Our Comic Book Experts Debate the Controversial Ending of 'Man of Steel'

Our Comic Book Experts Debate the Controversial Ending of 'Man of Steel'

Jun 24, 2013

Warning: The following post will contain Man of Steel major spoilers

Superman fandom has never been so divided as to the question of whether or not Superman should have killed Zod at the end of Man of Steel. Our two comic book experts look at both sides of the argument…



The Devil's Advocate on Killing Zod

by Chris Clow

What are some of the many reasons so many die-hard Superman fans attach themselves to the character in the first place? His inherent value as a symbol of truth and justice? The images conjured by a legacy of amazing creative teams in comics over the last 75 years? How about that he just looks cool in a red cape?

There are a multitude of reasons that people gravitate towards Krypton’s Last Son, and those fans know that deep in their Superman-loving hearts the character absolutely does not kill. So, it’s not too surprising to see that the fan backlash toward the character’s decidedly brutal deposition of General Zod in Man of Steel has left a lot of people cold, a fair amount of people angry, and perhaps even more people disheartened.

Why is this? The Superman that I’ve gotten to know over the course of my lifetime has always had a very profound reverence for life, and in most cases has attempted to protect it at all costs. The burden that Superman has carried through most of his existence is different from practically every other superhero because as the most powerful being on the planet with a sense of compassion to match, he feels guilt when he fails to save everyone. Images immediately come to mind of a Man of Steel thrown into emotional turmoil in the aftermath of the Imperiex War, even changing his very costume to carry a mournful black in place of the vibrant yellow on his chest to represent how heavy the losses of that war weighed upon him.

That might seem an esoteric example to cite, given the type of film that Man of Steel aimed to be in appealing to everyone, but what I’ve heard most consistently from the creative team is that this is the modern incarnation of Superman. To me, that means that everything from at least the early to mid 1990s is fair game, and the Imperiex War dominated the Super-books in the early 2000s.

One of the very architects of the modern Superman, Birthright and Kingdom Come writer Mark Waid, made it clear that Superman’s shocking final act against Zod is something that may count as something of a cardinal sin against the DC Universe’s beacon of hope, and that he may have only bought it if the film attempted to conclusively prove that he really did have no choice. Ardent defenders of Man of Steel will explain to no end that the movie was effective enough in illustrating this point, but if you’re a big Superman fan, I know that there’s a voice in your head telling you, after you read Waid’s thoughts, that “…yeah, he has a point.”

It’s too easy to point to superhero films today that are a little too compromising on what we thought was an uncompromising rule. The Dark Knight trilogy is guilty of it with Ra’s al Ghul and (to a lesser degree) Two-Face, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has transgressed in that direction in all three Iron Man films, Captain America and The Avengers, and now in even Superman’s latest outing, the one hero who is never supposed to compromise is now guilty of it. As someone who did enjoy Man of Steel a lot, it’s very difficult for me to look at the genre today without a degree of regret, since one of the ideals I attach to so much in superhero fiction hasn’t been able to make the jump into cinematic success in the same way as the characters have.

Now to be clear, there’s a degree of devil’s advocate to this argument I’m making. I do largely think that Superman killing in a film is a questionable move, and that the superhero genre as a whole needs to pull back from that edge a bit more than it has in recent years. When it comes to this latest situation with Zod, the one story that ultimately helps me to give Man of Steel something resembling a pass in this department is one of the first comics stories I ever read as a young child: Superman (vol. 2) #75.

There’s no getting around that in that story, Superman’s intent was to kill an unstoppable behemoth rampaging across America. No prison could hold him, no one else could ever have hoped to stop him. Is the logic too different from the choice he made in Man of Steel?

You tell me.



In Defense of a Perfect Ending

by Jeffrey Taylor

I wrote this piece just a couple of months ago, to explain why it is so important that Superman never kill his enemies. I was only guessing one potential possibility. I said, “If Superman does kill his enemies on purpose in the film, it will lead to the ultimate alienation of the fan base.” I was clearly correct because the fan bases are now torn for exactly that reason in a way that could only be done previously by Star Wars or religion. Thanks to having written this article, I can honestly show that I understand both sides of this argument. Yet I loved the ending of Man of Steel and think it made for a perfect moment.

It’s absolutely vital that Superman not kill, because it’s against his character. I find it similar to the idea of a doctor who takes a Hippocratic Oath to save lives and not take them. Superman has killed before, most notably in Superman (vol. 2) #22 where Superman had time to think about it and decided that Zod, Faora and Quex-Ul were too dangerous to allow to live, so even though they had already been permanently robbed of their powers, he unleashed Green Kryptonite to painfully execute them while they begged for mercy. This was after he had already saved the world as Superman for seven in-continuity years. Many, myself included, still disagree with the decision, but there’s no denying that the subsequent stories revolving around Superman’s regret for the premeditated decision were worthwhile. The only reason to forgive the decision is the aftermath.

In Man of Steel, fans are treated to a young, fledgling Superman who has only just learned of his past and getting control over previously undiscovered powers like flight. He hasn’t even put on his glasses to work at the Daily Planet yet, so he is allowed to make mistakes on the journey as long as he learns something from them. Granted, this doesn’t help the ending of this single film to stand on its own, but it’s what Obi-Wan Kenobi might call a “First step into a larger world.” My only complaint about the moment would arise if it is never addressed in a sequel, but I have to believe it will in some way.

Everything about the Man of Steel‘s Superman is about protecting life. The plan he set in motion to stop the other Kryptonians by way of Lois and Jor-El’s plan was to save the lives of humans and his fellow Kryptonians. He intended to send them back into the Phantom Zone rather than kill them all. He had no control over being sent to Earth or knowledge that activating the ancient ship would draw Zod et al to create so much destruction and death. Placing the blame for the destruction of Metropolis on Superman is frankly lazy, and untrue.

After Zod has nothing left to live for and claimed that Superman had taken “his soul,” he decided to force Superman to kill him. There is always a choice, but Superman absolutely made the right choice to allow the threatened family to live, in contrast to the way he allowed his own adoptive father to die. I know I’m not the only one to say this, but this is Superman’s “Kobiashi Maru,” an unwinnable situation. It’s easy to say “Superman always finds a way,” but at the same time, if something this horrific and traumatic happens to the character, it belongs in his first week of being Superman. Then we can move on to why it matters so much that Superman knows even more clearly why he can never kill.

Given the option, Superman wouldn’t have fought Zod at all. As a military tactician with the same powers as Superman, he chose the venue that would offer the maximum collateral damage and then ultimately chose his own death. After all, we’re talking about heat vision. Superman was holding his head, but why would that stop Zod from flicking his eyes over just a tiny bit more and finishing off the family? This was all under Zod’s control.

The scene where Superman breaks Zod’s neck is incredibly poignant and clearly something Superman did not want to do. The horrific scream he gave after having done it mirrored the scene where he allowed Jonathan Kent to die. The mirror is quite literal. Clark was on the right side of the screen looking to the left of the audience in the first scene as a teenager, and then after killing Zod instead of allowing the family to die, he was on the left of the screen looking to the right of the audience when he screams in the same way. It’s all about choosing to not allow the family that Zod was threatening to die the way he allowed his surrogate father to die.

Granted, this still remains a difficult debate. I agree that Superman should not kill, but I also recognize the value of putting him, as a Superman so early in his career, in a situation where there is no other possibility. It has value and a relevant place in the story. I hope and expect it to affect decisions he makes in future films. I will have a bigger issue with the moment if it is simply never addressed again, but I would bet vital parts of my anatomy that it will be in some way.

It’s clear that this was a very specifically thought-out scene and not something the filmmakers put in to annoy the fans, as some are already suggesting. This film has earned its place in Superman's history and it's not going away.


Well, what do you think?

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