The central criticism ‘Man of Steel’ is that Henry Cavill’s Superman has a moral fiber that is lacking compared to the idealized versions portrayed by Christopher Reeve and others. We have a Jonathan Kent raising Clark to let people die in order to stay safe, a hero who doesn’t show much concern for the death and destruction happening to his city, and, most notably, a Superman that kills. The Man of Steel breaking General Zod’s neck at the end of the film is a choice that is brought up for debate even now. It was most recently brought up of Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast in an interview with ‘Man of Steel’ writer David Goyer. Here is how he defends the choice:
“The way I work, the way Chris [Nolan] works, is you do what’s right for the story. That exists entirely separately from what fans should or shouldn’t think of that character. You have to do what’s right for the story. In that instance, this was a Superman who had only been Superman for like, a week. He wasn’t Superman as we think of him in the DC Comics…or even in a world that conceived of Superman existing. He’d only flown for the first time a few days before that. He’d never fought anyone that had super powers before. And so he’s going up against a guy who’s not only super-powered, but has been training since birth to use those super powers, who exists as a superhuman killing machine, who has stated, ‘I will never stop until I destroy all of humanity.’ If you take Superman out of it, what’s the right way to tell that story? I think the right way to tell that story is if you take this powered alien who says, ‘You can have your race back, but you have to kill your adopted race,’ the moral, horrible situation to be in is to actually be forced to kill, not wanting to, the only other person from your race. Take Superman aside, I think that’s the right way to tell that story.”
Both Nolan and Goyer put a higher value on realism than previous writers of Superman. I don’t mean realism of powers, those are hard to justify, but realism of motives. Zod lost his primary directive to restart the Kryptonian race and defaulted to a kind of “destroy everything” programming. Given this, I can understand Superman’s choice to kill. Letting Zod go meant may more people would die. Superman could have maybe knocked Zod unconscious, but as Goyer said, he is new to fighting with superpowers. He might not have known what it would take to incapacitate Zod without killing him. If he did, what then? Not only is Superman new at dealing with superhumans, but so is humanity. There is no prison that can hold Zod. There isn’t even kryptonite, at least not yet. If Zod wasn’t killed when Superman killed him, many more would eventually die. If realistically saving the greatest number of lives is the goal, and if Superman could have, he should have killed Zod earlier.
On the other hand, the Superman many fans knew before this always finds a way to save everyone without killing. As unrealistic as this may be, it is a beacon of hope in fiction. The repercussions of ‘Man of Steel’ seem to follow Superman forward in DC’s new cinematic universe. Those fans may still see the Superman they want. Like in the comics, it might just take a while to get there.