It may seem passé to some, but Superman’s overarching cardinal rule has (almost) always been to never kill his enemies. Murder and execution are unbecoming of a hero and everything it means to be a “good guy.” Believe it or not, it is one of the most important aspects of the character, even moreso than his superpowers. Man of Steel already has a vocal minority of fans who dislike the changes to the character and his universe that they already know about or simply assume based on previews. If this is a Superman who kills, it would be the death knell for many of the character's biggest fans.
Screenwriter David S. Goyer knows Superman well and when Man of Steel reaches its conclusion, odds are that when General Zod, Faora and whatever surprise villains we don’t know about are quelled, it will not be a death directly at Superman’s hands. Perhaps they will be put back into the “Black Zone,” which is the updated version of the Phantom Zone. Or they may cause their own deaths with Superman left unable to save them. Even though Batman usually follows the same rule, Superman does not get to say “I don’t have to save you,” like the Dark Knight did to Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins.
One common theme in science fiction is that advanced utopian societies (despite their own inherent problems) usually don’t execute their criminals, no matter their crimes. This wasn’t addressed for Krypton until the 1960s when the villain Jax-Ur destroyed Krypton’s moon. Instead of a death sentence, he was sent into the Phantom Zone, which was an extra-dimensional creation of Jor-El to remove the criminal element from the population. The offshoot was that these incredibly evil and powerful characters like General Zod and Faora could be released on Earth and give Superman a run for his money.
Not every villain can have a power equal to Superman, but writers still want to give him a chance to let loose. He often has to pull his punches with those who might die from the impact, but that doesn’t apply to robots. His popularity booned quickly after his first appearance, but audiences needed to see him go all out without becoming a murderer, so it became common to see him using all his powers on enemy robots. This theme is featured in early comics, the 1940’s Fleischer animated features and even up to today. Expect to see this in some way in Man of Steel as well.
There were a number of reasons to keep Superman from killing his enemies, but beyond the need to make him a “good guy,” killing his foes meant that they couldn’t return. What if Luthor died in his first appearance? He would never have ascended to arch-villain status. Of course this is a universe where death is more of a revolving door than a true ending, but most stories were brief and a death would require an explanation along with the reappearance. It’s enough to cover breaking out of jail most of the time, which usually wasn’t necessary either.
However, there have been times where Superman has killed.
Early in Superman’s career when his future was hardly set, Superman killed or allowed criminals to die on a regular basis. In a newspaper strip that was reprinted in Superman #2 (fall, 1939), Man of Steel creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster set him up to kill a lot of people working in a bad guy’s munitions factory (a blimp), and even let loose a deadly gas allowing a villain to die in front of him for his crimes.This would soon change with Superman becoming more wholesome, and even remain the top superhero throughout the 1950s when the comic book industry nearly died all together.
It’s also easy to argue that Christopher Reeve’s Superman killed in Superman II (1980). When Phantom Zone villains Zod, Ursa and Non were depowered in the Fortress of Solitude at the end of the film, they were dropped into the lower crags of the foundation without any explanation of their outcomes. Although a scene was filmed showing them taken away by the “Arctic Patrol,” it was cut from both the finished film and the Donner Cut. Without it, the audience was left to wonder.
Watch that scene below
John Byrne became the ultimate Superman writer in the late 1980s by restarting and revitalizing the character from 1986-1988. He left the series in a quagmire after Superman (Vol.2) #22 (October 1988) when the Man of Steel was brought to a pocket universe’s Earth that had been decimated by Zod, Faora and another Kryptonian named Quex-Ul. For the first time in his new continuity, Superman specifically executed criminals because they were too dangerous to allow to live. They had already been exposed to Gold Kryptonite that permanently robbed them of their powers, but he unleashed the deadly Green Kryptonite and watched them die writhing in pain. Byrne then left the Superman comics as a writer and let others deal with the aftermath.
Superman struggled with his decision to kill the Phantom Zone villains from the Pocket Universe. He soon had a mental break and began sleepwalking, masquerading as another hero named Gangbuster without realizing he was doing it. He feared his lack of control and exiled himself in space, away from the people he loved on Earth. Eventually he returned, but let this one mistake serve as a constant reminder that he is in the business of saving lives, but never taking them.
Later stories often referred back to Superman #22. In Action Comics #719 (March 1996), the Joker was visiting Metropolis and poisoned Lois. He told Superman that he could create a cure by using ALL of his blood. He would have to kill Joker to save Lois. Superman chose not to because of his cardinal rule, and Lois died. But don’t worry, she got better.
A famous story called “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way” from Action Comics #775 (March 2001) pitted Superman against a new team of heroes called the Elite, led by Manchester Black. The Elite were efficient at saving innocent people, but they would kill the villains. Even the people of Metropolis and the rest of the world liked them, but Superman had to put a stop to them because of his cardinal rule. That story recently became an animated feature called Superman vs. the Elite.
The fact that Superman refuses to kill his enemies is intrinsic to the character’s makeup. It is one of the few things that is absolutely unchangeable, with the only exceptions being imaginary tales or Elseworld stories where he is not as “good.” Goyer knows this well, and fans can only hope that this remains true in Man of Steel. If Superman does kill his enemies on purpose in the film, it will lead to the ultimate alienation of the fan base. We’ll find out for sure on June 14.
What are your thoughts on Superman never killing his enemies? Should he start? Does it matter to you?