“What happens when a man who hates killing finds himself in a situation that demands lethal force—indeed, in which killing becomes a moral obligation?”
That compelling ethical dilemma drives Man of Steel’s climax to its sudden, shocking conclusion, and I, for one, applaud Zack Snyder and David Goyer for having the courage to challenge Superman—a character that, as traditionally written, has often had it far too easy—in such a meaningful fashion. The instant of General Zod’s gruesome death—emotionally engaging, deftly orchestrated, and dense with conflict—is what pushed me over the edge, convincing me that Man of Steel was not simply another loud summertime diversion, but rather a shining example of intelligent, insightful storytelling.
You can imagine how dismayed I was, then, to see so many cynical fans criticize the Snyder/Goyer version of Superman—who kills a grand total of one person, and only when his hand is forced—for allegedly emulating bloodthirsty, “grim and gritty” anti-heroes like Wolverine and the Punisher, to the extent that he is, apparently, no longer recognizable. These fans, I think, are too caught up in their idealized, inflexible interpretation of the Big Blue Boy Scout; they react as though Clark’s decision to snap Zod’s neck occurs in a vacuum, either downplaying, distorting, or outright ignoring the context that shapes the controversial moment.
Let’s examine the scene more closely to illuminate the true implications of Superman’s choice:
Clear and Present Danger: In his final moments, Zod poses an immediate threat to the people of Metropolis. Momentarily subdued by Superman’s headlock, the mad general, well beyond the point of insanity, lashes out at the most convenient target: an innocent family, cornered by a pile of rubble. Clark, exhausted by the prolonged, destructive battle, is confronted with a clear choice: end his enemy’s life or allow the helpless bystanders to die. The correct course of action, while abhorrent, is plainly obvious.
A Last Resort: Clark does not arrive at the decision to use lethal force lightly. Before he delivers the killing blow, he begs, bargains, and pleads with Zod to show mercy. “Don’t do this,” he cries as his foe’s heat vision burns ever closer to the cowering civilians. “Stop! Stop!” But Zod refuses, forcing Superman to follow the only remaining course of action.
Zod’s Last Words: “This can only end one way, Kal-El. Either you die, or I do!” This chilling declaration suggests that Zod’s violent rampage is not merely motivated by homicidal rage, but also by suicidal rage. Robbed of the purpose for which he was genetically engineered, Krypton’s military leader has lost the will to live. His intent, then, is to force Superman to end his suffering—even if he has to wipe out all human life to do so. His blunt response to Clark’s desperate pleas only reinforces this interpretation: “Never.” He will not stop with one family. His spree will only end when he lies dead… or Earth lies in ruins.
Superman’s Emotional Response: One of the fundamental rules of effective storytelling is “Show, Don’t Tell.” Rather than having their hero repeatedly insist that he does not kill, Snyder and Goyer craft a dramatic situation that illuminates the why of his moral stance. Clark meets his villain’s demise not with a howl of triumph, but with a cry of anguish. He embraces Lois and literally weeps for his fallen foe—the last remaining link to his lost heritage. Like the classic Man of Tomorrow, he thinks not of the billions of lives he was able to protect, but of the one he failed to save.
In conclusion, Man of Steel’s take on Krypton’s Last Son is no heartless murderer, but neither is he the godlike paragon of virtue that comic book readers are accustomed to. Like any other man, he struggles to do what is right in a world in which morality is a sea of gray. That, I think, is the deeper truth that Man of Steel illuminates: Superman is not a hero because he always knows exactly how to respond to any given crisis, but because he has the courage to put aside his own reservations and make difficult choices in the interest of the greater good.
[Originally written June 24, 2013.]