There’s been a lot of talk about Man of Steel‘s conclusion. A large portion of the discussion has been around how Zod and Superman’s fight levels Metropolis, and while that makes for a great action scene, it also raises questions about Supes’ responsibility in the implicit deaths of Metropolis citizens caught in the chaos. That climactic battle didn’t cause any disagreement among writer David S. Goyer, director Zack Snyder, and producer Christopher Nolan. What did cause some dissent was the scene that followed.
Hit the jump for how the filmmakers talked through Superman’s difficult decision, and to read the negative reaction from Superman: Birthright author Mark Waid. [Spoilers ahead, obviously]
Speaking to Empire Magazine podcast (via The Playlist), Snyder and Goyer revealed that the original version of the script had General Zod being sent back into the Phantom Zone. “But David, Chris and I had long talks about it, and I said that I really feel like we should kill Zod, and that Superman should kill him,” said Snyder. “The ‘Why?’ of it for me was that if was truly an origin story, his aversion to killing is unexplained… I wanted to create a scenario where Superman, either he’s going to see [Metropolis’ citizens] chopped in half, or he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.”
Personally, I find that to be pretty weak reasoning. Everything we see with Ma and Pa Kent is supposed to remind us that Clark was raised in a loving household with decent values. Does every origin story need a scene where someone says to the burgeoning hero, “And remember: don’t kill anyone.” At least in Batman Begins (which Goyer co-wrote), Batman is presented with the instruction to kill someone and flatly refuses (he later kills anyway, but eases his conscience on a technicality). Also, if an aversion to killing remains “unexplained”, does this mean we should expect Superman to kill more people in the future?
Nolan was initially reluctant to have Superman snap the villain’s neck, but Goyer went and got the “OK” from DC Comics. The screenwriter then said, “I came up with this idea of heat vision and these people about to die, and I wrote the scene, gave it to Chris, and he said, ‘Okay you’ve convinced me.'” On a thematic level, I can see the logic since Superman is severing his last tie with Krypton, but it’s still taking the character to a place where he loses one of his defining attributes.
Superman wins by killing Zod. By snapping his neck. And as this moment was building, as Zod was out of control and Superman was (for the first time since the fishing boat 90 minutes ago) struggling to actually save innocent victims instead of casually catching them in mid-plummet, some crazy guy in front of us was muttering “Don’t do it…don’t do it…DON’T DO IT…” and then Superman snapped Zod’s neck and that guy stood up and said in a very loud voice, “THAT’S IT, YOU LOST ME, I’M OUT,” and his girlfriend had to literally pull him back into his seat and keep him from walking out and that crazy guy was me. That crazy guy was me, and I barely even remember doing that, I had to be told afterward that I’d done that, that’s how caught up in betrayal I felt. And after the neck-snapping, even though I stuck it out, I didn’t give a damn about the rest of the movie.
As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn’t kill. Full-stop, Superman doesn’t kill. But sitting there, I broke it down some more in my head because I sensed there was more to it since Superman clearly regretted killing Zod. I had to grant that the filmmakers at least went way out of their way to put Superman in a position suggesting (but hardly conclusively proving) he had no choice (and I did love Superman’s immediate-aftermath reaction to what he’d done). I granted that they’d at least tried to present Superman with an impossible choice and, on a purely rational level, and if this had been a movie about a guy named Ultraguy, I might even have bought what he did. But after I processed all that, I realized that it wasn’t so much my uncompromising vision of Superman that made this a total-fail moment for me; it was the failed lead-up TO the moment. As Superman’s having his final one-on-one battle with Zod, show me that he’s going out of his way to save people from getting caught in the middle. SHOW ME that trying to simultaneously protect humans and beat Zod is achingly, achingly costing Superman the fight. Build to that moment of the hard choice…show me, without doubt, that Superman has no other out and do a better job of convincing me that it’s a hard decision to make, and maybe I’ll give it to you. But even if I do? It’s not a victory. Not this sad, soul-darkening, utterly sans-catharsis “triumph” that doesn’t even feel like a win so much as a stop-loss. Two and a half hours, and I never once got the sense that Superman really achieved or earned anything.
Listen to the full episode of the Empire Podcast: