Are We Being Too Harsh On Superman?

supermanDisclaimer: This post contains spoilers for Superman II and Man of Steel.

What makes Superman so special is that he embodies the very best that humanity has to offer. We put trust in him to make the right decisions – the ones that we regular people might screw up. His strength of character and stern belief that violence and murder are never the answer inspires people to be the best people that they can.

But in our quest to honor him as the savior of humanity did we start putting too high an expectation on Superman to always make the right choice? I mean, what’s it like having the expectations of millions of people weighing down on your shoulders. Most of us are only expected to do our best, but Superman – he’s expected to make the right choice. Whatever that means.

That’s what I want to try to get at today – is Superman “only human” and therefore is allowed to not be perfect? Or is he the embodiment of perfection?

As many of you may know, after Man of Steel came out it received a lot of mixed reviews and opinions. Most of them directed at the fact that he snaps Zod’s neck like a twig to save a terrorized family when he allowed Zod to smash the city and presumably kill millions. They say Superman doesn’t kill. Superman would never have a major battle in Metropolis because he values human life too much to allow that many people die when he can do something about it. This behavior just isn’t something that people seem to accept in a character like Superman. But the thing is, Superman is a character with a history that spans 75 years. He’s been translated into radio, television, film, novels, animation, video games and just about any other medium you can think of. Is there a definitive version of the character? Maybe so, but why is the definitive version of this character so narrow?

The Superman that people think of when they build that image for him isn’t the same Superman in Man of Steel. The Superman that people think of is a more experienced, more developed and much more confident person. Superman in Man of Steel doubted himself at nearly every opportunity – he only got the courage to face Zod because of the support of Lois, his mother and his biological father. He was expected to save the entire planet and he needed help. I mean, people saw how pathetic a fighter he was when he first faced Faora. He got his butt handed to him and she didn’t even have her full set of powers, yet.

The thing is, Superman killing Zod in this movie isn’t even used the same way Uncle Ben’s murder is used for Spider-Man. This is still the Superman that people know and love because he already believes in the value of life and this is obvious from his deep reluctance to hurt anyone. But that doesn’t mean that he’s the same capable and confident crime fighter that we imagine him to be. There’s a difference between personal beliefs and the experience needed to exercise those personal beliefs.

The other issue is the fact that people have very narrow images of who Superman is, sometimes. In this case, people selectively pick and choose certain aspects of his character to build that image. This conveniently leaves out the fact that Superman kills Zod in Superman II in a much more malicious way than Man of Steel and that the Golden Age Superman had no problem threatening criminals with death. Why is selective memory necessary to build this narrative of Superman? Maybe it’s time to accept the fact that characters, much like people, cannot fit in nice and shiny boxes. They are complex, show contradictions and can’t be easily defined as one thing or the other. Superman is not perfect, he can’t be – we make Superman who he is and no matter how hard we try to make him perfect, he will always have the same complexities and contradictions in his character that we do in ours. So let’s appreciate Superman, all of them.

Bader Noaimi is an aspiring writer with a love for all things Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Superman (at least for now). They like to write about social issues in comic book culture and seeks to ruin their friends' lives on the internet. A "Literature" student for nearly all of their life, they want to prove to people that comics are serious business. No matter what their mother says.
  • Tyson

    Thank you so much finally someone said it!!!!

    • TheGoddamnBader

      You’re welcome! I’m glad you liked it.

  • disqus_OrRTsMfuUh

    If a superhero is a murderer, then why should we root for them? Even the dark and brooding Batman swears to not take a life. And he is mortal! Superman has ultimate power and can do anything, but he chooses not to become judge, jury, and executioner. Great stories like Red Son and Kingdom Come explore the terrible consequences he faces when he assumes that role. Superman is not a regular man. He has to be better. He has to be a symbol. Because if Superman with all his immense power refuses to take the easy way out and kill then I shouldn’t either. He strives to be better because it is too easy for him to be an executioner. Even if that’s easier or what’s expected. He strives to be better and do what he knows is right no matter how hard it is. This is the character I will gladly pay ten dollars to see a film about. I do not want a cynical hero who takes the easy way out. Conflicted? Absolutely! Because he has to be better!

    In Man of Steel, Zod tells Superman that the only way to stop him is to kill him. So Superman does. This is not heroism. In The Dark Knight, The Joker says the same to Batman. But, like a hero, Batman refuses to give in to what a madman wants and finds a way to beat The Joker at every turn and take responsibility for Harvey Dent. This is a hero. Man of Steel’s Superman gives in quickly and his remorse quickly fades away. Zod wins in Man of Steel. Superman gives in. Because Man of Steel’s Superman is not a hero, he’s a solider and no better than Zod. That is not a hero I would have believed in as a child. He does not inspire hope, promise, heroism, or justice. Murder is not justice. Superman should be better than that. Otherwise, why do we even have superheroes anyways? Why don’t they all just murder the villain? What’s the point? Man of Steel’s Superman creates a cynical look at superheroes and it is appalling.

    • TheGoddamnBader

      Hey! I appreciate that you wanted to share your thoughts. I enjoyed reading them.

      I can see why you think that Man of Steel’s Superman is cynical because he murdered Zod, but I disagree with the idea that one murder = a cynical superhero. I think you’re over-exaggerating the situation. If Superman intended to take the easy way out then he would have killed Zod outright, he didnt though, Zod made him feel like he was forced to kill him.

      The point of the article wasn’t to defend superheroes that murder people, it was to examine how people think narrowly of what a superhero is and what they can be.

      Superman does strive to be better and that IS why he is such an enduring characters, I’m not disputing that. What I am disputing is the fact that the Superman from Man of Steel is expected to be the Superman that we’ve know for 75 years and that simply isn’t possible. He hasn’t even been Superman for more than a few hours, he hasn’t undergone any training whatsoever either. Batman on the other hand has had the opportunity to train for years before putting on a cape.

      Superman doesn’t want to be like Zod, he doesn’t want to be a murderer, but he also didn’t want to watch that family get vaporized. Its a tough choice and in this case what makes him such a great character is that he makes US feel like we are making a tough choice the same way he did when we discuss his actions.

  • Adam

    Awesome article. I can’t begin to explain how annoying it is to read bad reviews of MoS only because he killed Zod. These people have no idea who Superman really is.

    I list so many times he has killed or had the intent from comics canon and non-canon but I’ll use a very recent example. The first actual story arc in Superman #3-6 in the New 52! In his mind the alien had taken over his co-worker, Heather, and he was willing to end the alien by any means necessary, even if it meant killing Heather in the process.

    • TheGoddamnBader

      Yeah, I agree with you. I think people should learn to appreciate all Superman’s and not think so narrowly of this very complex multi-faceted character.

      The fact is, New 52 Superman is a different person from the Man of Steel Superman. Some interpretations can be said to be “better” than others but really there isn’t much of a point in comparing the Supermans to see who is better. They’re just different.

  • Zack Yancy

    I just can’t fathom how Superman Returns has better reviews than Man of Steel…

    • TheGoddamnBader

      Superman Returns was more nostalgic and paraded its Eichard Donner, Christopher Reeve and John Williams elements. People love those three things, so better reviews.

  • Elias Algorithm

    There’s a cut scene from Superman II that sees Zod, Ursa, and Non taken away in handcuffs, stripped of their powers. So no, Superman didn’t kill Zod in that. He had to know where the run off from the Fortress went. Crushing his hand was a way to break his spirit in the only language Zod understood, which was wasn’t violence, but power. It is true that he killed Zod in the comics, using Kryptonite but that was after much soul-searching and realizing he had no other choice. The same applies to the movie.

    I disliked the movie for other reasons, one of which is that Zack Snyder is a terrible storyteller.

    • TheGoddamnBader

      It depends on the version of the film you watch. Point is, Superman has killed before, he kills when its necessarily sometimes and he also never kills. Those qualities could exist in the same Superman or in different Superman’s.