, and that turned out just fine. Likewise, the Iron Man trilogy has playfully chopped the character’s comic history to pieces, a strategy that has arguably made Movie Iron Man a much more compelling character than Comic Iron Man ever was.
There are a lot of radical reinventions of the Superman character in Man of Steel. Some of them are intriguing. The film reimagines young Clark Kent as a loner whose superpowers are a source of profound discomfort. The best scene in the movie finds young Clark, freaked out beyond all measure by his sudden ability to see the skeletons inside of people, blockading himself behind a door at school — and his mom slowly talking him down by asking him to focus on the sound of her voice.
The outcast/age of autism overtones are miles removed from the old-fashioned notion of Clark as an All-American football-playing über-kid; likewise, the film’s portrayal of a young-adult Clark as a job-hopping wanderer feels tapped into our recessionary age. (In Man of Steel, Clark gets his first steady job at the age of 33, which practically sounds optimistic in the current professional climate.) Like pretty much everything in Man of Steel that doesn’t involve punching things, these reinventions of the Superman myth are quickly introduced and forgotten, because the film is only 143 minutes long and there are so many things that need punching. But the changes are interesting: They seemed like purposeful additions.
And then there’s the thing that happens at the end of Man of Steel that was so ill-conceived and poorly handled that you almost start to wonder if anyone attached to Man of Steel knows what makes Superman so special. (SPOILERS FROM HERE.) The film ends with an extended series of inscrutable action scenes where Superman flies places and destroys things while General Zod and his fellow Kryptonians set up confusing Kryptonian technology to destroy things or whatever. Zod’s plan fails because Superman destroys stuff more better than Zod destroys stuff. I’m sorry, that sounds stupid. What actually happens is that Superman opens up a black hole in the middle of a major American city, which is clearly not a stupid thing to do.
All of the Kryptonians die except for Zod, because this is the kind of movie where the climax has to feature the hero and the villain punching each other. (ASIDE: Weirdly, this is the kind of rote climax that Christopher Nolan previously deconstructed in The Dark Knight. I quote the Joker: “You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?” In Man of Steel, it’s all one big fistfight. END OF ASIDE) Superman and Zod punch and punch and punch each other, sometimes while flying through buildings and sometimes while not flying through buildings. Ultimately, Superman gets Zod in a choke hold, which is kind of like Kryptonite for Kryptonians who are appearing in a movie that’s too cool to have Kryptonite. Zod uses his heat vision to attack some locals. Superman tells him not to. Zod refuses.
So Superman kills Zod.
This is a shocking moment. It’s shocking for all kinds of reasons. Superheroes don’t kill people, but Superman definitely doesn’t kill people. It’s a defining aspect of the character. He isn’t just good, he’s too good. It’s an insanely powerful moment. When it happens, you think to yourself: “Geez, what a radical redefinition of the character. Classically, Superman has never taken a life, even the life of his worst, most homicidal enemy. How will this change this character going forward?”
Answer: It doesn’t change him at all. Lois Lane runs over to comfort him. Cut To: A few days later, and Superman is having extremely forced Iron-Man-and-Nick-Fury banter with General Swanwick about how they just need to trust Superman, because he is Superman and Superman is good. And then Superman becomes Clark Kent and the origin story is finished.
I think this is the single most disturbing plot point in any blockbuster movie this summer. Disturbing, because I get the vibe that the filmmakers don’t even come close to understanding how crazy, how unexpected, how just plain wrong Superman killing someone is. Back in 1986, Alan Moore wrote a famous story about Superman called “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” that became the swan song for the first 50 years of Superman’s history. Terrible things happen to Superman over the course of the story — seriously, you gotta read it — and in the end, Superman has to make the ultimate sacrifice. Not suicide; Superman is the kind of guy who would give his life to save a kitten from a tree. No, Superman has to break his first rule and kill someone.
The person he kills is incredibly evil and responsible for untold terrifying actions. Much like in Man of Steel, he is immediately comforted by Lois: “B-But you had to! You haven’t done anything wrong!” Superman does not stand for that, though: “Yes, I have. Nobody has the right to kill … Not you, not Superman … especially not Superman.” Having superpowers doesn’t give Superman the moral authority to decide who lives and who dies; if anything, it gives him less authority, since he has so much more absolute power to abuse absolutely. The crazy thing is that, in Man of Steel, his power is exactly what gives him the authority.
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was written by Alan Moore right as he was embarking on writing Watchmen. Coincidentally, Zack Snyder did his best to film Watchmen a few years ago, and the weirdest thing about his adaptation was how it captured the graphic novel’s visuals while generally missing the point of the narrative. This was especially true of the violence. On the page, Watchmen‘s violence is relatively unadorned and realistic; onscreen, every violent act was shot with all the gorgeous, hyperdetailed delicacy of a car commercial. You get the vibe that Snyder doesn’t really understand violence in any meaningful real-world context: He can’t help but make violence look “cool.” (When Superman snaps Zod’s neck, I believe there is a sonic boom on the soundtrack.)
But Snyder is an easy target, what with Sucker Punch and that movie about the heroic owls. I’m inclined to think that the whole “Superman kills” plot point originated from David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, who conceived the film’s story together. It makes sense: The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises both asked a number of fascinating questions about Batman’s moral and ethical role in society. Weirdly, both movies came up with radically different answers. The Dark Knight concludes that Batman is a kind of necessary evil for society, a parasite created to kill other parasites before ultimately being extinguished; Rises concludes that Batman is Jesus Christ, basically, although the movie throws in enough complications to make you wonder if Nolan isn’t secretly incepting us. Man of Steel is kind of like Rises without even the bare pretense of sacrifice. If I read the ending correctly, we are supposed to understand that Superman has become a better superhero because he has been forced to kill someone. The movie expects our sympathy: “Poor Superman. He had to kill Zod. That must be so hard for him.”
Or maybe not: In stark contrast to the philosophizing Dark Knight movies, Man of Steel doesn’t talk very much about the main character’s code of ethics; maybe he doesn’t have one. But perhaps accidentally, Man of Steel nevertheless feels topical in one respect. Not to get heavy, but there’s been a lot of talk lately about the use and abuse of government power, and of how drone strikes radically reshape the rules of warfare in terrifying ways. Last year, Esquire writer Tom Junod wrote a piece called “The Lethal Presidency,” written in part as an open letter to President Barack Obama. Junod details how the Obama administration has created a whole sequence of legal maneuvers to justify assassination — part of the sequence being the idea that the people involved in the decision-making (basically, the president) have to struggle with the gravity of killing someone. To the president, Junod writes:
But neither you nor anyone in your administration has allowed the impression that that struggle is anything but an obstacle to be surmounted and that you are anything but resolute in surmounting it. You struggle with your moral qualms about the Lethal Presidency only to gain the moral distinction of triumphing over them — and to claim, as the Lethal President, the higher morality of killing.
Basically, replace “Lethal President” with “Lethal Superhero,” and you have Man of Steel, a movie that allows Superman to kill because it shrugs and says, well, there was nothing else to do, and Superman is a better man for triumphing over the adversity of having to kill someone. Of course, everything about the end of Man of Steel is ludicrous: This is yet another movie, like Star Trek Into Darkness, where, like, half a city is destroyed, and nobody seems to notice. But ultimately, the movie comes down to one question: “Zod is about to kill a human being. What can Superman do? Nothing! Murder is justified!”
The way the movie bends over backward to get to that moment is an embarrassment of plot illogic. The fact that nobody involved in the making of the movie could come up with a clever way for Superman to not kill Zod — like maybe use any of his superpowers besides his incredible ability to punch real hard — says more about the filmmakers than about Superman. The fact that nobody thought that Superman should have any emotional reaction to killing someone is either confusing or incredibly cynical. The fact that this is being sold as family entertainment proves that we are really just screwing with our kids now.
The movie unforgivably tries to have its cake and eat it too, striving hard to make Superman “realistic” while nevertheless overdosing on Christ imagery. It’s a balancing act: They cover Superman in mud and then pretend his hands are clean. Maybe they think his hands are clean. Maybe Man of Steel is a Superman movie that doesn’t understand or even care about basic questions of morality. Maybe Man of Steel assumes that killing is just something heroes do now.
I wonder if the people who made Man of Steel think it’s somehow impressive — or realistic, or even cool — to make their Superman a killer. Personally, I think you’ll need to dig deep into 75 years of Superman history to find an interpretation of the character so shallow, cynical, and just plain ugly.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich.