Following its release, this past weekend, Man of Steel has been the subject of plenty of criticism–as movies usually are–but some of it has seemed… frankly, laughably wrong. Here, I’m going to attempt to address one critic in particular: Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly. Obviously, this will be spoiler-heavy, so I’d suggest not reading further, if you care about having Man of Steel spoiled for yourself.
On Saturday, Mr. Franich posted a moderately scathing critique of the film and had a problem with one thing in particular: the ending. Specifically, the fact that Superman ultimately killed General Zod. He also compliments the film’s handling of Clark Kent’s childhood and makes some fairly inaccurate statements about The Dark Knight Rises, but we’re going to focus on the biggest issue he had. Let’s break it down:
First, Franich says:
The film ends with an extended series of inscrutable action scenes where Superman flies places and destroys things while General Zod and his fellow Kryptonians set up confusing Kryptonian technology to destroy things or whatever.
Inscrutable? Confusing? The film literally explains everything that happens. General Zod and his fellow Kryptonians weren’t “destroying things or whatever”, unless Franich’s “whatever” includes what was actually happening. They were using the world builder to terraform Earth into a Krypton clone; this entailed increasing the Earth’s mass, and this is why all the cars and buildings were being slammed into the ground. “Destroying things” was a means to an end for Zod. Coincidentally, this difference between the respective atmospheres of Earth and Krypton was explained, multiple times, to have been part of the explanation for Superman’s powers (along with the yellow sun).
Zod’s plan fails because Superman destroys stuff more better than Zod destroys stuff. I’m sorry, that sounds stupid. What actually happens is that Superman opens up a black hole in the middle of a major American city, which is clearly not a stupid thing to do.
It’s not a black hole; it’s a temporary portal to the Phantom Zone, which is opened as a result of the two Kryptonian ships crashing into each other. Yes, this is 100% fictional pseudoscience that exists only in the universe of this movie, but it’s not that difficult to follow.
All of the Kryptonians die except for Zod, because this is the kind of movie where the climax has to feature the hero and the villain punching each other. Superman and Zod punch and punch and punch each other, sometimes while flying through buildings and sometimes while not flying through buildings. Ultimately, Superman gets Zod in a choke hold, which is kind of like Kryptonite for Kryptonians who are appearing in a movie that’s too cool to have Kryptonite. Zod uses his heat vision to attack some locals. Superman tells him not to. Zod refuses.
So Superman kills Zod.
It takes real talent to oversimplify everything this much. First, I don’t believe it was said the Kryptonians would die (admittedly, I’ve only seen the film once); it would seem to me the Kryptonians were just re-imprisoned in the Phantom Zone (which is what is said). Second, Superman punches people who are as strong as he is. If you have a problem with that, you have a problem with Superman.
This is a shocking moment. It’s shocking for all kinds of reasons. Superheroes don’t kill people, but Superman definitely doesn’t kill people. It’s a defining aspect of the character. He isn’t just good, he’s too good. It’s an insanely powerful moment. When it happens, you think to yourself: “Geez, what a radical redefinition of the character. Classically, Superman has never taken a life, even the life of his worst, most homicidal enemy. How will this change this character going forward?”
Wrong. Wholly and unequivocally wrong. Apparently, Mr. Franich is unfamiliar with Superman: Exile, wherein Superman does kill three Kryptonians. Only, in Superman: Exile, he kills entirely on impulse and anger. (Read Superman: Exile, if you’d like to know where that story goes–and potentially, although unlikely, where Superman goes from here).
Answer: It doesn’t change him at all. Lois Lane runs over to comfort him. Cut To: A few days later, and Superman is having extremely forced Iron-Man-and-Nick-Fury banter with General Swanwick about how they just need to trust Superman, because he is Superman and Superman is good. And then Superman becomes Clark Kent and the origin story is finished.
One, it’s nice of Franich to cut out all the pain and agony Superman clearly experiences, both while trying to stop Zod without killing him and after choosing to kill him. I’m glad he does acknowledge this is an origin story, however.
Here is a quote from earlier in Franich’s diatribe, and it’ll be the one I’ll end with:
And then there’s the thing that happens at the end of Man of Steel that was so ill-conceived and poorly handled that you almost start to wonder if anyone attached to Man of Steel knows what makes Superman so special.
What is it that makes Superman so special? That he doesn’t kill? No. As Franich incorrectly stated earlier, “Superheroes don’t kill people”. Overlooking the fact that it’s an inaccurate statement, if all superheroes do it, then it can’t possibly make Superman special. What it is that makes Superman special, among a such a group of “special” people as superheroes, is his unique ability to exist both as a Kryptonian and a human. That’s the origin story Man of Steel tells, and it tells it deftly.
In Man of Steel:
On Krypton, Kryptonians are not born naturally; they are genetically engineered to fit the needs society deems appropriate. This is why Zod, having been engineered to protect Krypton, attempted to overthrow a government whose centuries of existence we’re shown has caused them to become cocky enough to believe their world could never end. On Krypton, there is no death penalty, this is why Zod and his fellow Kryptonian soldiers are exiled to the Phantom Zone. The Kryptonian government is shown to be so pedantic that their strict adherence to their rules unintentionally saves the prisoners when Krypton is destroyed, which then leads to those prisoners being able to hunt down Kal-El. On Krypton, we’re shown a father in Jor-El who is willing to do what has to be done in order for his son to be safe. He is shown to have tried to save his world, but was unable to because of the system put into place and a Kryptonian government unwilling to change or admit fallibility.
On Earth, we’re shown a Clark Kent whose father bears the same forethought of his Kryptonian father; he’s human, and he knows the reaction humans would have toward this powerful alien, if he revealed himself before he was ready to handle it. Jor-El knew his son would be “a god”, but it’s Jonathan Kent who knew how humans have been known to treat “a god”. On Earth, humans kill. Clark Kent, having been raised on Earth, has seen this and has struggled against it; even to the point of Jonathan Kent not knowing whether or not Clark should let some kids die or save them. To Clark and his Kryptonian genes, it was a no-brainer; you save them. On Earth, humans are fallible; extremely fallible. When Jonathan Kent stops Clark from saving him in front of a crowd of people, the younger Clark wouldn’t have listened; the older Clark did, and he had to live with that decision. If Clark had more experience saving people, could he have saved his dad without anyone knowing? Yes. The Clark everyone is familiar with and the Clark we all think of–the Clark who darts into a phone booth and comes out looking Super–would have been able to save his dad. That isn’t the Clark under that overpass. That Superman needed to have been the Clark who couldn’t save his dad. He had to feel that loss to never want to feel it again. That Superman needed to have been the Clark who couldn’t “save them all”. He couldn’t stop Zod and save him, too; he didn’t know how. He had to kill him to feel the pain to never want to feel it again. He kills Zod because what should he have done? What should he have done, Darren? Just let Zod kill those innocent people? “I don’t know; maybe” should be the Earth motto because it encapsulates almost everything it is to be human. Lois Lane comforts him because she is human; she may not know everything about Kal-El or where he’s from, but she knows pain when she sees it. That is what makes Superman so special: he’s an almost completely invincible Kryptonian living on Earth, but he still feels the pain of being human. He may be made of steel, but he is still a man.