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June 16, 2013


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Hello Professor White,

Long-time fan here, love your work in the various Superhero and Philosophy books. I teach an ethics course at a college here in Montreal and do so using comic book mythology. I'd love to have a discussion one day, over email perhaps, regarding some of your comments in the essay 'Why doesn't Batman kill the Joker?' and some of my students' reactions to it.

As for 'Man of Steel,' with respect, I believe you may be mistaken when you say Kal's killing of Zod sets up his moral code for subsequent films...at least the way you seem to imply ('Watch out, Luthor.') I do believe his moral code was formed concretely then, but I believe we saw the genesis of the "Never Kill" ethic in Kal, as shown by the remorse. It matches the Byrne story anyway, doesn't it?

I can forgive Kal's less-than-perfect decision making because he had been a superhero for all of a few hours in this movie, and had never been in a fight before in his life. I think, those things considered, he did all right, no?

A more experienced Superman would demand more from us, I believe.

At any rate, just another point of view. :)



Mark D. White

Hi, Eric -- thanks the very kind and thoughtful comment!

True, his moral compass could point in several different directions after the end of this movie, and time will tell which the writers choose. The argument from inexperience has been made and is valid, though many have countered that his aversion to killing should have ingrained from his youth (although the Jonathan Kent in the film may not have done as good a job at that as have the versions in the comics). This is all part of "humanizing" Superman, I suppose, a program with which I don't agree anyway!

I admitted in my post, however, that the killing made more sense in story than outside it, the larger point being the writers' choice to put him in a situation in which the only solution (assuming it was in fact the only solution) was to kill Zod. In the end, that is what upsets me the most. As Andrew Wheeler wrote today, this is not a Superman that will likely inspire many little kids to tie a red towel around their necks and want to emulate Superman (http://www.comicsalliance.com/2013/06/21/man-of-steel-moral-superman-review-zack-snyder-david-goyer/). And this is a true loss.

Take care,



You are absolutely right about that scene vis-a-vis kids; while I found the violence a bit over-the-top, it was in fact that last scene that secured the fact that I could not take my son Max, who is 10, to see the film. My voice caught in my throat as I explained it to my wife...I don't want him to see a Superman who had to kill. Not yet, anyway. It may be a bit silly, sort of like trying to prolong the time a kid believes in Santa, but I just can't do that to him. When he's older, and we can have some interesting ethical discussions, yes...but not now.

The film wasn't aimed at kids, I know that, but I guess there's a hope that it would have spoken to the kid in us, still looking to be inspired...and in a different way than Bruce might inspire.

I still really like it and am dying to see the sequel and perhaps even a JLA film, but mostly I hope the Kal in the future movies has it "together" like the one from the (pre-Nu52) comics.


P.S. Would you mind terribly if I advanced a question one of my students had regarding one of your essays?


Professor, I strongly agree with you. I had mixed feelings while I was watching the movie, but the more time that passes, the more I dislike it.


Here's how I would rewrite the ending. Assume that everything went exactly the same, right up until the moment that Superman has Zod in a headlock.

As the beams of Zod's heat vision edge closer to the cringing family, Superman pleads with Zod to stop, but his pleas fall on deaf ears. Desperate to save the people, Superman clamps his free arm over Zod's eyes. Twin screams of agony tear the air apart: Superman's, as his costume dissolves and his bare arm blackens and blisters from the incredible heat; and Zod's, as his beams are reflected back into his own eyes, but still he won't turn them off. After what seems like an eternity, Zod falls to the ground, his charred eye sockets staring up blindly, as he has burned out his own brain. Ignoring his physical pain, Superman cries in regret, his one arm hanging limp, a useless charred husk. The onlookers gaze at him with awe, acknowledging his heroism and sacrifice.

The next scene, with the General and the drone, takes place as before, except that Superman's arm is in some sort of cast. The scene between Clark and Martha in Smallville is also the same, but with an extra bit of dialogue at the start; something like this (but better written):

Martha: Clark, I can't believe how your arm has healed. A couple of months ago, I was sure that you'd lose it. But now it looks almost as strong as before.

Clark (flexing his arm): I thought it was gone, too. I guess that fast healing is another one of my powers. I never knew that before.

Martha: Well, why on Earth should you? You never got hurt before.

End result? Earth is safe. Zod is dead. But Superman didn't kill him directly, and chose self-sacrifice rather than the easy route.

Opinions? Would that have worked better for you?

Matthew Grenier

Totally pointless post here, but I made the same arguments about the movie (almost word for word, particularly the "they didn't have to write this" aspect) with some friends of mine. Interesting to see someone else articulate the same ideas.

In the end, I don't think Superman is a character that American culture allows the target audience of this movie to accept and understand. With such an emphasis on rationalism, the irrational do-gooder is a ludicrous character to most 20 and 30 somethings.

Mark D. White

Bob, I much prefer your alternate ending -- Superman wins the day through sacrifice and Zod dies inadvertently. Huzzah!

Mark D. White

Matthew, I suspect you're right about the appeal of Superman to younger people today, but it seems the filmmakers didn't even try to sell the traditional idea of the character. In contrast, I think the Captain America movie, in which Cap displayed admirable heroism and sacrifice, went over well in this regard -- and his character worked in the Avengers in large part in contrast to Tony Stark (as in the comics).

I think, in the end, they simply made a lowest-common-denominator Superman flick, designed to appeal to those who want edge and "realism" from superhero films, to the exclusion of those who wanted more. It's also exactly the kind of movie we expected from Snyder and Nolan -- wouldn't it have great to be surprised instead?

Bob Buethe

Thanks for the approval, though that post was mine, not Eric's. I don't know what I did wrong, but my post was signed "D" instead of my own name.

Mark D. White

Fixed, Bob, thanks for letting me know!

Patrick Gerard

Professor Mark...

I'd like to steer this conversation just a bit because I've wanted to discuss the movie somewhere but feel that most forums I take this to are populated by people who see Superman's killing act as a vindication of their own moral code, which is typically utilitarian. As such, any attempt to disagree results in rather strong disagreement as utilitarians feel the need to defend the scene because they feel it did what was necessary to secure Superman a 21st century audience by transferring ownership of the character over TO utilitarians.

Now... All that said, here's the philosophically interesting wrinkle that cropped up for me: the film generously "quotes" All-Star Superman and Superman: Birthright in terms of dialogue and plot. But there's a key distinction here and the more interesting moral statement here rests not on Superman's morality but Zod's.

Both Birthright and All-Star Superman postulate that Superman's superior senses provide him with enhanced empathy. Birthright's Superman is just a bit sad when even flowers die and is a vegetarian. Reinforcing his ethics (both his uprbinging and his heritage) is a superior objective knowledge of reality given to him by his powers. While All-Star Superman is not explicitly a vegetarian and is considerably less moody (self-assured with a hint of melancholy in the face of death, actually), the book's climax hinges on the notion that Luthor, when in possession of Superman's powers, is psychologically transformed by them into a person who devotes his life to the service of his fellow man. In both instances (and arguably going back to the character's inception), the notion is laid out that power does not actually corrupt. Those with power who are corrupt lack mastery and once they achieve mastery are unable to function as corrupt.

The idea is never really broached in Man of Steel with Zod. He acquires the power and uses it to destroy. It's a key part of the moral framework of All-Star and Birthright and is omitted here. Moreover, it must be a deliberate omission on some level because the screenplay has a clear awareness of Birthright and All-Star.

The clear answer from the sources is that if there were a Zod, he could not have the kind of anger or sociopathy presented here. This is especially true not just with Luthor in All-Star but with Bar-El and Lilo who could be seen as very direct analogies for Zod. The ultimate reversal of the story with them is that Superman shows his worth to them by showing them compassion and thus perhaps illustrating the worth of things which they had considered beneath them.

I think it's worth regarding the ending of Man of Steel not as a thoughtless change or even one without satisfying alternatives but a deliberate deviation from and rebuttal to All-Star and Birthright. It acknowledges them both and then rejects their morality and their solutions.

Patrick Gerard

Also, Bar-El and Lilo were poisoned and did not have mastery yet of their senses.

It's not so much that Zod should have had this knowledge after a few days as it is that Superman should have acquired this knowledge of super-senses' impact on empathy over a lifetime and therefore been able to overwhelm Zod with the cosmic empathy that super-senses seem to bring.

Now, from there, it's possible that Zod would kill himself in shame once confronted with the value of life but even that is a more morally congruent ending when compared with the sources.



One of the more 'metaphorical' battles withing Man of Steel that I loved so much was "Free Will vs. Destiny." Jor-El goes on a lot about having a child that is free to choose, etc. On Krypton, no one seems to get that choice; people are bred for specific duties. Zod was bred for defending Krypton and completely lost it when Kal destroyed the last of it...I don't think Zod was -capable- of having empathy for humans.

This metaphorical battle was my favourite part of the film.

Richard S Stone

Not suitable for children because the villain died? Villains in fairy tales die on a regular basis. Villains in Aesops's fables don't do well either. It is the fate of villains everywhere, in fiction. That is the meaning of fiction, as Oscar Wilde put it. Sadly, in real life, villains do not die, they get rewarded with great wealth and power, until they die of old age. Is this the moral lesson you want to advance? Really?

And personally, I was surprised at the ending myself, for two reasons. First, the movie was about 20 minutes too long, and and I began to think it would never end. Second, killing Zod was necessary because he was sure that he had the right to kill anyone who opposed him and he saw it as his duty to kill the weak earthlings. Superman might be able to save Lois and thousands from a flood, at the same time, but he can't change someone from their sick thoughts, especially someone with the powers of Zod. And he could not take the risk of trying and failing.

I think you give too little credit to the moral thought processes of children.

Mark D. White

My point has nothing at all to do with the moral thoughts processes of children (other than my ironic comment about the children's book adaptation). If almost any other heroic character did what Superman did at the end of this movie, I would have had little problem with it, since it was fairly clear that in that circumstance, he had little choice. Instead, my problem is with the storyteller's choice to put a character like Superman--a character defined by his ability to solve seemingly impossible problems without crossing that line -- in that situation at all.

Richard S Stone

Hmm. I grew up with Superman comics, and he's only a few years older than me, and there's a big difference between the Superman of the comics compared to the movies and the TV version, in black and white, that I used to watch. The Superman of the Man of Steel version is living a whole different and more complicated life, one with sadness and loss. And implacable foes. There may be more room for character development in the movies than in the comics. The whole idea has kind of grown up, along with the rest of us, possibly. Maybe it is a version of Godel's ideas of defined systems not being able to encompass everything, and absolutes failing, Superman cannot find his way out of every problem. He will regret what he had to do. Even Superman has regrets. That is where the story leaves off.

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