How Man of Steel Inspires, Even as It Divides

'Man of Steel' reminds audiences — and diehard fans — of Superman's moral authority

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Warner Bros.

There’s something oddly fascinating to me about the volume of passionate online discussion over the climax of Man of Steel. (This would be the part where I tell you that, if you haven’t seen Man of Steel and want to stay unaware of how the movie’s big climactic battle ends, you should probably stop reading right now.)

That discussion — or, to be more accurate, the one dominant complaint from a sizable and vocal contingent of Superman fans (that others have attempted to counter, to little effect) — centers around the fact that (again, spoilers) Superman, in order to win his battle with Zod, breaks the villain’s neck. This one action, in many people’s eyes, invalidates, in any and all ways, the entirety of Man of Steel as a Superman story, never mind as a good Superman story.

The thinking behind those complaints is somewhat absolutist. Superman never, ever kills, goes their argument, no matter the circumstance. In fact, the entire point of Superman is that he always finds a way to avoid that solution. As a longtime fan of the character, I definitely find myself drawn toward that idea, if only because it fits so well with the notion that Superman is, at his core, a kids’ character who, in addition to his superpowers, can personify that kind of rigid moral code.

And yet, I’m also drawn toward the explanation offered by filmmakers that, as Man of Steel is an origin story for Superman, and the killing here — presented, at least in their eyes, as something unavoidable in order to prevent further destruction and threat to human life — acts as the origin of Superman’s decision to never (again) take a life. In that Man of Steel’s Superman is clearly aimed at older viewers — the movie is rated PG-13, after all — the idea that there’s actually some reason (and experience) behind Superman’s strict moral code beyond “That’s not what I do” makes sense to me. And it places the new Man of Steel at the center of the cinematic trend toward angst-ridden, flawed heroes in a way that a traditional Superman could never have managed.

Beyond the substance of the debate, just the fact that there’s been any sense of discussion about a summer-blockbuster movie’s morality or plot at all (beyond pointing out the various ways in which it doesn’t make sense, of course) feels like something of a rarity, but what’s particularly fascinating about this to me is that, instead of simply writing off the finale as a bad decision or laziness — certainly, I don’t think Man of Steel really sells the idea that Superman had no other choice than to kill Zod — there’s the sense among those aggrieved that the character himself has been betrayed by this movie in some way.

I’m reminded of the controversy that erupted in comic-book circles earlier this year when DC Comics announced that Orson Scott Card was to co-write a story launching a new Superman series. Fans responded with horror at the idea that such a well-known opponent of gay rights and gay marriage would be allowed to write Superman, even going so far as to organize a petition to have him removed from the story. (In the end, the artist of the story stepped away from the project because of the negative publicity it had attracted, effectively leaving the project in limbo.)

That Superman story wouldn’t have been Card’s first comic-book work, however. A few years earlier, he had written two well-promoted Iron Man series for competitor Marvel Comics without attracting anywhere near as much outrage. This seeming discrepancy was explained away by some saying that Superman stood for compassion, tolerance and fairness in a way that no other superhero did, and was therefore more needing of curation that kept the character away from such bigotry and small-mindedness.

Seeing the upset in response to Man of Steel, that idea sticks with me. Superman holds a strange place in the hearts of many, it seems; he may be a fictional character, but he’s nonetheless someone that we look up to and expect more from than we do other such unreal constructs. We want him to represent something purer than other characters — an ideal for us to aspire to, perhaps. More than record-breaking opening weekends, more than the response from critics or anything about the actual movie itself, that’s what Man of Steel has done for Superman: reminded us how important he is as an idea and inspiration to us, even 75 years into his career.