What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?

Big honking SPOILER warning if you haven’t seen the latest Superman movie, Man of Steel (MoS).

I really wanted to like, even love, this movie. I thought the performances were top-notch. I also liked a few of the story elements. Instead of exploring Superman’s weaknesses, whether physical (kryptonite) or emotional (people he cares about coming to harm), this movie chose to explore how humanity would receive a being of god-like power. However, the filmmakers quickly abandon this interesting question for generic blockbuster fare. I also liked the idea of the codex and possibly repopulating the Kryptonian race. There was potential for a New Krypton story in this film or a sequel. However, that potential was also squandered. Unfortunately, at every opportunity the filmmakers opted to tell the lesser story. In a way, this post is superfluous because Mark Waid has so eloquently captured my own reaction to this movie. You might want to save time and just read what he said. Nevertheless, I feel the need to comment.

Long-time Superman fans will remember Joe Kelly’s story in Action Comics #775 (March 2001) called ‘What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?’ The issue put Superman in conflict with a group of ‘anti-heroes’ called ‘The Elite’ (based on Warren Ellis’ and Mark Millar’s The Authority) who routinely killed their enemies and were praised publicly for it. Superman shows by example that there’s always another way. That’s the essence of the story and, in my opinion, the character.

I’m aware that it’s problematic to take one story from Superman’s 75 year history and say that it sets a non-negotiable precedent. That’s not what I’m saying. I know that Superman has been portrayed variously throughout the years, and not always as a paragon of virtue. There’s plenty of super dickery to go around. But I think that the message of Action #775 is important. Despite modern audience’s cynicism, and our willingness to embrace anti-heroes who kill their enemies, Superman should set a higher standard. Unfortunately, MoS, in an effort to make Superman ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’, has compromised the soul of the character. The movie has already made a fortune at the box office, so the filmmakers’ efforts to make Superman resonate with modern audiences have clearly paid off. But at what cost? I watched Superman summarily execute Zod, while other audience members cheered, and I wondered if I were the one who’s from another planet.

I’m willing to forgive several departures from ‘the canon.’ Lois knowing Superman’s identity from day one? Sure. Jor-El being killed by Zod instead of the explosion of Krypton? Okay. Krypton’s topography, architecture, fashion, and technology looking different than in previous incarnations? I’m game. Not seeing Clark wear his signature glasses until the end of the film (by then making it largely pointless)? If you must. But I’m afraid I draw the line at a Superman who resorts to killing.

Those who defend the filmmakers’ controversial decision claim that Superman had no choice. Zod gave him no alternative but to use lethal force. Leaving aside the fact that he clearly did have alternatives even within the context of the story as written, Superman doesn’t let his enemies dictate the terms. Like Capt. Kirk, Superman doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario. But let’s assume that I’m wrong. Let’s say there are circumstances in which Superman would be justified in taking a life. These certainly weren’t those circumstances and this film does not earn its ending. It’s not only the climax, but the events leading up to it that are problematic.

The last half, or at least third, of the movie consists of relentless destruction and collateral damage that makes a Roland Emmerich film look like an exercise in restraint. As Waid says, if we had seen Superman demonstrate any concern to save the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the devastation, or any attempt to take the fight away from populated areas, perhaps then the move might have been justified. If we had seen that he could not both save people and defeat Zod and that his self-sacrifice was costing him the fight; if he were bloodied, bruised and unable to resolve the conflict any other way, i.e. Doomsday, then maybe. And that’s still a big maybe. But we don’t see evidence of this. Again, this is exacerbated by the fact that, given the scale of the destruction we’re shown, hundreds of thousands of people have died. The filmmakers cannot show us that many lives meaninglessly extinguished and then expect the lives of a few more to be meaningful and therefore justify Superman’s action. It just doesn’t make dramatic sense.

Regardless, he could have depowered Zod using the Kryptonian ship. I’m not clear why it was destroyed on impact especially since any Kryptonian alloy should be nigh indestructible on earth. There are other plot holes here too. Why would the Kryptonians want to make earth like Krypton where they don’t have powers? Why does the black hole disappear instead of, you know, destroying the whole planet? Why is it daylight in the north and south hemispheres simultaneously? Normally, I would forgive these issues in a blockbuster film, but it speaks to the lazy writing. Goyer seems so intent on ‘forcing’ Superman to make the fatal choice, that he doesn’t care how implausible the route to that choice becomes. But nothing in the logic of his own script forces that conclusion at all. It’s clearly just there for shock value.

Fans complained that Superman didn’t punch anything in his last theatrical outing. Well, Goyer, Snyder and company have certainly addressed that complaint. They’ve given the people what they want. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the character. I’m also surprised by otherwise sober fans defending this film’s conclusion. Are they so desperate for this movie to succeed as a franchise platform that they’ll overlook a Superman who kills? I understand that being a Superman fan makes you a bit of an outsider. He isn’t dark and edgy like Batman (who doesn’t kill either, by the way) and sometimes Superman looks quaint and square by comparison. As a Superman fan, I’ve often wished he would be embraced as cool by mainstream audiences. But not like this. If this is what the character must become to be popular with contemporary audiences, maybe it’s better that he — and by extension his fans — remain unpopular.

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