There are two very different movies in Man of Steel, the Superman reboot that lit up the box office last weekend. Both of them are stupid, but only one of them is terrible. The less terrible movie constitutes Man of Steel‘s first half, a simultaneous retelling of Superman’s origin story and Jesus Christ’s origin story, which means there’s nothing surprising for anyone who’s read a comic book or been to church. But at least it’s better than the film’s second half, an extended sequence wherein the villainous General Zod (Michael Shannon) and the heroic Superman (Henry Cavill) punch each other faster than superpeople have ever punched each other before.
After their fight has leveled half of Metropolis, Superman manages to get Zod in a choke hold. Zod uses his heat vision and threatens to kill some locals. Superman begs him not to. Zod refuses. So Superman kills Zod.
This is a shocking moment. In his classic incarnation, Superman never killed anyone. (In Superman II, Terence Stamp’s Zod appeared to die, but that movie is an absurdist half-parody of a Superman movie; comparing the dour realism of Man of Steel to Superman II is a bit like comparing United 93 to Airplane!) It was part of his code, as surely as refusing to fire guns was part of Batman’s code and never wearing yellow was part of Green Lantern’s. That changed in 1986, when the brilliant Alan Moore wrote ”Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Constructed as a swan song for the first half century of Superman’s history, ”Whatever Happened” is a comic book that pushes the superhero to the edge. In the end he has to break his first rule and kill someone. The person he kills is incredibly evil; you could argue that the person deserves to die. Just like in Man of Steel, Superman is comforted post-kill by Lois: ”B-but you had to! You haven’t done anything wrong!” But Superman does not stand for that. ”Yes, I have. Nobody has the right to kill,” he says. ”Not you, not Superman…especially not Superman.”
Two years after ”Whatever Happened,” comics writer John Byrne crafted a story where Superman meets a version of Zod who threatens to commit unspeakable acts. He kills Zod and his two compadres with green kryptonite. The act haunts Superman for years — at one point he exiles himself from Earth in shame. Back then, the notion of Superman killing someone meant something. Superman was not just a good man; he was the best man.
In Man of Steel, Superman cries out when he kills Zod, but one scene later he’s swapping witty banter with General Swanwick. The film seems to be suggesting that taking a life barely affects Superman. In fact, because the movie is an origin story, the subtext is even freakier: Superman only becomes Superman when he saves Metropolis by killing Zod, a baptism-by-blood that has more in common with Casino Royale than any Superman comic I can remember.
Unlike in Byrne’s version, Superman’s decision is not a fascinating moral quandary; it’s a blunt-force instant decision that comes down to: ”Zod is about to kill a human being. What can Superman do? Nothing! Murder is justified!” By comparison, imagine if 12 Angry Men were remade as One Angry Man starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and a rocket launcher. The fact that nobody involved in the making of the film could come up with a clever way for Superman not to kill Zod says a lot about how simplistic Man of Steel is.
But the real tragedy of Man of Steel is that it comes from David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, who worked together on the Dark Knight trilogy, which posed intriguing questions about Batman’s role as a hero in society. Man of Steel doesn’t pose those questions. We know that Superman was justified, because Superman is Superman. In that sense, the movie, unforgivably, has its cake and eats it, too. It strives to make Superman ”realistic,” while taking for granted that he’s a Christ figure who stands for moral virtue. It literally covers Superman in mud and then pretends his hands are clean.