UPDATE: You can read my spoiler-heavy "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" review here
UPDATE 2: You can read my "treatment" for a Superman movie here
For me it started when I was very young. There was a red cape I wore regularly - and that my Mom still has - a VHS tape featuring a handful of the Fleischer cartoons, Superfriends, Ruby Spears, George Reeves and a handful of comic books. It has since become a life goal of mine to write Superman in comics or some form of media.
I love Superman. I love his mythology, what he stands for and ultimately, the idea of what he represents, something I'll mention a few times here... an ideal to strive towards.
I have been an outspoken critic of "Man of Steel" for the last three years. I don't outright hate it... I don't think it's a particularly great movie, but as a Superman movie it fails on multiple levels and is not very good at all. I hate it's portrayal and representation of Superman. It's unfortunate, because I LOVE the cast. But I'm on the same level with Mark Waid, Dan Slott, Jamal Igle, Tom Brevoort and many other outspoken comic book personalities who know a thing or two about Superman.
When I first saw "Man of Steel," I was left very uncomfortable. I tried to be positive and justify what occurred as the fog of Superman on the big screen was still thick. After a day or two, it started to wear off and I realized that like Waid, the movie broke my heart.
With that said, I am also NOT a huge fan of the Donner movies. I understand why people love them, and yes, Christopher Reeve embodies a near-perfect Superman. But from a story standpoint, I've never been a huge fan. That extends to "Superman Returns." "Returns" is essentially "Richard Donner's Superman III" and that was both it's greatest strength and greatest weakness.
I'm going to see "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," albeit with low expectations. On one hand, I'll see it to form an opinion. On the other hand, I'm interested to see Ben Affleck's Batman and the big screen debut of Wonder Woman. Will they improve this version of Superman to be more like the Superman that has been built for three-quarters of a century? I don't know, there's a lot of ground to make up, but as you may see by the end of this, because I believe in who Superman really is, the truth of the character, there may still be hope. Going dark and broody is against what Superman is and if you think it makes him "interesting" then we're all a lot more cynical than we care to admit. If you make a Superman (or Batman movie for that matter) that you can't take a child to - even Ben Affleck has said he won't let his 4 year old see BvS - then you've already failed. Of course, kids will still go - after all, kids went to see "Deadpool" but that's not the point I'm making, obviously.
As "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" is upon us and my Facebook postings have been rife with Superman material and questions raised by friends, I decided it was time to finally address this issue in one fell swoop. This particular writing deals with one of the more controversial aspects of "Man of Steel" - Superman killing Zod and the ultimate question of "does Superman kill?"
No. Superman does not kill.
Let me get that exhaustive Forbes article where writer Mark Hughes justifies "Superman the killer" out of the way. I read it. A few times, actually. And it's still wrong. There's an argument out there that "Man of Steel" defenders use regularly, arguing "well, Superman has killed in the comics before, so there's precedent" or "in the Golden Age he killed people, 'Man of Steel' was the Golden Age version!"
Two things here about "it happened in the comics." 1) Batman used to carry a gun when he was first created. Shortly thereafter he no longer did and he began to abhor guns because they were the instrument used to murder his parents. To this day, Batman hates and does not use guns. Batman also doesn't kill. 2) As comic creator extraordinaire and Superman authority Mark Waid so passionately pointed out in response to that Forbes article:
You see how stupid the "well he did in the comics in the 1940s" argument is? This is a character that over 75 years has become an icon, an American myth. Something that obviously means something more to a lot of people. Suggesting it's okay to present a betrayal of a character and brand's core values because of something that happened in the early days doesn't hold water. It's also important to note that in the Golden Age, you never really saw the villain die and it was often in outlandish, pulpy ways which were typical at the time (think the German Mechanic in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"). You can't really point to those and say "See!"
To quickly divert, but keep with his "it happened in the comics idea," a serial "Man of Steel" defender often points to a panel from Superman #1 as the definitive take on Pa Kent and the justification for Pa Kent's out-of-character portrayal in said film:
Unfortunately for the defender, this is a man telling a child to hide his powers and show restraint, followed up by his mother telling him to assist humanity when the time comes. There's no malice, no message of "maybe let people die," there's a father just being concerned for his son - something that is part of every iteration of Pa Kent. There's no way to state or use this panel as definitive. 1) Clark is still a boy who has yet to understand his powers and 2) Pa Kent could be referring to using a secret identity. There's no definitive statement of Pa Kent's true feelings.
Back to the "no killing" thing. The Forbes article highlights other examples too. Like in the imaginary tale "What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Superman kills Mr. Mxzyptlk. The article's author outright IGNORES the thing Superman does immediately after, without hesitation - he kills himself out of guilt. He stops being Superman.
Another example Hughes uses is Superman #22 where Superman kills a version of Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora after they commit a genocide. What the writer ignores is that after Superman does the deed, he's so wracked with guilt and shame he exiles himself from Earth. Eventually returning after an alien helps him come to grips. Also of note, the public was unaware of Superman's actions, his exile and decision to stop being Superman was completely self-imposed.
Superman #75 is also cited. The famous "Death of Superman" where Superman and Doomsday apparently punch each other to death. Except neither of them die. Superman had entered a "Kryptonian sleep" and Doomsday was in a coma, only to be found, revived and strapped to an asteroid by the Cyborg Superman. And if you aren't satisfied with that and want to still believe that Superman killed Doomsday (which he didn't) it was an instance where he sacrificed his own life.
Each one of the author's citations can be easily picked apart as alternate tales, or Superman making the ultimate sacrifice himself, or being willing to make that sacrifice. Each comes back to the same conclusion. Superman does not kill. So if your argument is "well, it happens in the comics" then "Man of Steel" should have been the beginning and the end of Superman, because when he kills in the comics, he stops being Superman.
Another argument often made is "Superman II." When Superman depowers Zod, Ursa and Non in the Fortress of Solitude. Supeman throws Zod into a smokey abyss, Lois punches Ursa into a smokey abyss and Non stupidly falls into the abyss. If you know the history of the first two Superman movies, you know it's a mess. In Richard Lester's version, that's how the villains meet their end. It's ambiguous as to whether or not they're dead, but you're just meant to assume it. But in original director Richard Donner's cut, which is now considered the definitive version, the three de-powered Kryptonians are arrested along with Lex Luthor. That was actually shot. That's how the movie was supposed to end. It once again reinforces the point.
Let me explain why as simply as I possibly can. Take the very core basics of the Superman mythos. Clark Kent was raised by two genuine, non-religious, mid-western Americans. Their politics didn't matter, all that mattered was that they were good people. They cared deeply about others, enough so that when they found a crashed rocketship in a field carrying a baby, they feared the worst. They feared for the child's life. Who did that to a baby? Were they going to come and take the child? They didn't know this child, where he came from or what his future would entail. All they could do was what they thought was right: take him in as their own and give him a sense of hope for a brighter tomorrow. They valued the life of this complete stranger and raised him on something we once considered a core American value - the American Way, if you will - compassion for your fellow citizen and the value of life. That's ultimately what has been built upon for more than 75 years from what was created by two young Jewish immigrants looking towards their better tomorrow.
Clark Kent was raised to help others less fortunate than him. Even if the Kents didn't have much, Clark was raised to show compassion, valuing every life above even his own. When his powers started to develop, Clark was steered by the good people he was raised by to use those abilities to help people when necessary but keep them a secret for his own protection, before he developed the Superman identity. As any parent would - but not to the extreme extent of Kevin Costner's Pa Kent - there would be some justifiable trepidation along the way. But Jonathan and Martha Kent's motivation for taking in that alien baby was giving him a sense of hope. They knew eventually it would be their son's duty to pass that on. That's what any parent ever wants, for their child to learn from them and improve upon them. The Kents, not Jor-EL, gave their son an ideal to strive towards. Now as Superman, the most powerful person on the planet, it was his duty to take what he learned from his parents and improve upon it, giving all of humanity a sense of hope for a better tomorrow - an ideal to strive towards.
For this reason, we as consumers of the Superman myth, and beyond that - as humans - people who in real-life believe in the good of our fellow human - are never supposed to relate to Superman. We are supposed to aspire to be him. We aren't supposed to connect with him on a level that says, "I share this experience." Over time, as we've all become more cynical over the years, we start to relate and identify with things - people, causes, ideas. Superman - once the most popular character on the planet - becomes "too good," or "boring" because he "can do anything" and he stops being what he is meant to be - a symbol of hope. He has to be explained as an alien, or a messiah. But Superman is more than just a super-powered alien, he's not even supposed to be a Christ-like figure. In fact, the moment you want Superman to be "grounded," "realistic" or "believable" is the moment you're not really looking for Superman.
|Even New 52 Pa Kent gets it.|
Superman is the best version of us, he's above all of us. He's everything we hope for and everything we can hope to be and attain. Using his abilities to help the less fortunate, stalwart in his belief of doing the right thing, unwavering in his compassion for people and always being able to see the smallest shred of decency in a person - even Lex Luthor - human, alien or otherwise. Ultimately, he believes in the inherent good in people, sometimes to a fault. That's who we are meant to be, that's the ideal we strive towards.
If Superman becomes a killer even when "absolutely needed", then there is no point to him. When Superman kills, he's not better than any of us. He no longer represents that ideal. He's just an alien with powers. He becomes just like any other person, who as Forbes' Rob Salkowitz put it: "The character who spent the last 75 years being better than us because of his ability to place principle above power is now just like any flawed mortal who can be pushed to extremes by fear and desperation."
That's the thing about Superman to reiterate the earlier point, the abilities beyond those of mortal men is not what makes him super, it's his values and who he is, the pinnacle of the human spirit and compassion - his principle.
In "Man of Steel," Superman snaps General Zod's neck, killing him. For many it's the ultimate moment of contention. For some like me, it's just the icing on the cake of an entire story that had already misrepresented everything about not only Superman, but Clark Kent. Many say "well, he had only been Superman for three days" or "he had no other choice." But that's not entirely true, he had only learned to fly in the past few days. He'd already been saving people and had already been using his powers. He had also been Clark Kent for 33 years at this point and should have at least developed the basic core value of the character - to rise above human pettiness and always find a better way.
He could have done anything else. Flown Zod away, covered Zod's eyes, found a way to knock him out, put him in some kind of stasis, found another way to send him back to The Phantom Zone, ANYTHING besides killing him, because that goes against everything Superman is and is meant to be. But this was a story choice that Snyder, Goyer and Warner Brothers decided to make that went against EVERYTHING that has been built around Superman, his character and ultimately as Salkowitz points out, the brand.
But this was a cynical, construed version of the character who destroyed a man's livelihood by wrapping a tractor-trailer around a tree because said man was a bully. This was a character who nonchalantly floated over a gas truck, allowing it to hit a parking garage and explode, likely killing a few people. This was a character who - rather than taking the fight elsewhere or using his super-speed to remove bystanders - simply told people on Smallville's Main Street to go inside and lock the doors while he fought equally as powerful people and the U.S. military reigned down enormous firepower. This was a character who made out with his girlfriend in the center of a literal crater of death. Long before Superman and Zod tore apart the skyline of Metropolis, and long before Superman snapped Zod's neck, he was already gone.
The opportunity was there to show Superman's real weakness - have him not focuses on Zod, but saving as many lives as he could, ultimately giving Zod a huge edge in the battle. The filmmakers chose not to go that route.
"Man of Steel" did some things really well, honestly. The cast is EXCEPTIONAL. The first quarter of the movie that took place on Krypton was really well done (the world established and history behind it was neat). The visuals when Jor-EL explained to Clark the history of Krypton were really neat. And I really liked how Lois figured out who Clark was and ultimately helped him develop his secret identity. But those were ultimately small tweaks that were bogged down and muddied by the darker aspects and overall depressing tones of the film. The moment Superman takes off and flies for the first time was great. And that soundtrack... oh man, that Hans Zimmer score is fantastic (I did and still love the new theme). Those story elements were well-done, but they paled in comparison to the dour, mopey characterization of Clark, The Kents and the ultimate misrepresentation of Superman. Making Superman dark, broody and a ultimately a killer doesn't make him more mature or interesting, it betrays him.
There was absolutely nothing hopeful about Superman in "Man of Steel." It was a movie about an alien invasion and another alien who decides to stop them leaving behind a wake of death and destruction.
As many will say, "well just because it isn't YOUR Superman," or as a friend of mine often says to me, "I'm rigid," "extremist" or not "open-minded" about other interpretations of Superman. Not "open-minded." I know he means well, but it's kind of insulting. For example, The New 52 Superman is a different interpretation of the character. I've been open-minded about it, there's a lot right and a lot wrong in my opinion. But if you read Superman comics religiously like I do, you know that the New 52 Superman has started to adopt the more classic traits, and even that the pre-New 52 version is still around. It feels like DC is trying to reset the brand at least in the comics.
But what of interpretations? When you strip away the core values of what makes a character special, then you're no longer in the realm of "interpretation." Take Daredevil for example, since that's timely and amazingly relevant. The TV show is an interpretation of the comic character that has many differences from, but shares the same core values as the comics. He seeks justice, doesn't kill and he's Catholic. In fact, one of the show's biggest running themes in season one and two is about how Daredevil won't betray his principles and become a killer. Had the TV show removed just one of those principles, for example his Catholicism, you're stripping away a core aspect of his character and no longer telling an "interpretation," you're presenting an entirely different character. And it's funny, Stan Lee and Bill Everett didn't outright make him a Catholic or have his religion motivate him at first, but it's become such defining trait of the character that you'd never think otherwise.
Yes, there are exceptions... in Superman's case the "Injustice" franchise is a good example. But the difference there is that "Injustice" is about what happens when Superman abandons his principle and kills the Joker in a fit of rage... becomes a tyrant in an alternate universe... and is ultimately stopped by the "true" Superman from the main universe. Confusing right? It's not though, because Superman doesn't kill.
One of my favorite Superman stories ever is "Ending Battle." In this story-arc, the telepathic super anti-hero Manchester Black unleashes every Superman villain from Master Jailer to Lex Luthor in an effort to break the Man of Steel. The climax of the story features Black using his telepathy to make Superman believe that Black murdered Lois. Superman walks into his apartment to find her dead, truly believing everything he sees. Black is trying to push Superman over the edge, prove that deep down and pushed hard enough, he's a killer. But even with his dead wife in front of him, Superman refuses to kill. Dumbfounded and realizing the truth about Superman, Black ends the ruse, Lois is fine and the last we ever see of Manchester Black is him committing suicide. In trying to get Superman to break his moral code, Black himself became a super-villain and he couldn't live with the fact that in trying to corrupt Superman, he corrupted himself.
The divisiveness "Man of Steel" has caused over the years proves that the decision to make Superman a killer in "Man of Steel" has hurt the overall brand. The critical and fan response to "Man of Steel" was so tepid that it did feel like Batman's involvement was rushed (I am seriously intrigued by Affleck as Batman, and I think there are some neat ideas at play in the DCEU, the characterization of Superman - and that's a big one - is not one of them).
Superman is a fictional character owned by Warner Brothers. They can do whatever the hell they want with him. I shouldn't care, right? Quite the opposite. The character is iconic, what he means transcends the comics, movies... all of it. The Superman shield is instantly recognized all over the world, a brand that has been built for nearly 80 years, one that arguably every superhero is a derivative. So when you fundamentally change the characterization and principles of that brand after nearly 80 years for a mass audience, you're running the risk of destroying the brand. The divisiveness caused by "Man of Steel" is proof of this questionable brand management tactic. Ultimately, as Forbes' Rob Salkowitz put it:
"What did Warner Bros. get for undoing 75-plus years of equity in a multi-billion dollar brand? Well, it appears they set up the next movie, which picks up the thread of having a super-powered alien around who is unbound by any firm principle, and feels entitled to dispatch his enemies if he sees fit.
That might be a cool story. It’s just not a Superman story that anyone would recognize."
So why doesn't Superman kill? Why should he be the ultimate good guy?
Because he's better than you, than me, than all of us. He's Superman.