Spoiler warning: all of Man of Steel movie.
The internet is a funny thing.
If I really liked a book or movie, I tend not to read as much about them online. So many opinions swirling around, too many haters, etc, etc. It’s just easier to deal with if I don’t feel as invested in the story under review. Consequently, I was mostly unaware of the massive hate-storm on Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel until recently.
By the way, I really loved Man of Steel. It’s very much a classic story, retold for today’s audience. My brother has spoken often of how it is the quintessential Sun-god story. I loved how it was action-heavy (as is expected of a summer blockbuster), but still found lots of time for the quieter moments and the motivations of each character. Many people are complaining about Superman killing, and blaming him for the extreme destruction shown in the movie. I was reading this stuff and before I knew it, the words were flowing from my fingers in response…so I suppose I’m doing a blog post on it! Huh.
Yes, the film-makers could have cut a lot of action from the film. I’m not debating that, nor am I claiming that Man of Steel is a perfect movie. Not at all. It is, however, in my opinion, a good movie with important themes running through it. Zack Snyder had stated that he wanted this movie to explore the real-world consequences of having someone as powerful as Superman…and in terms of collateral damage, I’d say he succeeded. But though excessive, I don’t believe the destruction was gratuitous, serving no purpose but to amuse the audience’s fascination with chaos. Quite the contrary; I believe that by end of the movie, Clark/Superman had discovered a very important lesson through the destruction. In rewatching the movie, two snippets of the Metropolis battle stand out to me. One is when Faora kills a human soldier by snapping his neck. In the process, she drops him out of the camera frame. At the end of his final battle with Zod, Superman wins by breaking his neck in an eerily similar move…but Zod remains in the camera’s view the entire time.
So what’s the significance?
Man of Steel is filmed in the same style as Battlestar Galactica: a hand-held, “found footage” kind of style. This means the relationship between the characters and the camera is very important. Back to Faora. In dropping the soldier out of the camera frame, she has communicated something to us: that soldier wasn’t important to her. Neither his life nor his death meant anything to her; he was a temporary obstacle at best. Killing him simply didn’t affect her, anymore than tossing out the trash would.
But Superman keeps Zod up in the frame even while he kills him. He didn’t want to kill Zod and begged him to stop…until it was quite clear that there was nothing else he could do except kill him. It was taking all of Superman’s strength just to hold Zod still and to split his focus to attempt a non-lethal solution would almost certainly mean the death of the human family. So he breaks Zod’s neck and the camera lingers on his fallen enemy. Killing the homicidal maniac responsible for God only knows how many deaths affected Superman in a very fundamental, very personal way. He stares at Zod’s body as if he can’t believe that his hands, hands that had held his mother and Lois, could do something so violent. There’s also something else in his eyes, a look that telegraphed to me that he’s just discovered how easy it could be to kill.
But he’s so much stronger than anybody else on Earth; with the Kryptonians gone, it’s doubtful he’ll have an opponent as strong as himself again. So, the question remains: does Superman have the right to kill anyone who is not his physical equal? We saw with Faora just how quickly and easily he could permanently dispatch human threats…but where is the line between what is easy and what is right?
The age we live in now is hardened and cynical. We like pushing the envelope, testing definitions and labels. We like gritty and edgy and dark, and because Superman is such a straight-shooter, such a “boy scout”, I think Snyder and co made a smart call showing us why Superman won’t kill: it’d be far too easy for him; far too easy for someone as powerful as he is to get into the habit of killing his enemies. Man of Steel, in my opinion, did an excellent job of showcasing exactly how powerful Superman really is. Take the battle of Smallville, the destruction of Metropolis: this is exactly what he is capable of if he wants to be, or even if he’s just being careless or distracted.
Jonathan Kent told him that he would have to decide who he wanted to be, how he wanted to live. Just by virtue of being what he was, Clark would always be an important force in the world. But who he was…what rules he lived by…I think he realized then that the only force that can truly control Superman is Clark Kent’s moral compass. And to prevent himself from slipping down Zod’s slippery slope, his morals are going to have to be consistent and firm.
I suppose they could have told us all this in dialogue…but this Superman is more expressive with his physicality than with his words. Killing an enemy, even though it was necessary, clearly left a foul taste in his mouth. His lack of experience in hand-to-hand combat resulted in major death and destruction. Going forward into the Superman-Batman movie, I can totally see this Superman saying “This can’t ever happen again. This situation will not happen again.” Going forward, this Superman is going to make himself into the biblical definition of meek: strength under control. He’s more powerful than anyone else around him, so he’s holding himself to higher standards.
Props to my mother for providing a thought-provoking conversation on meekness. Seriously, you need to write up your thoughts on Karl “Helo” Agathon from Battlestar.