Man of Steel and the Moral Decomposition of Our Heroes

Man of Steel has changed things. The filmmakers set out to redefine Superman for a new generation and, apparently, they’ve done just that. I’m not here to judge the movie, as CultureMass has already covered it. I’m here to focus on one moment in the film, the most critical moment, that I’m afraid may not only mar this franchise moving forward, but is fairly portentous for the superhero genre at large—films, comics, you name it. Yup, that moment.

The movie spends an awful lot of time dwelling on Kal’s conflict between being a visible force for good and keeping his identity hidden from the world. Ultimately, after meeting Jor-El, he decides to set an example, to be a symbol of hope, a source of inspiration. As such, the fact that his first major public tussle ends with the murder of his foe, General Zod, complicates this message a bit. Sure, Superman has killed before in the comics. So what makes this time any different?

Superman 22One of the beings Superman “killed” (although it didn’t really stick) was Doomsday in Superman #75. Doomsday was a force of nature. He was portrayed as a mindless destructive force (his first act upon rising was to crush a canary in his hand, for God’s sake). He couldn’t be reasoned with, and was more akin to a hurricane than an actual sentient being. As for the other time Superman killed, well that was in 1988’s Superman #22, when Superman turned a lethal dose of green Kryptonite on General Zod and his henchmen.

Now, before you think this lends credence to the action Superman takes in Man of Steel, consider the circumstances. On the parallel Earth Zod and his people had ravaged, there was no one left to dole out justice. Superman himself notes that he is the “last representative of law and justice on this world,” giving him authority enough to act as “judge, jury, and executioner.” It’s a decision that haunts him, as it should, but one that made sense, however unsavory it might have been (and it was). This was certainly not the case in Man of Steel, as not only is the Earth still full of people and laws, but Zod’s motivations are borne not out of malice, but of survival.

Even considering this dissimilarity, what truly makes Man of Steel a different situation is the creative impetus behind the decision. The word that I, as a lifelong comic reader, am becoming mortified of hearing:

“Modernize.”

Gives me the willies. This wasn’t always the case, either. Back in 2000, when Marvel threw the word around prior to the launch of its Ultimate Comics line, I was optimistic. Sure enough, they delivered Ultimate Spider-Man, a series that felt modern in tone without sacrificing any of what made Peter Parker the hero I had always loved. There are ways to modernize these old characters without losing their basic nature in the process. More and more often, though, the term “modernize” is being abused, co-opted to mean something much more troubling.

There’s no doubt that comics have been at the forefront of this trend. Series like The Authority and The Ultimates have taken the classic comic hero archetype and warped it into a darker, edgier, more violent figure. Clearly, this is something that does resonate with modern audiences. The problem is, where does it stop? Where is it okay for this modern desensitization to give way to genuine, traditional moral values?

Answer: It stops at Superman.

Do we hold him to a higher standard than other heroes? Oh, most definitely. Because that’s who he is. He’s the guy we ALL look to for guidance, whether we’re sitting in a theater watching a movie or sitting in the Watchtower working alongside him in the Justice League. This, like Spider-Man’s “power and responsibility” mantra, is in intrinsic quality of the character. He has to be the best of the heroes.

In an interview with Empire magazine, screenwriter David S. Goyer had this to say:

“One of the lessons that Chris and I learned from Batman was that if you’re going to revitalize an iconic figure like that, you have to be prepared to slay some sacred cows and you have to be prepared to weather the slings and arrows of some people…If you don’t reinvent these characters—and they are constantly being reinvented in the comic books—then they become stagnant and they cease being relevant. We were feeling—and I think a lot of people were feeling—that Superman was ceasing to be relevant.”

KingdomCome INTHe’s right, of course. Comic characters are constantly being reinvented. But taking away Superman’s moral proclivity is like giving Batman six-shooters or removing Green Lantern’s ring—it alters the character in a way so fundamental that he ceases being the character you set out to tell a story about. Goyer goes on to “justify” the inclusion of the critical moment in which Superman betrays both himself and the audience, but his entire argument basically boils down to two points:

1) Superman was placed in a situation where he didn’t have a choice but to kill.

Well that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Superman is better at getting out of no-win scenarios than James Kirk is. For Superman, there’s always a choice, always an out, always a justified moral high ground. Putting him in a situation where he “doesn’t have a choice” is just lazy writing. It doesn’t mean he didn’t have a choice, it means YOU couldn’t, or didn’t want to, think of one. This was about plot convenience, and a means to an end.  That end, of course, being…

2) It was an effort to “reinvent” the character and make him “relevant” (and so, to modernize him).

Think about that for a second. Make him relevant? At what point did “relevance” become synonymous with “turn him into a killer”? Maybe I’ll take a bit of “bleeding-heart liberal” flak for this, but we’re not talking about giving Clark an iPhone or turning the Daily Planet into a web-based news organization. We’re talking about murder.

As upsetting as it was for me to see Superman kill someone, what concerns me even more is what this means for the audience and the level of faith the creators have in us. The filmmakers felt that, to make the character mean something to a modern audience, giving up his code of ethics was the best answer. Have we, as a moviegoing public, become so cynical and desensitized that this is what we deserve? What our heroes need to become? David S. Goyer and Zack Snyder sure seem to think so. In an effort to modernize Superman, they had him cross a line that even Batman didn’t voluntarily cross in his movies.

Exploring Superman’s relevance in a morally compromising world is nothing new. At the risk of beating a dead horse, if Snyder and Goyer were so worried about Superman’s dire need to become “modern” in this sense, the folks at DC (who were somehow bamboozled into thinking this was a good idea) should have shoved a couple critical (and relatively recent) comics under their noses.

Action 775 INTThe first is Action Comics #775, in which Superman is faced with increasingly violent heroes, in the form of Manchester Black and his Authority-esque team the Elite, as well as perceptions about his own diminishing relevance in a modern world. The story shows the Man of Steel at his craftiest and most respectable, while sublimely stating that yes, Superman is still just as relevant now as he’s ever been.  The end of this issue is the equivalent of Superman dropping the mic and walking away.

Then we have Kingdom Come, one of the more well-known DC stories of the last 20 years, which again addresses the rise of the anti-hero and calls into doubt Superman’s place in the modern world. At the end of the story, Superman’s sense of idealism is still proven extremely valid, if not critical, in a morally compromised society. It seems the makers of Man of Steel are imparting the opposite lesson of Kingdom Come. Instead of demonstrating how ultimately disastrous the actions of an anti-hero like Magog are, Superman has now become Magog.

There are ways to make Superman relevant to a desensitized world without compromising his core values in the process. The argument that this situation and its resolution are more believable or relatable seems to miss not only the point of the character, but the point of the movie itself. If Superman solves things in ways we can’t imagine, that’s because he’s supposed to. He’s meant to be a beacon, an icon, the person whose moral integrity is so great and unyielding that we could never possibly match it. And yet, we continue trying. Because that’s what the best heroes inspire from us. He’s meant to represent something that, while completely unattainable, we continue to aspire to regardless. What we have, for now at least, is a Superman willing to take the easy way out.

The “S” stands for hope, eh?  Well, when our paragons of idealism fall apart, what hope is there for the rest of us?

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  • jsonmez

    Absolutely right! Agree with everything you said!

  • http://culturemass.com/author/nhahneman/ Nick Hahneman

    Great article. I would agree with the central point (as I read it) that we should respect genuine and uncompromising design, even if it detracts from accessibility. As a hardcore fan of the series, I might nit-pick that Dark Souls is fairly inaccessible, as it never explains some of the key systems in the game, such as how humanity works.

  • Gustavo Pontinha

    Amazing. This is the best article I’ve ever read about the movie. It says everything I had in mind after watching it. I wish Snyder and Nolan had the chance to watch this Christopher Reeve interview back in the 80’s. What he says from 5:00 on and specially at 6:13 is all they had to hear: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkcLRL9cBtk.

  • Daoofgeek

    The examples you give of Superman are the character at his best. This Superman was in his first fight with a foe who, once he started to gain a better grip on his powers would be too much for Superman. With no kryptonite around and the city halfway leveled as well as Zod’s promise to kill every human on Earth, what was his choice? The “lazy writing” contention is, in itself, a lazy response. Because you do not agree with the situation, it’s called lazy (and make no mistake, I’ve heard others say this as well without offering any workable solution for the situation).

    Your point about modernizing Superman is a valid point though the example of Superman #22 actually parallels the situation Kal-El found himself in during Man of Steel.

    I do have a question when one talks about morals and the foundation of a character. How could one call Superman the paragon of virtue if, by not killing Zod, millions would die? That’s not a hero; it’s a selfish person who is more concerned with him/herself than the lives of others. A hero is one who is a beacon of hope but, at the same time, realizes that sometimes the ideals he lives for may not benefit the “greater good” ;-)

    Despite disagreeing quite a bit with your article, I find that it was beautifully written and while I may not agree with you, I will say it gave me pause to think a bit more on what I found to be a very compelling narrative.

    • BrianLeeMartin

      Thanks for the response, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I would argue that, in Superman #22, he’s not actually in a similar situation at all, and sentences the Phantom Zone criminals to death as the sole remaining figure of justice on a devastated world. Part of my problem with the death of Zod in MOS is that I didn’t feel like the film had earned the right to do that with the character–I was unconvinced of there being no alternative.

      As for what to do about the “lazy writing”, part of the problem with what happened here was that all of the collateral damage leading up to it gave me a, “Oh, SUDDENLY he cares about Zod killing people?” feeling that deflated the entire intended effect of the scene. But there’s already been a lot said about that around the web. Obviously, sending Zod back to the Phantom Zone would have been one way to go about it. It might sound pedestrian or anticlimactic, but there are clever ways to approach it (one of which I’ll recommend you check out here in a minute). Of course (and this speaks to a larger problem I had with the film that I didn’t really get into here), doing that would fail to “speak to” (in the minds of the screenwriters and producers) the modern audience this film was shooting for. I think movies as a whole lean on the “hero kills the bad guy” thing WAY too much now (although it’s a far worse movie than Man of Steel, I felt ill when Optimus Prime murdered Megatron IN COLD BLOOD in Transformers: Dark of the Moon–of course, MOST of that movie made me feel ill). Anyway, for an alternative idea that maintains Superman’s integrity and achieves exactly the same dramatic effect Man of Steel was going for, I’d point you to Max Landis’ YouTube video about his proposed reboot of the Death and Return of Superman. An idea like the one at the end of this story could have easily been adapted to fit MOS’s plot. It’s a long video, but definitely worth watching!