The Psychology of the Man of Steel: Should Today’s Superman Be More Morally Realistic?

 

Superman has changed, and there’s no denying this. Although he wears the same iconic “S” on his chest, the Superman we see in the film Man of Steel embodies a very different psychological makeup than in past versions of this DC Comics hero. He questions whether humanity is worth saving. He is driven by emotions like anger and desperation. He seems reckless, destructive, and impulsively violent. This article, which includes some spoilers, examines why this new Superman represents a more psychologically realistic version of the iconic character, and asks us to question whether a more morally fallible Superman makes more sense in a post-9/11 society.

 

Man of Steel
Without a doubt, Superman is one of the most recognizable fictional cultural icons in the world. Over the last 75 years, the physical and psychological elements that define Superman have remained relatively stable. Rightly so. In order to preserve a cultural icon, writers must ensure that certain traits—minimal properties, if you will—remain the same. What are the essentials of Superman? He comes from Krypton, he was raised by the Kents, he has superhuman abilities, Kryptonite weakens him, and he is guided by a strong moral compass. We can add: His superpower abilities include the ability to fly, x-ray vision, heat vision, super strength, super speed, and super breath. Interestingly, Superman did not always possess the majority of these powers. In fact, when the character was introduced to the world in the 1930s, Superman was given super strength, super speed, invulnerability and the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Assuming, of course, those buildings were no taller than a 1/8 mile, since that was the extent of his leaping range. In Man of Steel, had Superman not flown, we may say, disappointedly, “that’s not like Superman.” After all, one of his most defining superhero features is his ability to soar through the skies. (The filmmakers were clever enough to build up to his flight via a series of longer and longer leaps).

 

It is another defining feature—Superman’s moral sense—that seems to have been bent in Man of Steel, making many comic book fans walk away from the film with the dissatisfied thought: “This is not Superman.” His values and beliefs seem far from the hero that believed in “truth, justice, and the American way.” Far from the hero that vowed to never end the lives of others because “nobody has the right to kill.” Yet, in Man of Steel, we watch Superman destroy property irresponsibly, leave buildings burning without looking back, and ultimately, kill General Zod with his own hands. He seems to be more involved with destruction than salvation. And while some viewers are fixated on what they’re considering drastic changes in his character, I’m more impressed with the idea of a Superman origin story that shows us the depths and darkness of moral development. Where did Superman gain his moral sense? What needed to happen for him to see the value in humanity? What grave mistakes did he have to make? Perhaps David Goyer and Zack Snyder intended to make a Superman movie about becoming a hero.

 

Where Do We Get Our Moral Sense?

 

“The human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations.” – Stephen Pinker, Experimental Psychologist

Our sense of morality is perhaps more complex than we realize. Not surprisingly, psychologists have a bewildering number of theories about the development of human morality, explaining that human prosocial behavior is guided by situational, cultural, social and developmental factors. Although he is not human, Superman shares our human psychology, in that, he experiences similar emotions, cognitions and also must develop his own set of moral values, beliefs, and attitudes.

 

Morality is not simply inherited and magically present at birth. Psychologists all agree that the conscious develops over time, in increments or stages. What makes Man of Steel realistic is Clark’s development of his sense of right and wrong, which is hugely determined by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent. Growing up, Clark is faced with scenarios that allow him to examine and build his moral compass. A strong facet of Clark’s conscious is the notion that the discovery of his powers could have dangerous implications. As his powers become stronger, Clark is cautioned by a father that believes that neither the world—nor Clark—is “ready.” This version of Pa Kent is morally realistic: There has never been a “Superman” before, and Pa Kent’s conclusion that Clark’s discovery could be perilous comes from his core beliefs that humanity is imperfect. When he is bullied by some school-aged peers, for instance, young Clark experiences the emotions of rage and revenge—we can see that he wants to fight back –but he chooses to refrain from engaging in physical fighting because he knows this would reveal his super powers. Clark’s sense of morality at this stage is his father. Pa Kent represents what psychologists call the Super-ego: Clark’s idealistic sense of right and wrong, the hardfast rules, the perfectionism, the prohibitive warnings. Do not act on emotional impulse. Do not strike others. Preserve your identity. Stay safe.

 

Man-of-Steel-image-ClarkPaKentBut is Jonathan’s philosophy simplistic and fallible? When a tornado hits the town of Smallville, Clark is faced with another tough decision: save his father’s life by using his superpowers to get him out of the tornado’s path, or allow his father to die in the storm in order to protect his own identity. Yes, we would all agree that Superman would have saved Pa Kent without second thought—but Clark isn’t Superman, yet. He’s still a teenager struggling with what it means to have superhuman powers, bullied for being different, and fearful of what the world will do if the true extent of his abilities are discovered. At that stage, his moral sense is in complete dissonance. Do as the Super-ego instructs, or follow your heart’s impulses? Clark falls back to his father’s moral code: Do as you’re father tells you, protect yourself and your mother, stay safe. Clark doesn’t let his father’s idealism die. The scene, as wrenching as it plays out, is important in the story: we’re seeing Clark’s moral sense develop and grow. We see him realize that every action comes with consequences. And that what’s right and wrong isn’t always so clear.

 

Zod Kneels

 

MOS-FP-0036-jpg-180758-jpg_212435In Man of Steel, Superman’s principal nemesis, General Zod, is unquestionably stronger. Zod is a warrior of Krypton: He is a trained combatant and fighter who has the means to wipe out the all of Earth’s citizens. Superman, conversely, has never raised a hand to an enemy prior to his fellow Kryptonians’ arrival. In the pivotal final act of the film, Zod realizes he has the most powerful weapon against Superman—the lack of a moral compass where the killing of humans is involved. Zod is willing to murder humans in cold blood, and decides to test Superman by using heat vision to threaten a handful of innocent humans in a Metropolis metro station. Superman, managing to hold Zod’s head steady while the villain’s eyes emit rapid lasers in the direction of the humans, begs him to stop. Zod, however, only seems to widen his eyes, underscoring his threat and asserting his power, perhaps even reminding Superman that this family of humans represents millions of people that can ultimately be killed by his terroristic wrath. Superman makes a decision to kill Zod in a moment where he appears to be emotionally desperate and distraught.

 

With his hands holding Zod’s head, Superman accesses the Kryptonian superman-yellingversion of our human darkness: a place that seems base, ignoble, gruesome, and irrationally violent. He snaps Zod’s neck, killing him instantly. The next moment is anything but alien: Superman slumps down to his knees, realizing the totality of his decision. He has ended life. He has made himself the last of his people. He has the hateful urges of a human and the Kryptonian powers to carry them out. He is truly alone.

 

 

Black-and-White Morality in a Post-9/11 Society

 

george-reeves-superman

Does morality evolve over time? Evolutionary psychologists say that our social history is full of shifts in morality—certain behaviors that were previously socially acceptable are now considered morally repugnant (think: acceptance of slavery). Likewise, particular behaviors in our society have been “amoralized” in that they are no longer associated with whether a person is good or bad (think: divorce). It isn’t absurd to believe that Superman’s moral code might adapt to the historical and political atmosphere (read: Superman: Red Son).

 

Yes, “times change.” But some argue that Superman doesn’t kill, no matter what the historical or cultural context. Because murder is always wrong. But when are there exceptions to this rule? When does killing seem justified? I ask the hard hypothetical question: If Superman could have prevented 9/11 by putting those specific criminals to death earlier that morning, would he? It’s not the right thing to do, but would he do it to save the thousands of civilian lives lost that day, in addition to the over 6,500 U.S. military casualties that were a result of the last 10 years of war?

 

Some people think it’s categorically wrong to kill, even if it saves more lives. Even if it brings good results, the act is wrong. This way to look at morality is called categorical moral reasoning. These people locate morality in our own actions, not in the consequences. Superman does not kill. Period. But there is a different way of moral reasoning: For many of us, the “right thing to do” depends on the consequences that will result from the action. This is an example of consequentialist moral reasoning. Superman may kill only if it means saving more lives. 

 

Psychologists and philosophers use the “Trolley problem” to help us further examine our moral code. Consider this scenario:

“ On your morning walk, you see a trolley car hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track, oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to throw the switch, killing one man to save five?”

Almost everyone who takes this test answers “yes.” Here is the second scenario:

“You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you. Should you throw the man off the bridge?”

 

In this scene, almost everybody says, “no.” It seems to be universally acceptable to pull a switch, but immoral to heave a man off the tracks. Even though the outcome would be the same: saving lives. In fact, some studies have shown that only people with psychological deficits would actually push the man. For example, patients who have blunted emotions because of brain damage think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. It’s a simple math problem. Scientists have yet to clarify why these two scenarios with the same outcome create very different emotional reactions in us. For more on the trolley problem watch this lecture from Harvard or read Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times.

 

Related to this quandary is our reaction to Man of Steel’s ending and the death of Zod, which some are saying is unnecessarily violent and “unlike Superman.” Yet it is in Superman II that Superman’s first onscreen face-off with Zod ends in similar fashion. At the end of that film, Superman kills Zod—after relieving the villain of his super powers—by lifting him up by the belt and throwing him into a gaping ravine within the Fortress of Solitude. (Note: Lois Lane also ends the life of Ursa by punching her into the same ravine, hesitating only to quip wise beforehand.) But Zod’s death in Man of Steel is qualitatively different, according to some Superman fans. Not unlike the trolley problem, we’re somehow distinguishing between these two acts of murder, despite the fact that the end result is the same: Superman kills Zod. But just like “pulling a lever” is qualitatively different than “showing someone,” we view “tossing someone into a rift” as different than “breaking someone’s neck” despite the outcome being identical. Ah, the brain. So crafty.

 

Individual Shifts in Morality

 

It isn’t far-fetched to believe that Superman bends his beliefs due to his experiences—especially those defined as traumatic. Traumas are characterized as events that involve life-threatening dangers, like natural disasters, accidents, violence, combat, and sexual assaults.

 

It also involves compromising one’s beliefs. When soldiers return from combat, we know that their tours of duty encompass the taking of lives. The actions they took to protect themselves and their armed colleagues against the enemy are undoubtedly seen as heroic in our society. They made sacrifices and put themselves in danger so that others could be safe. Some soldiers, however, have very different individual responses to the environment of war. A veteran suffering from PTSD once told me he thought of taking his own life because “I took someone else’s life. This means I’m a bad person, and I can’t live with that anymore.” His violent actions, though justified in the context of battle, do not fit in the social atmosphere of his civilian life where killing is wrong. Here, we have a shifting sense of morality. In fact, psychiatrists who work with veterans are now defining something called moral injury, when a person experiences debilitating levels of guilt and shame that stem from “a betrayal of what’s right” in a high-stakes, dangerous, or life threatening situation. Maybe my patient killed someone or was ordered to kill. Maybe my patient could have stopped an atrocity but did not. His decision has a huge impact on the entirety of his sense of moral self—when a moral injury occurs, a person’s beliefs, ideals, and attitudes can shift.

 

drowning

 

I don’t work in a black and white world. I have to look in the eyes of a person who has killed another person during their tour and say to them, “you did the right thing. You did the best you could do in the situation YOU were in.” And I must believe this. Because I know we are complex enough to feel sorrowful, guilty, and morally right. This is what I mean by moral realism in Man of Steel. When we watch Superman kill Zod, we are unsettled, discomforted, provoked, and morally torn. I can imagine the Superman of the second movie, where he is living with his decision, knowing what it is like to kill, and being determined to rigidify that moral line so that he never has to do something reprehensible again. He has achieved a deeply personal and emotional knowledge about himself, and can never unknow it. From this deep intrapersonal knowledge, he would want to be a better citizen and hero. That is the Superman I want to see in the next chapter.

“It’s not Superman the tongue-in-cheek cartoon character we’re connecting with; we’re connecting with something very basic: the ability to overcome obstacles, the ability to persevere, the ability to understand difficulty and to turn your back on it.”

- Christopher Reeve

Superman-Man-of-Steel

 

If Superman is to teach us something about ourselves, it’s that being virtuous and honorable is not easy. And he teaches us that today’s world asks all of us, all human beings, to face difficult decisions about sacrifice, justice, and suffering. Other movies about Superman ask whether the world needs Superman. Man of Steel asks whether Superman needs us. And, after experiencing what we do—the loss, the grief, the impact of our own evil–Superman answers with a resounding “yes.”

 

 

24 Responses to “The Psychology of the Man of Steel: Should Today’s Superman Be More Morally Realistic?”

  1. I loved your comment on how Clark behaves as he does because he is not yet Superman- that what we (as an audience) are witnessing is him BECOMING Superman. It’s a different story than we’ve seen on screen before, and the main crux I focused on when I wrote about it.

  2. James says:

    This was a treat to read. I enjoyed Man of Steel for various reasons, chief among them though was Kal’s emotional struggles.
    The 3rd act I felt left open a number of repercussions and questions to be asked about both the scale of the destruction and lives lost in the battle; could their have been a better way? Did Kal really do all he could to limit the destruction? Should he have been held to account for the events that transpired? Both the people of Metropolis and Kal himself should have to explore these questions. How Kal moves forward, in the event of a sequel, will retroactively elevate or denigrate Kal’s actions and decisions in the Man of Steel in my opinion.

    On a jovial note, I also think he needs to learn to land without cratering every road, sidewalk underfoot. Serious property damage that could be mitigated by not coming to the ground at the speed of sound.

    • Andrea says:

      I agree about the property damage– folks are telling me that no lives were lost when those massive buildings went down (still, hard for me to believe), but those are gonna be some big bills.

      • Batt says:

        Excellent read!

        On the never ending subject of property damage,this is a guy that pretty much just learned to fly, and has never had the chance to use his powers to their extent. Of course he isn’t going to make a soft landing. He still has to learn how to do that yet.

        As a kid learning to ride a bike we all went crashing into the ground a few times, simply because we didn’t know how to ride correctly. After a while though, you certainly figured it out.

        This may be a 75 year old character with everyone saying “Oh he wouldn’t do this or that.” You have to remember that he is only 33 in the film, and has had zero “battles”. The hardest thing he has done so far is watch his Dad get gobbled up by a twister. The emotional turmoil he felt after snapping his neck was enough to show me he understood what he had done.

        • Andrea says:

          I agree. In fact, he’s had so much pent up anger and frustration from NOT fighting back that one might say he’s uncontrollable. And that’s clearly a flaw. Which is OK by me.

  3. [...] “Should Today’s Superman Be More Morally Realistic?” [...]

  4. Easily the best article to help people reason and understand what happened in Man of Steel.

    Thank you for this.

  5. Steve Kasan says:

    Thank you Andrea for writing this article. I thoroughly enjoyed Man of Steel, twice and an upcoming third time I will add. When I read all the detractors for this film I ask myself “did you even watch the same film as I did?”
    It appears that viewers have already made their minds up about what Superman they want to see and not the Superman that is brought to screen by Snyder & Goyer.
    The great thing about these characters is that they are open to interpretation. Nolan’s Batman is not the definitive Batman. Nor, was Raimi’s Spider-Man the Spider-Man as Marc Webb has his own take on it.
    These films are adaptations.
    Thank you for writing this article. The purpose of this film is the eventual lead up to Clark/Kal becoming Superman.
    Thank you again for writing this, because, now I can just send this wonderful piece to anyone.

    • Andrea says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, Steve! I’m glad to see that someone else believes Supes is undergoing important change and development in this film!

      • Steve Kasan says:

        And, I would like to add to your reply, understanding for supes. In the film he does ask “What must I do?” to Jor-El and is kept on being reminded of who he wants to be from Pa Kent. Supes has the capacity for good it just he is influenced to reach that point.
        Oh, now I have seen it for a 4th. Take my $ MoS

  6. Playhouse says:

    One thing to consider in the comparison with ‘Superman II’ is that in the 1980 film, Superman “killing” Zod is the result of unfortunate editing. As identified in the original script and in subsequent versions of the film that reinsert edited footage, Superman drops Zod down a trench into water and Zod, Ursa, and Non are later shown being arrested for their crimes. The original script, when ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Superman II’ were distinctly two parts of one larger movie story, had the world-turning time-reversal bit as the ending of the second film not the first. Superman reverses time back to the point that Zod, Ursa, and Non were never released from the Phantom Zone, preserving their lives and preventing their destruction on Earth.

    I bring up these points because as written and originally filmed, Superman’s intent in ‘Superman II’ was never to kill Zod and the Kryptonians. Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, and the other actors never played the scene with this intent in mind. This was ambiguously edited after the fact, and by the hands of a different director. Whereas, in ‘Man of Steel,’ Superman’s killing of Zod is unequivocally intended, whatever rationalizations or justifications aside. This makes for quite a different response in the mind, even though the surface visible outcome appears to be that Superman “kills” Zod in both films.

    • Andrea says:

      Thanks for the comment. I’m actually familiar with the Donner cut, have seen it and even prefer it to Richard Lester’s theatrical release! However, one thing must be considered; we have to judge the movies as they’re released, not as they were originally intended when written or even shot. The death of Zod isn’t the only problem one could have with the Superman character of Superman and Superman II. Take away the fact that Zod is “killed,” along with Non and Ursa, and you’re still left with the fact that Superman chooses the love of Lois Lane over the entire planet of Earth and gives up his Kryptonian powers. You’ve also got the fact that upon the retrieval of his powers and after doing away with the evil Kryptonians, Superman goes back to the diner where he was severely beaten and exacts revenge on the man that did the beating. By the way, while that man was responsible for bullying the others in the diner, Clark is actually the one that starts the original fight that gets him so messed up by suggesting the two “step outside” AFTER the bully has completed his wooing of Lois. We can also point toward the fact that Superman makes love with Lois Lane, and in BOTH cuts of the film, takes the memory of it away from her without her consent. In Donner’s cut, he turns back time, so that it “never happened.” But to Supes, it did. And he knows it did. And in Lester’s cut, Clark clears her memory with a kiss. This cut is a bit more sinister, in that, the event still happens, only Lois doesn’t remember. None of these decisions are in line with the Superman character we’ve been given throughout the years, and yet, it’s given a pass. I’m one of those people that assert that Christopher Reeve embodies Superman the best–to many, he is the Superman they know and love. The Superman that abandoned the Earth. The Superman that caused the woman he loves to forget a VERY intimate shared encounter, for the purpose of ultimately protecting his identity and ensuring that he won’t choose her over the sake of the planet again. The Superman that returns to a small diner and bullies a bully, not with words, but with brute force with the knowledge that he absolutely cannot lose, and in doing so, does a bit of property damage after the owners of the diner have already stated that they just had it all fixed (yes, he pays for it, but that’s hardly the point, is it?). This is the Superman held in the highest regard, rather than a Superman faced with the decision of allowing Zod to live and risking the deaths of more people or killing him to further ensure the safety of the planet–and people–he’s come to love and respect over his 33 years

  7. bump says:

    I’m a little concerned by the level of detail you included about your patient, including directly quoting him. Is he aware of this article and did he consent to have his experience shared? Although there are no identifying details to a stranger like me, it seems as if there is enough detail that he would recognize himself in the story.

    • Andrea says:

      I appreciate your thoughts and I did not intend for anyone to feel uncomfortable with mentions of experiences that I have with patients. The idea there is to help people understand through real situations and to give a voice to the people that are often misunderstood or not heard as much. I will assure you, however, that I adhere to the American Psychological Association’s code of conduct and that I always ensure that I take reasonable precautions to protect information and identities obtained through my professional relationships. This ALWAYS includes de-identifying individuals by removing any personally identifyable information (code 4.07) but it also can include changing aspects and characteristics so that they are reasonably disguised. In this particular situation I actually took a sentiment that was shared to me DOZENS of times by different persons and applied it to one example so as to get my point across. Please do let me know if you have additional questions.

  8. Brandon says:

    Great analysis. As someone who didn’t enjoy Man of Steel, you make me want to watch it again with a few of your points in mind.

    For me, personally, I didn’t feel the desperation in the final scene (where Kal delivers the coup de grace). It wasn’t like he spent the entire fight trying to save people while slugging it out, slowly losing ground while growing more and more desperate until he’s pushed to this terrible act. I think the fault here is in production-in how their powers are perceived. They basically they just pound on each other for nearly 45 minutes with hardly any ill effects in sight. How can we really feel that Superman is in a bad place if we aren’t shown physical effects of the fighting. Any fan out there knows that Superman can be hit hard enough to get a black eye just like the rest of us. It may not be black in an hour or a day, but still, there are beings out there that can physically harm him. No visible evidence of physical pain or trauma makes me question just how psychologically strained he could have been when he pulled the trigger, so to speak. I liked the fallout of the action, but I don’t feel that they built toward the act well enough.

    Also, are we being easy on Superman in comparing him to combat soldiers? Really, he and other vigilantes are running around making citizen’s arrests. They’re not soldiers or police officers. They may have taken a oath to defend the weak and uphold society, but they have no official santion to do so. I see the “no killing” rule as more of a PR necessity than anything else. Yes, they have power to deal with threats that society can’t cope with, and they are allowed to operate because they have value in that. But if a superhero starts killing could that damage his image? If they start being mistrusted or feared, then how long before their society turns on them?

  9. Carlos says:

    I’m a little latfaboritevparty but it was a great read.

    Recently I’ve begun to look at superheroes in a differeown brand light, especiallly after seeing Man of Steel. I wasn’t really bothered with the killing of Zod because, according to my moral code, the ends justified the means. Let the flaming begin.

    Seriously though, I was more bothered with his apparent disregard for property. The amount of property damage in this film was ridiculous. To the point that I found myself wondering if Earth and Metropolis would have been better off if Kal had never been sent here. Zod only came to Earth after Kal set off a distress signal that reached Zod, there by informing him of Kal’s location.

    But beyond that, I thought of the legal standing of a costumed, unregulated, and possibly unhinged individual exacting justice on criminals. Legally and technically speaking, “heroes” are just as criminal as the criminals they beat up and apprehend. I think the only reason we give them a pass is because they often DON’T kill the bad guys. Still doesn’t change the fact that they basically assult criminals, there by making them victims. I’m sure it’s already been done, but I’d like to see more stories where the villain goes to court and gets off because of a lack of evidence, because the “hero” destroyed evidence in the process of appreciation.

    But consider that we have heroes like ThePunisher or Wolverine (At one time, my favorite comic book character), whose whole MO is dispatching criminals and villains with their own brand of justice. Wolverine is still immensely popular,dispite over saturation (how many monthly titles and teams can one guy be in? See also: Deadpool).

    I guess it really comes down to to accountability in the end, for me.

    I still enjoy reading comics but I hesitate to think that these type of heroics would fly well in the real world. Especially when it comes to the lost of life and property. I guess one good example would be Hancock, which although is not one of W. Smith’s best, perfectly illustrates how a “super” could garner hate from the general public for being catless and reckless with his actions/powers.

    I hesitate to go back and read what I wrote cause I’m sure I was ranting for a bit there. I hope you can make sense of it though.

    • Andrea says:

      Thank you for your thoughts– if anything, I was hoping to generate some provoking discussions around the theme of morality and why we’re so bothered by Superman’s decisions, and how we can reconcile our feelings about it. (for what it’s worth, I wasn’t bothered as much about Zod, either, because he was on a path to more destruction. It’s like choosing between evils).

      Regarding the property destruction, that did seem on the verge of… sensationalistic? Excessive? Very Hollywood.

      I would also love to have more discussions about anti-heroes like the Punisher, Deadpool and Wolvie. These characters can be fascinating as well, given their muddy moral codes.

      Again, thank you for your thoughts. More to come, I promise!!

  10. Brian Ervin says:

    While I enjoy, appreciate, and agree with a lot of what was written here, I actually think ‘Man of Steel’ did more to ESTABLISH Superman’s “No Killing”-code than undermine, corrupt, or set it aside.

    You pointed out that he killed Zod nonchalantly in ‘Superman II,’ and the only emotional fallout to follow was having to breakup with Lois for unrelated reasons. (You probably realize that in the Richard Donner cut, they show the police carting Zod and Co. away in the end, incidentally. Others have commented that they fell into the Phantom Zone in the theatrical cut. At any rate… it’s an open question of whether Superman did, indeed, execute them.)

    But, the comic books themselves set the precedent for a Superman who kills, albeit reluctantly, and at great personal cost. In the early Post-Crisis John Byrne stories, he executes the “pocket dimension” Phantom Zone criminals with kryptonite after they eradicated all life on the pocket-D alternate earth, leaving him as the sole representative of law and order. Just like in ‘MoS,’ the decision haunts him and traumatizes him, causing him to develop a split personality in the form of his alter-ego of the violent vigilante Gang-Buster. Upon realizing his condition, he exiles himself from earth and eventually comes to terms with himself and his powers through the course of being forced to fight in the Warworld gladiatorial arena, and encountering the Cleric from Krypton, who entrusts him with the kryptonian artifact, the Eradicator.

    Anyway, the point is– by showing the difficulty of the decision and the toll it took on him, ‘MoS’ (and the John Byrne story) emphatically establishes that, while unavoidable in some circumstances, killing is so powerfully contrary to Superman’s inborn moral code that it causes him severe psychological damage when he is forced by circumstances to do it…

    So, I do think ‘Man of Steel’ is morally realistic– not by “outgrowing” Superman’s “No Killing” code, but by showing how it plays out in realistic (flying aliens with heat vision notwithstanding) circumstances. It’s analogous to how Peter Parker learned that “With Great Power comes Great Responsibility” by using his powers irresponsibility at first, and seeing the consequences…

  11. Brian Ervin says:

    Also, in the ‘Justice League’ animated series, Superman is practically rabid to kill Darkseid, because of the threat he’d proven to represent to earth (and for personal reasons). The tacit understanding for fans was, “Wow– Superman, who ‘absolutely’ will not kill, will make an exception for Darkseid: Darkseid must be a bad mo’fo.’”

    The story didn’t *set aside* Superman’s moral code– it revolved around it, and used it to communicate the stakes.

  12. Piper says:

    Thank you for the article. It helped me understand myself much more succinctly. As a kid, we did an exercise at school where we named each other after super heros. I thought I was Batman who just happened to have the perfect childhood without the murder. My classmates suggested Superman. I didn’t like that because superman seemed too boring. Clearly I’ve always been attracted to the Gray. It only now occurred to me that I was attracted to the Red.
    There is a Zen concept called The Red Thread that has to do with the relationship between humans and impulse/ temptation. It suggests that the traditional religious and social structure asks us to deal with temptation by avoiding it. That can be fantastic for the alcoholic, or abysmal for the tortured Catholic priest. It probably depends on the nature of the passion you intend to suppress and whether or not there are alternative outlets.
    The Red Thread concept in Zen teaches that we do not sever this current of passion, but rather we inspect it and cultivate it. We must learn to indulge in our impulses responsibly!
    Until I read this article, I thought I was probably a happy Batman who lacked some of the intensity but made up for it with a power to see the Red Thread in myself and others. Now I understand that differently. The ability to see the Red Thread is perhaps “Heat Sensing”.

    One build on this is that Trauma can be understood differently. It may not have to be bad, so long as it delivers the same awareness and results in the same effect of breaking the relationship with Categorical Moral Reasoning, and forging a new one with Consequentialist Moral Reasoning. I think morality is the meeting point of the heart and the head (I am not versed in psychology). But if you separate the heart and the head and then present yourself with a highly moral choice, you can accomplish the same trauma effect in a place that is much less harsh. It comes from following your logic without listening to your heart and then re-combining those two forces in your self-analysis. That’s how I have stumbled into a new understanding of love/sex based morality. It’s a balance of logic and empathy.

    I’m treating this comment thread like the shrink I never had :) let me know if you have any suggestions for someone in San Francisco who wants to talk to a debatable hypo-manic with a Consequentialist Moral Structure. I like your plans for the sequel and agree, because I’m quite certain it’s where I’m heading next.!

  13. atypicaloracle says:

    I think you can just as strongly indicate that, by refusing to even attempt to mitigate the horrific damage that a battle with another Kryptonian could cause – read the Watson Technical Consulting on how many trillions of dollars in damage the fight caused, along with thousands dead or missing and maybe as many as a million wounded – there are indications that we are not watching the birth of a superhero, but the birth of a supervillain. The rest of the world is not going to welcome this alien being in the cape with open arms. They’re going to hate him, attack him – no matter how pointlessly, as demonstrated when US armed forces leveled Smallville to no effect (incidentally, Superman punched Zod into his own hometown rather than into any other unoccupied direction) – and revile him. Superman didn’t save Metropolis. He leveled it. The Kryptonians gutted that city. The world is going to see an alien invader, and that alien invader wears a red cape and a small, hard-to-see “S-shield” on his chest.

    At least, in a morally realistic world, that is the reception the guy who leveled an analog to New York City would get.

  14. Fanatic-Templar says:

    I’m sorry, while I respect the thought that was put into this article, I completely disagree with your conclusions.

    You praise Man of Steel as being more realistic for not being black and white, but I have to ask how you came to this conclusion. The climactic ‘moral dilemma’ is a choice between either killing a genocidal world-conquering maniac who is trying to murder a stereotypically innocent family even as we speak, and letting that innocent family die. He has no other choice. This isn’t Kal-El thinking that he *could* stop Zod somehow, but there’s a risk he might escape and resumed his genocidal plans so the world is safer if he’s dead. No, those are the only two choices Kal-El has, and they are obviously not morally equivalent. There is a blatantly right choice and a blatantly wrong choice. What else is this but black and white morality? Just because the ‘white’ in question is not the platonic ideal of ‘white’ does not confer any kind of complexity to the issue. And it is not realistic in the slightest – the world is not filled with simplistic moral dichotomies. You need only look at the ‘black’ in that ‘dilemma’ – still every bit as cartoonishly evil as you could ever wish for, mixing both the ‘take over the world!’ and the ‘kill all of humanity!’ that you could expect. I suppose he didn’t rob a bank, so there’s that. But no, I see neither depth nor realism in this situation.

    Then there’s “Man of Steel asks whether Superman needs us. And, after experiencing what we do—the loss, the grief, the impact of our own evil–Superman answers with a resounding “yes.””

    I don’t see how you can arrive at this conclusion at all. Despite what you’ve written, I never saw Kal-El grow as a character at all. His morality doesn’t develop, it is merely replaced. Human-Dad taught him self-preservation at all costs, even if innocents must suffer for it. That code of selfishness and cowardice is adopted whole-heartedly by the Superpuppet, it is only replaced when he meets his Space-Dad who tells him to help and inspire humanity instead, and the Superpuppet adopts this whole-heartedly too. But aside from the non-character of Kal-El, what this tells us is that in this universe, humanity taught Kal-El self-centredness and fear, whilst inhumanity taught him altruism and courage. It’s pretty clear that Kal-El would have been better off if he’d never encountered humanity, and the opposite is also true, since Zod would not have come and decimated one of the world’s largest cities.

    Most importantly though, you say this Superman teaches us that “being virtuous and honorable is not easy. And he teaches us that today’s world asks all of us, all human beings, to face difficult decisions about sacrifice, justice, and suffering.”

    I hate this movie for the exact opposite reason. This is a movie that condescends to me. That insults me. I’ve already pointed out that this movie has no moral complexity. At all. I don’t think anybody would have faced Kal-El’s choice of killing the genocidal world-conquering maniac or letting innocents die and been undecided (except Jonathan Kent, who think that he should “maybe” let the innocents die) or opted on Zod’s side (except for Clark Kent, who is fine with letting his innocent father die even if it doesn’t cost anybody else their lives).

    More importantly, I can understand why you would like to see these things in the movie, since it obviously makes it far less of an atrocity than it is, but there is no sign that the movie wanted to be ambiguous. There is no trace of irony in Kal-El claiming that his ‘S’ stand for ‘hope’ or Jor-El declaring that his son will be an inspiration to us all and guide humanity to greatness. More importantly, there is absolutely no sign that this movie considers the death of Jonathan Kent to be a moral error on Clark’s part, as you claim it to be. Later in the movie, Clark will tell Lois that his father died believing that the world was not ready for him, asking her not to reveal his secret identity. By agreeing, Lois validates Clark’s decision. Yes, Clark, you did the right thing by letting your father die from easily preventable causes. This is morally repugnant. I’m more moral than this movie’s Superman, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

    I noticed something similar years ago when I watched the movie version of The Return of the King, when Frodo decides to trust Gollum over Sam and sends the latter away. In the commentary, it was explained that they decided to have Frodo make such a stupid decision because they thought the audience wouldn’t be able to relate to Frodo. I suspect this is much the same. The characters, the moral issues, the narrative, everything is incredibly simplistic. And it’s not like Superman is known for complexity. But the difference here, the “realism” is that this simplistic caricature is not *aspirational*. The movie seems dedicated to the notion that their Kal-El is every bit the moral paragon that Superman is supposed to be, without forcing him to above and beyond what normal people do commonly. A ton of humans have watched innocents suffer or die because they were too afraid or confused to intervene. A ton of humans have killed people for the greater good. Hell, I know some personally. And this movie has a Superman that’s no different, except he’s still the paragon of hope that will guide humanity to paradise. And look! He’s just like you!

    Because this movie didn’t think it’s audience could handle the idea that they could be any better than they already are. It’s blatant pandering to supplement it’s destruction porn. It’s not trying to make Superman more complex, it’s trying to make him the same as every other bloody action movie, because it believes it’s audience are completely incapable of handling anything remotely different.

    What an awful movie.

Leave a Reply