In Part I, I covered a poignant moment for Batman in Batman: Hush, and compared it to the Batman we see in the DCEU. Check it out here: The Rule-Breakers Part 1: The Dark Knight of the Soul.
Nowhere else in comic books is a name tied so closely to the themes of hope and salvation than they are in the name of Superman.
Since those themes are so bound up in his name, the thought of Superman taking a life, even to save others, seems utterly abhorrent to many in the wider culture. So when the brutal image of the Man of Steel snapping General Zod’s neck at the climax of the 2013 film Man of Steel, many audiencemembers were in shock. Then came the criticisms – the chief of them that this film forced Superman to break his rule against killing. But Superman does kill. He has killed in the comics several times. Not only that, this is also not the first time he has killed on the silver screen.
This article will focus on and compare the two most iconic film iterations where the Boy in Blue takes a life, the Superman quadrilogy of the 1970s and 80s, and Man of Steel.
Superman is the “Big Blue Boy Scout.” And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that Boy Scout’s don’t kill. That is the central ground of the argument to why so many critics were upset with Superman killing General Zod during the emotional climactic scene of Man of Steel.
When the film was released, there was an outcry against director Zack Snyder and his portrayal of the Last Son of Krypton. Many claimed he did not “get” the character of Superman and instead created a murderous Superman that no one could recognize or relate.
Although Batman’s no-kill rule has been in place almost entirely since after the first two years of his portrayal, Superman’s no-kill rule is more of a misconception. And depending on who is writing, the answer may vary. At times he vigorously laments killing, even going so far as to walk through golden Kryptonite to permanently remove his powers. And at other times, he is more than willing to kill, of no other option is left to him.
And as for the killing of Zod in Man of Steel, this is not the first time he’s killed Zod in the comics or on film.
Superman II has long been the movie people pointed to for the definitive portrayal of Superman And that very well is true. No one can discount the most memorable role of the late, great Christopher Reeve’s career. Nor should they. For all intents and purposes, he was, and still is, Superman to many loyal fans.
But to use Superman II as evidence that Superman does not kill, is a mistake; considering he kills Zod, and watches Non fall to his death while trying to fly, and lets Lois kill Ursa shortly afterward. The Superman portrayed in Superman II does not hold the moral high ground over actor Henry Cavill’s Superman. And I would argue the Superman portrayed in the DCEU is morally superior than the one portrayed in the Reeves’ era – despite the criticism leveled against Cavill’s Superman, and often vitriolic comments against director Zack Snyder.
But Snyder crafted a superior Superman. A Superman who does not willingly give up his powers for a woman he likes, going against his very purpose for being sent to Earth.
Superman was willing to give up his powers in order to have children with Lois Lane and become a normal man. Any complaints against Superman being dark and dour in Man of Steel should not point to the Superman films of the 1970s and 80s. Yes, Superman was distraught in certain scenes of Man of Steel, but he never gave up hope, and he never stopped protecting Earth. Not even when the world was against him in Batman vs. Superman did he surrender. He went so far as to sacrifice himself for a world that hated him. Snyder’s Superman never stopped being Superman. But even at the vehement protest from his parents, Reeves’ Superman still walks through the crystal chamber to remove his powers so he can be with Lois.
Where Cavill’s Man of Steel truly shows his moral superiority, however, is the reason for why he kills Zod in both films, and how he reacts to the death of his enemy.
In Man of Steel, Superman was justified in killing Zod. In Superman II, he was not.
In the infamous Man of Steel scene, Superman is holding Zod to the ground, pleading with him to not kill the family trapped by his laser vision in the train station. “Stop!” the Man of Steel cries. And the only word heard in return, is “Never.” Then came the gut-wrenching sound of Zod’s neck being snapped by his fellow Kryptonian. Zod’s body hits the ground with a thud and the light in his eyes go out. Superman cries over his death, knowing he now lays claim to the name, The Last Son of Krypton. Lois embraces and comforts him. That is a portrayal of a hero aware of consequences.
But this is not what we see in Superman II. After the main battle between Zod, Non, and Ursa in Metropolis, Superman leads them back to the Fortress of Solitude. Another fight ensues, filled with Superman holograms. The fight soon ends as the three hold Lois hostage, forcing Superman to stop the fight. During this, he whispers to Lex about luring them into the crystal chamber so he can remove their powers, to which Lex quickly responds by telling the three about his plan. Zod forces Superman to step into the crystal chamber to remove his powers. Unbeknownst to the three, Superman reversed the chamber, effectively removing the three other Kryptonites’ powers. He steps out from the chamber and finally follows the command from earlier in the film to “Kneel before Zod.”
At this point, Superman is the only one with any type of superpowers in the room – or on the entire planet for that matter. Instead of knocking the villains out, he goes straight for the kill. He crushes Zod’s hand and throws him down a bottomless pit. Non attempts to fly, but quickly joins Zod in his fate. Then Lois gets her turn to join in the killing when she quips at Ursa before punching her down a bottomless pit as well – to wich Superman gives an approving smirk.
All three villains are dead. And I am not counting the film shown on TV which inserted a scene with them being arrested by the “Artic Police.” It is neither in the original theatrical edition nor in the Richard Donner cut. Superman killed Zod, and let the other two die.
Even though Superman was more justified in killing Zod in Man of Steel than in the 1981 film, Snyder is still criticized. And a reason why comes down to music. Music played an enormous role in those two scenes. In Superman II, the famous John Williams score begins playing as Superman detaches Zod with lethal effectiveness. We as audience members are meant to be enthused, to cheer along as the villains receive their due.
But in Man of Steel, we are told to mourn the loss of a life, even the loss of an enemy. The religious theme is present in that scene as it is in the two DCEU films directed by Snyder. Superman is compared with Christ, the Son of God, whose Father said in Ezekiel 18:23 “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” Superman kills Zod, only after pleading him to turn his gaze from killing the family. and, as the music wells, we as audience members know the inevitable is about to happen. Then his neck snaps. Then there is silence. Then we hear and see Superman mourn.
In both films Superman kills, breaking the no-kill rule many thought he had. The question then becomes, which one was justified? In Superman II, he kills his enemy after weakening him, then watches as the other two fall to their doom. but in Man of Steel, he kills unwillingly, and only in order to protect lives.
Yes, Snyder’s Superman kills. But, his kill was justifiable, whereas the one in Superman II was not. Which has lead us to this: the Superman portrayed in Man of Steel is both morally superior, and more closely aligned to his comic book iteration than the Superman portrayed in Superman II.