[17 June 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There’s been a lot of debate online over the weekend regarding the new Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Most has centered on the quality of the movie itself, which seems to be divided strictly along “love it or loathe it” lines. Few are in middle, though you will get the occasional comic book nerd who defends the reinterpretation of the character while condemning Zack Snyder’s handling of same. But the biggest brouhaha has centered around the last act battle between Clark/Kal-El and the Kryptonian tyrant, General Zod. In order to address this grievance, and the conclusion of their clash, one will have to delve deeply into Spoiler Territory. If you have yet to see the film, we recommend you stop reading now, and comeback once you’ve witnessed what has so many in an uproar.
You’ve been warned…
Now, up until the final act of the film, Superman has been wrestling with two major personal conundrums. The first revolves around revealing his identity to the human race. A holographic image of his biological father, Jor-El, has assured him that he would be embraced as a savior, as a power for good. His adopted Earth father, Jonathan Kent, however, claims that the people of our planet are not ready to discover (a) the existence of life beyond the stars, and (b) how physically superior and special said alien really is. He recommends staying undercover, and by implication, the limited use of his superpowers. While a young Clark saves a school bus, he fails to fight back when bullied. Got it. All of this is thrown into a tizzy, however, when the exiled General Zod discovers Kal-El on Earth. Vowing to destroy him and restart Krypton, he outs Superman and demands his surrender.
Thus begins the basic machinations of the finale. When Superman is turned over to Zod, he promises to spar the planet. Then he sends a massive gravity altering device into the Indian Ocean so that the new race of beings can live comfortably on our third rock from the sun. Superman is determined to fight back, and thus begins a brawl that more or less devastates Metropolis. As skyscrapers tumble, as huge electromagnetic waves demolish cars and city streets, as throngs of humans run for their lives, the two super-starmen battle it out. They pass through building edifices, destroy entire city blocks, and more or less reduce Metropolis to rubble. At the end, when Kal and Zod are duking it out, mano-y-mano, our champion makes a crucial decision. While in a choke hold, Superman snaps the villains neck, thereby ending the melee, even if he’s violated his own moral code.
Now, there are a lot of problems with this portrait. First, we get little to no indication that Superman is against one on one killing. Unlike the Dark Knight films where Batman says over and over again that he will not use guns to subdue his enemies (though airborne rocket launchers and motorcycle canons are okay), nowhere does Man of Steel make it clear that there is a “no killing” code. Again, the funny book bunch will argue issue and panel, but it’s not in the movie itself. Then there is the obvious hypocrisy, at least to certain members of Messageboard Nation, over such a stance. After all, Kal and Zod just laid much of a major US city to waste, and never once did they worry about the loss of human life.
So, in essence, Superman won’t kill Zod, but he will kill hundreds of thousands of us. Huh? Exactly, at least to those who are in a lather over this lame storyline development. Unfortunately, it’s just one of many narrative inconsistencies which plaque this production (and that’s what you get when you let screenwriter David S. Goyer scribble away), but for some insane reason, the wanton destruction dynamic has garnered the most social network juice. This is not the only article written on the subject, some even going so far as to suggest that Snyder and this film outdo Roland Emmerich (and his 2012) and Michael Bay (and his Transformers films) in the careless waste of human life department.
Naturally, none of this handwringing takes into fact the fictional nature of all of the aforementioned films nor does it address the obvious elephant in the room - what if there was no spectacle? Would audiences really sit through a two hour and thirty minute movie that didn’t have a slam-bang send-off? Remember, Hollywood no longer relies on you for its commercial cache. Instead, it’s the overseas market, one where dialogue and drama means nothing and special effects and eye candy are everything. Today, a studio can make 65% to 75% of their money in foreign territories. The Avengers (another movie which destroyed an entire city - New York - during its climatic battle) earned $1.5 billion at the box office, with nearly $900 million coming from overseas.
So it makes sense that Man of Steel would wind up in the same F/X heavy manner and perhaps the problem is one of perspective. When Zod’s ship hovers over Metropolis, we seen hundreds of frightened faces staring upward at the alien invader. This is the victim pool, presented for all to see. In The Avengers, there is a concerted effort to keep the evil extraterrestrials engaged with our assembled group. Sure, they still kill people, but not on purpose. Similarly, Transformers: Dark of the Moon has seemingly empty buildings being ripped apart (well, empty in the sense that only our heroes and their military escorts appear to be present) and 2012 - or Independence Day - is supposed to destroy mankind. The rub against Superman here is that he has a hard time ending Zod’s reign of terror when a simple snap of the neck could have saved millions. It’s a question of cracked intent.
Perhaps this will be the foundation for an Iron Man 3 like personal struggle come sequel time. Indeed, in Shane Black’s brilliant end to the first phase of Tony Stark’s life as another man of…metal, there’s real remorse and some post-traumatic stress anxiety related to his dealings with Loki and the chaos that followed. Maybe the moment Superman kills Zod will resonate, haunting our hero long after he is done dishing out his amplified approach to truth, justice, and the American way. Besides, people who complain about a good guy causing collateral damage doing what they’re supposed to be doing - i.e. saving the rest of the world - should be celebrated for saving billions (after all, Zod was terraforming Earth to repopulate with Kryptonians) instead of wiping out one population center.
Besides, arguing conscience in a comic book movie is like suggesting smarts in a slasher film. Nobody does anything by a rote sense of logic. Instead, heroics come from difficulty and decision making, spur of the moment stuff which can’t take into consideration every single life-threatening situation. It’s not like Superman lifts up the Daily Planet tower, entire staff in place, and hurls it willy-nilly at Zod. The death and destruction here is accidental, aimed at creating depth in the future while finding none now. Without the proper set-up, the death of Zod does seem a bit abrupt. It should be more meaningful. Those who want to argue the loss of human life during a battle between super beings may be nitpicking to support their abject disappointment. It may not be a non-issue, just one that gives rise to voices that should otherwise, perhaps, stay silent.