To explain the thesis statement laid out in the headline of this article about Superman, I first need to tell you a story about Batman. Don't worry, I'll be brief.
A few years ago, I got into a mild Internet argument with a guy who was trying to convince me that Grant Morrison -- author of amazing stories like Batman R.I.P. and Batman & Robin -- was a terrible Batman writer. His sole reason: In Final Crisis, Morrison writes Batman using a gun to shoot Darkseid, violating what seems to be his most dominant crimefighting rule.
We superhero fans have very strong opinions when it comes to the moral codes of our favorite characters, and as proof we are once again (as if we ever stopped) arguing about Man of Steel in the lead-up to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. As you may recall, the film's climax involves Superman and General Zod smashing each other through roughly half of Metropolis until Superman, desperate to stop Zod from blasting an innocent family with his heat vision, snaps his foe's neck. It's a powerful moment, and I know that because we're still talking about it nearly three years on.
Earlier this week, the "Does Superman kill?" debate got new fuel thanks to a piece by Mark Hughes of Forbes. Hughes, rationally and eloquently, breaks down various comic-book examples in which Superman has killed beings, from Doomsday to a Sun-Eater, in an effort to settle once and for all the argument that Superman has, in fact, killed before, and therefore Man of Steel is a valid interpretation of the character. The piece got a swift reaction, and a lot of it looked something like this:
"Superman should champion internment camps because he did in a story in 1943." See how dumb that sounds?— Mark Waid C2E2 V12 (@MarkWaid) March 17, 2016
Most obviously you include Superman killing monsters/non-sentient beings. This is like saying Superman is a murderer for eating a steak.— Adonai (@devincf) March 17, 2016
That Superman has killed was really never up for debate, and neither is the fact that Batman happily used guns and killed criminals in some early comics. The question has always been should he? Which brings me back to that Batman story I was talking about earlier ...
In Final Crisis, Batman breaks his most famous rule. If you just said, "This is a story in which Batman uses a gun," you could argue that's a fundamental misinterpretation of the character. But if you say, "This is a story in which Batman uses a gun to stop an evil god who is literally about to unmake all of existence, thus saving billions of lives," the argument changes completely. In Final Crisis, Batman does the one thing he can possibly do to save Literally Everything. That's a great superhero narrative.
I am perfectly willing to defend a story in which Superman kills someone. There's a great story called "Sacrifice" in which Wonder Woman murders Maxwell Lord because it's the only way to save Superman, and I'll even grant you that The Death of Superman -- while not necessarily one of my favorite stories -- carries a kind of bombastic appeal as Superman and Doomsday just hit each other until they both stop breathing. I will not defend Man of Steel for its ending, though, because if you think that's a movie in which Superman is justified in killing, you don't see Superman the way I do.
On a very basic, very nerdy level, the mechanics of the act itself don't make sense. Superman is able to snap the neck of a fellow Kryptonian? OK, so why doesn't he just turn Zod's head, or slam him into the ground until he's unconscious, or even put his mostly invulnerable hand over Zod's flaming eyes? Plus, these guys have been leveling skyscrapers for like 10 minutes by the time this happens, so why is Superman suddenly so concerned about civilians in the midst of his fight? I'm not saying a Superman movie shouldn't show us skyscrapers being leveled, necessarily, but the context of the moment doesn't track with me.
Even now, I hear you shouting back at me: "It was a moment of emotional desperation! He wasn't really Superman yet. He's still learning!" or "All that carnage was unavoidable! Zod forced his hand!" or even "Actually, Kryptonian skin isn't invulnerable to heat vision."
And hey, maybe you're right, but when I watch Man of Steel, I just can't see Superman. Here's why:
A lot of comic-book fans argue that Superman isn't interesting because he's too perfect, too powerful and too invulnerable, so it's hard to generate interesting conflict. The thing is, though, that's exactly the point of Superman. It's right there in his name: Super Man. He's better than us. He's the best man. He's faster, stronger, smarter, better looking than anyone on the planet. If he wanted to, he could essentially turn the rest of the Justice League into his personal support staff and declare himself Emperor of Earth, and there would be little anyone could do to stop him.
But he doesn't.
He doesn't do that because he had the good fortune of being raised by the Kents, the Nicest People in America, who taught him that you help your neighbor. You get the cat out of the tree. You pull the baby from the burning building. You fly halfway around the world to save the townspeople from an erupting volcano. Spider-Man had to learn the hard way that Great Power comes with Great Responsibility. Superman was taught it from the time he could walk. He helps because he can.
That's not Man of Steel.
If Superman kills, I want him to do it under those Final Crisis circumstances. I want the stakes to be the highest they can possibly be. I want it to truly feel inevitable. Instead I got a movie in which Superman's parents actively teach him to deny his power, his ability to help, to the world. Man of Steel is a story about a hero struggling to come to terms with what he's capable of and what good he can do, and even by the end he hasn't fully made up his mind. I'm hopeful that Dawn of Justice will build on this and make Superman better (his refusal to just put Batman down in various clips gives me hope), but even while you could argue that there are great superhero moments in Man of Steel, they don't feel like Superman moments. They feel like flimsy excuses to build to a scene in which a superpowered man can snap a neck with a sonic boom.
Superman can kill, but Man of Steel might just be the worst example of why.