Man of Steel: How Superman killing Zod was mishandled

man of steel michael shannon zod killing zod bad idea david goyer zack snyder dc dc extended universe

So, what with Batman vs Superman having come out recently, Man of Steel has been on my mind a little bit; with the sequel movie looking to be as controversial as its predecessor, I wanted to just take a moment to analyse this scene for a second.

This particular scene is a real point of contention. Superman kills Zod, here, and obviously that caused quite the furore because Superman, typically, does not kill. (Zak Snyder and Dave Goyer both felt the need to justify this by saying that killing Zod is where Superman will get his no killing rule from, as if everyone needs to get one kill in, just to make up their minds. This is a ridiculous justification, in any case, but also irrelevant, given the first thing Superman does in Dawn of Justice is kill a man.)

Now, this scene is quite an easy one to focus on for many people, because of the whole killing Zod thing; it’s not so much that having Superman kill is the most heinous transgression that this film makes, rather that this is emblematic of a series of mistakes made by Man of Steel – namely, the fact it revels in gratuitous violence for its own sake.

Following some scenes of wanton destruction that were evidently inspired by 9/11 footage (and in pretty poor taste, obviously), leaving Metropolis little more than a smoking crater, we reach this point. And it’s staggering how wrongheaded this scene was – but also very informative about the approach taken by Man of Steel.

After Superman kills Zod, note what the camera focuses on. We don’t actually see the family at all – on first viewing, I actually assumed they’d been killed, and it was following their deaths that Superman killed Zod. (I could sort of appreciate the moment more, had that been the case; obviously I don’t want to advocate more killing in this movie, but I can understand the anguish if it’s more explicitly about Superman’s failure to save people.)

But if you pay close attention to the edge of the frame, you can see that the family did in fact live. So why isn’t this made more explicit? Why do we not get a clear shot of them?

The answer is that this scene isn’t about the family. It’s about Superman killing Zod. We’re not watching an act of murder because it’s the only thing that can be done to save some innocents.

We’re watching Superman kill Zod because Zack Snyder and Dave Goyer thought that Superman killing would be cool.

And that says a lot about what’s wrong with Man of Steel.

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Batman v Superman v Relevance

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There’s a moment in Batman vs Superman where Perry White says to Clark Kent, “Maybe you were relevant in 1938, but not now”, or words to that effect.

I haven’t googled it, but I’m willing to bet that 1938 was the year of the first Superman comic. That sounds right, anyway; it was the 75th Anniversary of Superman sometime within the last couple of years or so, and 1938 is a pretty specific year to namecheck. Seems like the sort of thing they’d have in this movie – another little wink to the audience, just like “No one cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman”.

Anyway.

“Maybe you were relevant in 1938, but not now.”

Struck me as interesting, that line. In context, it refers to two things – people buying newspapers, and Clark’s moral positions. The former is something bordering on a funny joke, I suppose, but the latter is far more notable.

Batman vs Superman does not think that a view of Superman as a compassionate, positive hero is relevant. Neither did Man of Steel before it, of course, and it seems that the DCEU as a whole does not consider this Superman to be relevant.

You can see that right from the beginning, of course; Lois is being held at gunpoint, and Superman comes to save her. Rather than talk this man down, Superman barrels straight into him, killing him; that’s the difference between a Superman who is motivated by compassion and a desire to help people, and a Superman who is a murderer.

The whole movie, of course, is trying to find some degree of relevance. And that’s fair, I think; when you’re adapting source material that has roots extending as far back as the 1930s, trying to answer the question as to what makes these characters relevant in the modern day is something that’s quite important.

“Maybe you were relevant in 1938, but not now.”

In broad terms, you can see that being done with the Marvel movies; X-Men has drawn on elements of LGBT experiences, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has some deliberation with regards to surveillance and personal freedom, and so on and so forth. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that all of these movies have tried to answer this question of relevance. Sometimes, they’ve just gone as far as to say “A superhero movie is entertaining”, and I think that’s enough.

But the DC movies aren’t taking that route. They’re very reactionary, in many ways; I’m not using this phrase to describe their politics, but rather the manner in which they have been constructed. Everything about these movies is a response to what has gone before, in a desperate attempt to differentiate themselves from their main competitors.

Sometimes it works. Both Alfred and Lex Luthor are amongst the more interesting characters, by virtue of the fact that we haven’t quite seen them like this before. Alfred now takes a more active role alongside the Batman; an engineer, a pilot, a partner. Lex Luthor, rather than the more reserved and manipulative adversary we’re used to, is a jumpy and neurotic young man. It’s an understandable decision, I suppose, in a movie that’s so desperate to be relevant – jumpy, neurotic young men do seem to be the stereotype for the rich tech moguls these days. (Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg.)

For the most part, though, this does not work. An attempt to be “deep” or “intelligent” results in hackneyed dream sequences, so lacking in relevance to anything that all they really do is waste time. An attempt to set up future movies without resorting to an end credits scene results in a painfully lazy segment where Batman and Wonder Woman email each other YouTube clips from the upcoming movies.

Worse still, of course, is where we end up in terms of the very tone of the movie – and that brings us right back to Perry White earlier.

“Maybe you were relevant in 1938, but not now.”

In their attempts to reject the precedent set by their competitors, DC has managed to entirely miss just what it is that makes the Marvel movies successful. It isn’t the fact that they engage with the cheesier comic book elements. It isn’t the quips, and it isn’t the bright colours.

It’s the fact that they have heart, and that they have a vision. There’s a coherence to those movies that’s missing from Batman vs Superman; Kevin Feige understands what he is doing far moreso than Zak Snyder does.

Please, though, don’t misinterpret what I’m saying – the Marvel movies aren’t perfect. The Thor movies are a little dull, Guardians of the Galaxy has a weak antagonist, and sometimes set up for future movies overrides the needs of the current movies. When it comes down to it, I actually prefer the DC characters over the Marvel ones, any day of the week. I wouldn’t be invoking this comparison if Snyder and co weren’t so fixated on it themselves.

In a recent interview – one of the many he’s giving, trying to defend his decisions – Zak Snyder says he didn’t appreciate the fact that people got angry at him for “trying to grow up their character”. He refers, of course, to his choice to depict Superman as an unrepentant mass murderer. When Perry White dismisses the relevance of Clark’s moral positions, this is Zak Snyder dismissing the relevance of such questions in the movie as a whole.

That’s why, in Batman vs Superman, the scene that should have held an exploration of ideologies ends in an explosion. Rather than Superman explaining his position – rather than a debate – we just blow it all up. Rather than anything that might resemble a character moment, we get more and more CGI flames enveloping the scene, and Henry Cavill doing his best angsty face.

“Maybe you were relevant in 1938, but not now.”

When trying to find something relevant – something new, something different – Snyder decided to be “mature”. Snyder decided to be “realistic”. I use the quote marks mockingly, of course, because it’s ridiculous. There was nothing of the sort in Batman vs Superman; what we got was something that revelled in darkness for the sake of darkness.

Superman murders people, because that’s what a powerful God would do if he were real. Batman murders people, because that’s what a billionaire vigilante would if he were real. Wonder Woman gets an upskirt shot, because objectification is what women would get if they were real. (Oh, hang on…)

Laughably, of course, the film had to begin by retconning the end of Man of Steel to minimise the damage done by Superman and Zod last time; rather than levelling the city, it was more like a 9/11 type event. Of course, it’s swiftly forgotten – for all their talk of addressing the end of the last movie, for all the talk of “consequences”, that’s not what Batman vs Superman is interested in. All this film cares about is getting us to another sloppy CGI fight scene, where matte model after matte model can be reduced to virtual rubble, constantly mistaking the scale of the fight for the level of our investment.

“Maybe you were relevant in 1938, but not now.”

Batman vs Superman does not know what it is doing. In a desperate grasp at relevance, there was nothing to be found.

This is a film that wants to be adult. It is a film that wants to be mature.

It is not.

This is a film that thinks cynicism and darkness is mature. It thinks that wallowing in destruction is clever.

It is not.

This is a film that, really, has no idea what it’s doing – no idea how to be relevant. It believes that if you take things, make them “grimdark”, and throw them at the wall, something is going to stick.

It is not.

And so what we got was a mess, because Batman vs Superman was little more than shallow and superficial nonsense. It’s an adolescent fantasy that wants to be edgy and grown up, but is in fact very generic and naïve.

“Maybe you were relevant in 1938, but not now.”

I really hated that line, in case it isn’t obvious. Also, the movie.

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