Just a warning here at the outset: If you haven’t seen “Man of Steel,” and you want to see “Man of Steel” without knowing what happens, you should stop reading right now. Spoilers aplenty lie ahead.
I enjoyed “Man of Steel,” although, equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, it fell far short of greatness. Yet a contingent of geeks has expressed its outrage over the ending, where the Last Son of Krypton brutally dispatches General Zod in a manner inconsistent with one of the Big Blue Boy Scout’s cardinal rules. Put simply, Superman doesn’t kill people.
“Man of Steel,” then, short-circuits the conventional characterization of Superman, and many think this morally compromises the most virtuous of comic book champions.
They’re wrong. Let me give you a little context.
For the past eight years, I’ve been a trainer for RealVictory, a nonprofit organization that teaches a cognitive behavior model to teenagers on probation, on parole or behind bars. I teach that the way to change what we do is to change why we do it, because bad behavior comes from bad beliefs. Furthermore, a behavior’s goodness or badness is defined by the beliefs that drive it.
This is true of everything we do. For instance, it’s good to clap your hands when you’re at a concert, but it’s not so good when you’re at a funeral. In both cases, the action is exactly the same, but the intent is entirely different. And it’s the intent that determines the behavior’s morality.
The criminal justice system wrestles with this on a daily basis. When someone pulls the trigger on a gun, it’s bad news for any person on the other end, regardless of why the trigger is pulled. But the criminal justice system spends a good deal of time trying to determine the “why” before it dishes out consequences. If someone shoots a gun only because they want to steal a lot of stuff, they’ll likely spend the rest of their lives in jail. If they shoot a gun at someone in the process of saving their family from a dangerous situation, they’ll likely be hailed as heroes.
And that’s where we find Superman, as he’s wondering how to stop General Zod from incinerating innocent people with his heat vision. What other choice did he have? If he hadn’t acted when he did, a family would have died. How on earth would it have been more virtuous to trade their lives for Zod’s? Superman makes the only moral decision available to him — and then he screams in agony as he contemplates the enormity of what he’s done. This moment was a demonstration of Superman’s integrity, not a betrayal of it.
That’s not to say that “Man of Steel” always shows Superman with a clear moral compass. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned by all the collateral damage that accrues as he and his enemies pound each other through skyscrapers, undoubtedly producing casualties that don’t get any screen time. Yet Kryptonian fisticuffs in downtown Metropolis make for exciting CGI carnage, so it makes sense that the producers chose an urban setting for most of the battles. The box office might suffer if Superman had done the right thing and lured Zod to safer, less-populated and more boring locations.
I realize most people don’t worry about any of this. After all, we’re talking about comic books. Why bother with the morality of caped guys in tights? The answer is that Superman stands for something — he’s an archetype, a symbol. It’s encouraging, then, that so many people genuinely care about whether or not he’s still on the side of the angels. Thankfully, in “Man of Steel,” he still is.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.