The Ultimate Plot Intensifier

The question of whether Clark Kent as Superman should or should not kill is an extremely interesting one, and one I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about since seeing Man of Steel a few weeks ago. For the uninitiated, the controversy sprang up when Superman killed General Zod to save a family after destroying the whole of Metropolis throughout the course of their battle.

On September 24th, David Goyer wrote an article defending his decision to let Superman kill in Man of Steel

"'We wanted him to have had that experience of having taken a life and carry that through onto the next films.'"

If they portray Batman as the same character in the past Christopher Nolan films, which I sincerely hope they do, I could foresee some friction between Batman and Superman over this event. Batman is, for better or worse, highly idealistic after all, and would almost certainly look down on Superman for killing Zod. Batman refused to kill the Joker, after all. This could make for an interesting dynamic as the very human Batman looks down on the god-like Superman for making a very human choice.

Interesting dynamic or not though, this hypothetical does not answer the question of whether Superman made the right choice in killing Zod1. In order to answer this, I believe we must clearly define both who and what Superman is. Rob Bricken of io9 in Why Letting Superman Kill Kills Superman did this very well, albeit in the process of making the opposite point I intend to:

“Superman is especially the character that is supposed to inspire us to aspire to something greater. That’s his whole damn point. He is supposed to represent humanity at its best. He’s supposed make the right decision even when they doesn’t seem to be one. When faced with two impossible choices like, say, killing Zod or letting an innocent family die he’s supposed to somehow figure out a third option, so he wins without compromising his principles. That’s his greatest superpower to always do the right thing.”

I completely agree with Rob: Superman should make the right decision even when it seems impossible; he should always find that third option so he wins without compromising both his principles and our faith in him. I do not, however, think that any of those qualities necessary rule out the ultimate penalty though: just like in The Legend of Korra, which I wrote about in Nickelodeon’s Experiment, where the creators went out of their way to avoid even the implication of death, they did not completely rule the possibility out. From my aforementioned article:

“In addition to the complex subjects of war, classism, and civil unrest, the writers of the Avatar series also dealt with a number of other controversial topics in a novel way, including death: rather than something to avoid at all costs, it became a key plot element. Death’s general absence from the series made the few episodes in which it did appear remarkably impactful, especially in The Legend of Korra. After Tarlock used false charges to imprison Avatar Korra’s friends, she demanded their release; he refused, and a particularly fierce battle broke out in which Korra quickly gained the upper hand. In order to save himself, Tarlock revealed his ability to bloodbend in a desperate last-ditch maneuver to stay Korra’s deadly onslaught. Implicitly emphasized in this scene, Tarlock’s brief brush with death proved his last. Later in the series, after Korra revealed Amon’s true identity as a waterbender, he lost all support from the Equalist party. With no other options left, Amon freed his brother Tarlock and the pair made their escape on a speed boat. Feeling great remorse over both his and his brother’s actions though, Tarlock used one of Amon’s own weapons to ignite the boat’s gas tanks in a stunning murder-suicide off the coast of Republic City. The one and only barefaced encounter with death in the entire season, this was one of the strongest scenes in The Legend of Korra and possibly the entire Avatar series.”

Just as The Legend of Korra's creators used the almost comical avoidance of death as an extremely effective plot intensifier, so too did Man of Steel's creators with violence: all throughout the movie Clark either refused to use his powers or his parents forbade him from using them. Sometimes for good reason, but at other times I couldn’t help but wish he would knock that drunk guy from the bar through a wall. Irregardless of the motivations behind his aversion to violence though, the movie pushed this theme for an inordinately long amount of time — much longer than justifiable for a minor plot element anyway, which brings me to go so far as to say it was the single focus of the movie, building up to a single, key moment: when General Zod threatened the lives of a small family. Clark had to make a choice then: the fundamental rules he had been brought up with, the ones that had been drilled into us over and over again throughout the movie, or this family’s lives. And he snapped: he just broke, and then he snapped Zod’s neck. It was easily the most impactful scene I have seen in a movie for quite some time.

Clark will not walk away from this emotionally unscathed. As I said earlier, I hope to see his execution of Zod come up in future movies. But as to the question of whether or not he was right in killing General Zod, I think that answer is the easiest of all: anything less would have been more of a betrayal of that faith Rob Bricken talks about in his article than actually killing Zod. Had Superman let Zod go, what would that have said about humanity, which Rob holds up as analogous to Superman? That we must hold on to our high-minded ideals no matter what? That nothing is worth killing for? Both of these statements are just as wrong as Clark letting Zod murder that family would have been.

Spoiler alert: I believe he did.