Last week I engaged in a Facebook melee about whether or not Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a fair representation of Superman. As someone who believes Superman would be on the slippery slope to total f***ing bonkers, I find myself not at all enjoying the dark, brooding Superman.
Honestly, it’s not that big a deal. I like Superman, but I’m not too invested in his movie franchise. So, for the most part, the fact that Zack Snyder’s vision of the Man of Steel is joyless doesn’t faze me much. Whatever sense of wonder the movie elicits is completely subdued by the dark, broody fighting and collateral damage.
And that’s fine. What I can’t get past is Superman killing, especially so soon in the new franchise. Superman doesn’t kill. Period. And instead of voicing the reasons why I feel that way on Facebook, it makes more sense to do it here.
Superman Is The First
Superman is the first superhero. Ever. That’s a huge deal. He is the originator of the comic book golden age and I believe because of that he, more than any other hero, has largely maintained his sense of innocence. While golden age comics were for kids and the audience now is quite a bit older, Superman remains the standard for iconic superheroes. Some heroes have reinvented themselves or have been retconned, but Superman remains largely the same. Some of the details have changed, but standing for justice hasn’t.
In the golden age, heroes didn’t kill. Generally speaking, villains didn’t kill either. Through the silver age and the iron age into modern comics, I’ve only found one instance where Superman purposefully took a life. Any Superman fan worth their salt might, at this moment, point at Doomsday and say “he killed that thing!” And that is true, but I’m not convinced that was his intention. Like a punch-drunk brawler, a delirious Superman was just trying to end that fight.
There have been a few accidents here and there and we’ve seen some collateral damage and reprisals, but Superman has only ever chosen to kill once. In Superman #22 he poisoned an alternate universe version of Zod and two of his lieutenants.
And it destroyed him.
Superman realized that he had become something he didn’t recognize and left Earth. He had to do all this soul searching and come to terms with what he understood was a completely wrong act. Being the first hero and an avatar for what we think of as truth, justice and the American way, he’s special. Superman is different than all other superheroes because of that history.
Which is why when he does choose to kill, as he did in Superman #22, he stops being Superman. He becomes something else.
Superman Isn’t A Villain
Sometimes people suggest that Superman or another hero should just kill their villains and save the thousands of lives that are otherwise lost by entrusting them to the criminal justice system. I’ve even argued that Batman probably should just kill the Joker. And I stand by that because I would argue it’s just as heroic for a man to sacrifice his own values to save the world as it is to sacrifice his life.
Killing is just too easy for a man that can shoot lasers at you from space. Batman doesn’t believe in guns and would have to get close in many circumstances–not to mention all the planning and critical thinking about how to take that life. Superman, meanwhile, can snuff out thousands of lives by knocking over a building. Killing shouldn’t be that easy. Justice and democratic principles have always been against one man being judge, jury and executioner.
Inviting Superman to kill without consequences (unless you call the minute of sobbing he did after de-lifing Zod a consequence) is inviting a police state through fear where criminals and potential transgressors are subdued by the thought of Superman rather than a government by the people for the people. And since Superman can see and hear everything at all times, that fear would be so much worse.
And it’s about free will. Doing good or evil is dependent upon having a choice. If I make all the right decisions because I know Superman will erase me if I don’t, it’s not really my choice. And since he can be anywhere at any moment, I wouldn’t have a reason not to be on my best behavior out of fear. Which really leads into my next point.
Super Murder Signifies Something Is Wrong
You could write entire books about who the real Superman is. Is it the original imagining by Siegel and Shuster? Is it the carefully cultivated image maintained by DC Comics? Are they all real?
I’m not a purist, but I would argue that most movies, television shows, video games and books outside the main DC titles can be considered re-imaginings. These things are new stories told by different people based on the icon blueprint of the character’s history.
You would be hard-pressed to find a version of Superman that kills and is still Superman. The recent Injustice: Gods Among title includes a Superman that kills and is basically a despot. Clark Kent killed on Smallville, but that was to drive home the point that he wasn’t Superman yet. Cartoon Network’s Justice League included a “Justice Lord” Superman that killed President Lex Luthor… and and also became a despot. Oh, and don’t forget DC’s own Superman Prime who, in an effort to return home, sparks a space war and becomes one of DC’s most dangerous villains.
The bottom line is that when Superman kills, it always indicates there’s something wrong with his character. Which makes perfect sense because of how central to the Superman mythos not killing is. A mythos, I might add, that’s meant to do more than illicit awe for his power.
Superman Is Supposed To Inspire
The point of Superman is not just to do stuff for us. As several iterations of Lex Luthor have argued, that idea of Superman makes the rest of humanity obsolete. What would the point of any of us be if we settled for letting our resident god-like entity worry about everything on our behalf? What’s great about the Man of Steel is that he is supposed to inspire us. He is supposed to represent an ideal that we can never achieve, but constantly work at.
Glorifying killing isn’t in his character; he shouldn’t make us think having to take a life is ok. Instead he inspires us to to better. His example can save us from ourselves.
For all the junk people say about Superman Returns, this is something Bryan Singer got right.
Superman couldn’t save us all in the sense that even if he spent 24 hours a day doing super things, some of us would still have bad things happen to us. That’s the calculus of one Superman and 7,000,000 people.
No, even when Superman fails to save individual people, his example can save us from the worst parts of human nature. Given a choice between a world full of hope and a world where Superman kills, I know which one would bring out the best in me.