If you’re the kind of person who will insist on clicking an article entitled “The Moral Implications of Man of Steel” and then mindlessly crow in the comment section about the amount of spoilers contained therein, then let’s make this clear – there are spoilers in this article. If you want to go into the movie fresh, clean, and not knowing anything, then do not read on. In fact, clicking here will take you back to the home page. Do it.
As somebody who has never read any of the Superman comics, or even seen all of the films, I’m not putting myself forward as a scholar of the character. I’m not even really a fan, if I’m honest – the story of a god falling to Earth always seemed much more interesting in the hands of Thor, not Superman. Although it got a pretty orgasmic review on this very site, to me, Man of Steel actually turned out, in the end, to be a pretty traditional Superman movie. It didn’t rewrite the rulebook in quite the same way as Batman Begins did for Batman, and I don’t think future cinemagoers will regard it as highly as that film, either.
Where it did succeed was in modernising the way Superman’s story should look in today’s world – everybody agrees that Zack Snyder absolutely nailed what a Superman film, released in 2013, should look like. Whatever you might think of him as a filmmaker (I’m not a fan, but Watchmen did have some great moments), he certainly didn’t skimp on the spectacle. The story as it was told here seemed to make sense, if you didn’t analyse it too closely.
However, I did have a few problems with the moral implications of some of the themes of the film. I’m not trying to reinterpret Man of Steel in a controversial way; all I want to do is open up a conversation, to allow people to respond in a (hopefully) nice way, and to clarify a few points.
This is where spoilers begin.
When we discover that Clark Kent is carrying the codex within himself – the DNA of everybody who will ever be born on Krypton – Zod’s plan becomes clear. Kill Clark, harvest the DNA, then terraform Earth to make it amenable to the Kryptonian citizens as they still exist – about five of them, in total. This in itself is weird, as we have explicitly been told earlier on that Clark doesn’t suffer from the effects of Earth’s atmosphere because he has been here from an early age. This, combined with the Earth’s proximity to the sun, also contributes to his power. Why the Kryptonians didn’t also just hang around on Earth for a bit and acclimate themselves to the atmosphere, becoming even more super-powered before commencing their plan, is irrelevant (apparently).
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Zod’s plan makes him a very different kind of villain, even though he is dressed in traditionally villainous garb. If you were to strip him of that, however, he could be seen as an anti-hero. His stated mission is to resurrect his people from their current state of unbeing, lying dormant within the body of megalomaniac god-figure Clark Kent, who has been brought up in the knowledge that he will definitely change the world, as Superman.
For context, let’s imagine for one second that Zod was given his own film called Man of Krypton. Instead of Kevin Costner fixing cars and giving homely advice on how he’d change the world one day, young Zod’s parental figure would be fixing the ol’ spaceship and giving Zod homely advice on how his destiny was to save his people, one day. As Zod points out at the very end, by destroying the terra-former, Superman removes his entire purpose for living. Could Zod have done anything close to that to Superman? Could Zod have taken away Superman’s purpose for living? There’s no way. Superman chooses not to give the people of Krypton another chance by destroying the terra-former. Ignoring the fact that it was destroying our own planet for one second, Superman actually says “Krypton had its chance.” Do we give him the power to make that kind of decision? How long until “Earth had its chance” as Superman might say?
Zod works for the good of Krytpon. The only time he is objectively painted as a villain is when Superman drowns in that vision of a scorched Earth, coated in skulls. While destroying Earth would be a repulsive, genocidal act, it’s not personal. If anything, Jor-El would have known that Zod would have gone wherever he sent baby Kal. He effectively doomed Earth, and is revered in the film, portrayed as a saintly warrior figure who helps the fight for good. The fact that the fight between Zod and Superman is a fight that he himself caused is glossed over.
Is Zod to be blamed for his actions, given that he is only fulfilling a role that society carved out for him? We’re all victims of our circumstances to some extent, it’s just unfortunate for Zod that he had the misfortune of being destined to save (his) planet. In this way, the fight between Superman and Zod is actually the fight between two Supermans (Supermen?), from two different perspectives.
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Perhaps Man of Steel is more complex than I initially gave it credit for, as there is no traditional hero or villain. Sure, Superman gets the triumphant score, while Zod gets the enormous butt-ship, but I feel sorry for Zod, and I think it’s worrying when we as an audience are asked to side with Superman just because he’s on our side. Why else would Jor-El have put the codex inside of Superman if not so that he could one day resurrect the population? Is Zod not actually carrying out the wishes of Superman’s father, and what is supposed to be Superman’s destiny? Are we only siding with Superman because he sides with us?
The ultimate message of Man of Steel, and Superman overall, is that your circumstances don’t define who you are. It’s what’s inside that counts. But by allowing our own circumstances – humans, living on Earth – to define how we feel about Superman, are we actually going against the message of Superman, by siding with Superman? This bothers me. If there’s no other reason to support Superman other than that he saves humans, to the detriment of other species – even his own people - I find it difficult to approve of. He isn’t objectively good, he’s subjectively good in the narrow set of circumstances that Man of Steel provides. He’s not even that heroic there – he thinks nothing of bringing the fight to Metropolis, content to wantonly destroy buildings filled with people, yet blanches when Zod tries to kill three people in a museum. He is the living, breathing, flying embodiment of the phrase “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic”.
My point is that Superman is no hero, he’s just the beneficiary of good editing. Don’t agree? Let me know below.Previous