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Choice And The Moral Universe Of ‘Man Of Steel’ [Opinion]

Superman is not like other heroes. He’s not only among the first, and the one who defined the genre; he’s also the best. I mean that in a moral sense. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s creation, as we understand him today and as he exists in the cultural lexicon, is the ideal of heroic virtue. That perception may change following the success of Zack Snyder’s new movie Man of Steel.

The following contains SPOILERS for Man of Steel.

To begin at the end; the final confrontation between Superman and General Zod in Man of Steel is a source of considerable controversy. The fight ends when Zod tries to kill innocents and promises to kill everyone if Superman doesn’t stop him, and Superman accepts Zod’s ultimatum by snapping his neck.

Some might look at that scene and ask, “What else could Superman have done?” Others might offer alternative endings to the scene. It’s not a useful conversation. It’s the usual, “Who would win in a fight?” The answer is always that the outcome is determined by the writer, and the story bends to fit that outcome. Superman killed Zod not because there was no other choice, but because the people conceiving the story wanted Superman to kill Zod. (By a majority of two-to-one, according to recent reports.)

That is a revealing choice. It tells us that director Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer wanted to establish that there are times when killing is necessary, even for Superman. They believed that this bleak message is the right one to convey using one of the most moral characters in modern fiction.

Can Superman kill? You can contrive a situation in which he has to; it has been done before. Yet I think most people would place the character at the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to the preservation of life. The moment he absolutely has to end one life to save another should carry so much weight that the story contorts to serve it. I don’t think Goyer and Snyder earned that moment in Man of Steel. You may disagree.

Either way, the choice is troubling, as the movie neglects to send any other moral message. This is not a movie about truth, or justice, or heroism, or sacrifice, or hope.

Hope gets a mention. We’re told the symbol on Superman’s chest represents “hope,” but I can’t think of any moment in the movie that shows us that ideal. The characters standing in the wreckage at the end of the movie seem to represent grim endurance rather than hope. We do see a glimpse at the end of the movie of young Clark Kent playing outside with a cape around his neck. That seems hopeful. But as it’s a moment from his past, before everything went to hell, it also suggests that hope is naive.

I think it’s fair to ask what young Clark Kent was pretending to be when he put that cape around his neck. That’s a game you play if you’re pretending to be a superhero, but Superman is the first superhero. Is he being Aragorn? Hercules? The Phantom of the Opera? Do Marvel comics exist in this world, and he’s playing at being Thor?

I raise the point not to be glib, but because I think the moment speaks to the filmmakers’ incomplete conception of Superman as an inspirational figure. This Superman is not something to aspire to. At our screening, at the point at which Superman killed Zod, I heard a girl who was too young to be there say, “Why did the man’s eyes stop? Why did he stop?”

It was a painful moment of instant, awkward context: this little girl is not going to put on a cape and pretend to be this version of Superman. Nor would I want any child to want to be this version of Superman. Snyder and Goyer don’t appear to understand what inspires someone to put on a cape and run around the garden. In this universe, a person puts on a cape because someone gives them a cape.

Superman is not a hero in this movie; he’s a liability. This is a movie where everyone would have been better off — and thousands more people would be alive — if Superman had never come to our planet. It’s hard to see that as a message of hope. If the filmmakers had written it so that Zod had always meant to target Earth, and Jor-El sent his son to stop him, that would place an act of heroism at the story’s core, rather than acts of desperation and revenge. It would make Superman a solution, not a problem. The rest of the story would play out largely the same way, but events would have moral weight. The filmmakers chose to go a different way.

One of the great pillars of Superman’s moral universe is his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent. This movie removes him from that role. In most tellings, Clark Kent learns his values from his decent and upstanding parents. In this movie his father teaches him to lie. He teaches him to put self-preservation ahead of the lives of others. There is no truth and justice here. There is a sacrifice, but it’s not heroic; Pa Kent dies because he’s too stubborn to see that he’s wrong. We know that he’s wrong, because the premise of Superman depends on it. Pa Kent could have been a moral guide; the filmmakers chose to go a different way.

Because the Kents don’t tell Clark to be a hero, it’s not instilled in him as a value, and he has to take the counsel of his birth father, ghostly Microsoft Word paperclip Jor-El. In choosing to root Superman’s virtue in Krypton and not Earth, the filmmakers stole Superman’s formative reason for holding humanity up as worthy of salvation. This origin story does not at any point present the idea that mankind is fundamentally good. The filmmakers chose to go a different way.

And still, there were other opportunities to show Superman’s innate moral core. At one point Clark walks out of the sea and needs to dress himself. He could have asked for clothes, or he could have taken them and left a note and a promise. That scene would then have served to show us that he is a morally upstanding person, someone who goes out of his way to do the right thing. Instead he steals the clothes and sneaks away. The filmmakers chose to go a different way.

Every chance the filmmakers had to illustrate Clark Kent’s fundamental goodness, they went the other way. They made him scheming and vengeful after he gets beer tipped over him. They made him petulant and harmful when he burns a concerned teacher’s hand. They made him reject his own family during an argument, and reject his own humanity during a make-out session. “I hear it’s all downhill from the first kiss.” “I think that only applies to humans.” (It’s a joke, but the fact that it’s a joke told while sucking face with a relative stranger on top of a smoldering charnel pit lends some weight to the idea that he’s not one of us.)

You might say these are minor beats, small moments that shouldn’t add up to much — but what do we have in the other column, the “illustrations of virtue” column? You could argue that this is the sort of behavior we’re all guilty of, and everyone has to start from somewhere and learn. That’s true. Although Superman is as clear a paragon of virtue as any character in fiction, Clark is allowed a few missteps, a few flaws, especially before he dons the cape.

Yet at some point we need to see what his moral values are. We need to see a dramatic illustration of what he believes, what he chooses. This movie avoids that at every opportunity. Even when he walks away from a confrontation in a bar, it’s not because he wants to avoid violence or revenge, but because he wants to avoid exposure. He follows through on the violence and revenge when he vandalizes the bully’s property.

This Superman is never virtuous. He is never compassionate or conscientious. He never tries to steer the devastation of his fights away from populated areas; nor does he seem to connect with humanity at all. Rather than travel the world looking for people to save, he is a withdrawn recluse who saves people only when they’re about to burn to death in front of him. He literally does the least one might expect from a person with his extraordinary advantages. He can’t be a hero, because he’s bound to the self-preservation code of Jonathan Kent, his other father in the sky, forever whirling overhead somewhere between Kansas and Oz.

The filmmakers could have told broadly the same story and instilled a moral value in there. They could have kept Clark reclusive but played up the urban legend angle; Superman as a guy who travels around the world saving lives with extraordinary feats of strength and bravery, but no cape or costume. It’s the root of that idea that brings Lois Lane into Superman’s story, but Lois only has two heroic acts to base her research on. She finds the story not because there’s an urban legend of a “Superman,” but because she follows Bigfoot onto a UFO.

If Clark had rejected his father’s advice and always risked himself to save others, the story could play out the same way but with a different moral core. Then, when Zod comes and tells the world, “Give me Superman,” the world would stand up and say, “No.” Because the world needs such a “Superman.” The world needs hope and inspiration.

The filmmakers chose to go a different way.

Much has been made of the movie’s Jesus obsession, but holding your arms out to the side does not a messiah make. The movie bears no relationship to Christianity; it just borrows some Nazarene drag. Jesus did not snap necks or lay waste to cities. By all accounts Jesus was a solid bro. His story is a resoundingly moral superhero tale of compassion and sacrifice. He was not the sort to tear down power lines around a remote community just to spike a guy’s truck.

There are heroes who behave that way. Long before we got to the neck-snapping incident, I noticed that every choice Clark Kent made was one a hero like Wolverine might make. Wolverine is the guy who gets to be misanthropic and petty and grim and make it all look cool. But Wolverine is not messianic. Wolverine is not a paragon. Jesus Christ would never wear a “What Would Wolverine Do?” bracelet.

Different heroes have different values, different roles, and they tell different stories. For much of the audience, Superman is the virtuous hero, and a story that doesn’t explore this is not a Superman story.

And really, the makers of Man of Steel did not seem overly interested in telling a Superman story. His name is not in the title. It’s squawked out on first mention. When it finally gets said out loud, the soldier delivering the line is “not … impressed by the word,” by Snyder’s own design. The “S” on the character’s chest is not an “S.” The lead character never claims the identity. The movie never uses the word “Superman” with pride.

And in the end, the villain destroys him. The villain wins. General Zod fulfills his pledge to find Lara Lor-Van’s son, and though he fails to remake Krypton in his image, he succeeds in his bid to commit suicide by Superman. Why does he goad Superman into killing him? Because he wants to bring low the last piece of his pious rival Jor-El. He wants to put a defining stain on Kal-El’s soul.

Because of Zod, Superman can never be great. He can never be the exemplar. He can never be Superman. Not atop the pile of corpses he built. Not after showing so little concern for humanity for so many years. Not when he announced his presence on our planet with the terrible sound of breaking bone.

That is the story that Snyder and Goyer wanted to tell. They made valid choices, and there is obviously an audience that enjoys this version of the story and this version of the character. No one is wrong for saying that they like this version of Superman.

But if you want Superman to be an inspirational figure, I would be surprised if this was your Superman.

One of the most famous lines about Superman features in the opening of the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV show starring George Reeves in the title role. A man cries, “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird.” You know the rest; at this point it’s over-done. It would be tough to pay homage to it now without being corny. Yet the dialogue serves an important point. For a lot of fans, Superman is someone to look up to in wonder. That’s not a subtle metaphor; he is above us. He is exemplary. He is wonderful.

No one looks up to the sky in wonder in Man of Steel. As shown on the screen, this man does not represent the best in us, and he is nothing to aspire to. Goyer and Snyder chose to strip him of his moral strength, and leave us with the idea that there is no one so pure, so good, that they would not kill in the right situation. Instead of a paragon of virtue, the Man of Steel is a symbol of death and carnage.

If you see a man flying through the sky, don’t gasp and point in awe. Scream and run for cover. No one can save you now.

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