Superman as Necessary Agent of Current Zeitgeist or Something More?: Zack Snyder’s Weak Defense for Superman Killing

In a recent Q&A with Zack Snyder, Michael Shannon (Gen. Zod), Henry Cavill (Superman), and Amy Adams (Lois Lane) on Yahoo hosted by Kevin Smith, a young woman asks “why have Superman kill” when it goes against the common assumption? Snyder and Shannon address this issue and question, but not as directly as say, someone like me, would want.


Snyder specifically points out that this notion, this


…idea of Superman never taking a life is a notion that has come from ‘the way he’s been popularized in movies and television. That “rule” doesn’t exist in the comics — in the comics, he’s actually killed Zod a couple of times. In the comics he’s more of a “practical” hero — his aversion to killing won’t stop him from doing it if it’s the only solution. (“11 Super Things We Learned…”)


This is where I feel like he goes off track for me … in a big way. Now, I am not disputing this kind of particular interpretation of Superman. Part of me completely understands and accepts the rights of filmmakers to bring their own interpretation to characters. However, I have some problems with his justification he puts forth here.


First, I can accept the idea that the idea of Superman “not killing” as being popularized by his depictions in radio, television, and movies over the last the years. I am perfectly willing to accept this idea, however, I disagree with the notion that the “rule” does not exist in the comic books. I disagree not on any particular grounds – since Snyder offers up no real examples of Superman basically committing justifiable homicide in order to be practical – but Snyder appears to be exploiting a lack of a “letter” of the rule to the “spirit” of the rule that has existed in Superman since his earliest conceptions in modern comic book mythos. Superman, as a character, was created to embody the paradigm of human ability and spirit. The idea that such a paradigm would intentionally kill represents a rather poor critique of humanity I feel. Superman may have not saved those who were his enemies, but Superman’s ethos lies in his ability, because he has extraordinary abilities, to find better ways than killing – this is part of his “spirit.


Superheroes who “kill” stop being superheroes and become vigilantes instead. Now, it is obvious and Snyder admits that they intentionally forced Superman into a situation where it was Zod or the innocent family. When they did this though, I feel, they are attempting to apply modern, post-9/11 zeitgeist incorrectly upon a character in order to force identification with an audience. However, this forced identification with the audience in fact poisons the well for what Superman stands for. It poisons his ability to inspire by forcing him into a moment of human weakness.


Now, what I just said: “It poisons his ability to inspire by forcing him into a moment of human weakness” is not meant to say that I do not think one can depict Superman in this manner if it is what is needed – and from some I have spoken to, it worked – to have modern young people really identify with Superman. This Superman is a reflection it brings to our modern world. However, I am put off by the shallow attempt that Snyder made to deflect such a depiction by using the comic book medium that spawned Superman as his weak defense.


Michael Shannon noted that, as he saw it, he was not surprised that Superman had to kill Zod and he did not see why people took issue with it. Snyder then notes, as pointed out above, that he sees Superman as a “‘practical’ hero.” Its not surprising to me that he calls Superman a “hero” and not a superhero because the version he has created is no longer really “super” because of the interpretation he has undertaken. He continues by noting that Superman looks for solutions and this was the only one available to him. Again, I take issue that this is a mishandling of Superman as a character. This is lowering of what he can be. I understand the need to do this in a practical sense, but Superman is not a “‘practical’ hero” as Snyder notes, he is something far far more than that.


Superman, in the comic books, is a character with many layers and dimensions. Comic book continuity has been twisted and turned, rewritten and evolved in ways where the mere navigation of it is less like taking a ride down the Mississippi River as it is navigating rivers and rapids of the entire United States in order to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean – a trying and difficult undertaking. To simply skate over the justification Snyder makes by deflecting at the comic books feels rather insulting and demeaning to the comic book medium itself. This is the heart of my problem with his statement – the arrogance of it.


Without those lowly “comic book creators,” those bullied boys from Cleveland, Ohio who dreamed up Superman, Snyder would not have the material he has to work with. I want to think he has more respect for the comic book medium, but his rather passé answer does leave me with that impression. Many comic book writers, among them Mark Waid (who know Superman as a character far better than Snyder), have had problems with this ending. If Snyder wanted to make a better case, simply making what felt like a lazy deflection to complicated comic book continuity was not a well thought out choice.


Superman, the spirit and essence of him, is not some simple plot device that when you find it difficult to utilize you short curcit the situation in order to make it play “your way.” If you want to deal with the character then you need to understand what the character is and what it can be. You are playing with the raw material, the mythos and essence of culture and ideals – take a bit more care before you use it like some kind of supped up wrecking ball Snyder.


Now, Snyder hinted at elements, ones he should have lead with, that these actions demonstrated by Superman in Man of Steel will have repurcussions. The article notes that “Snyder also hinted at the possibility of Kal-El facing the repercussions of taking Zod’s life in the next film” and I’ll be curious to see what he comes up with (“11 Super Things We Learned…”). Ultimately, this all flows down to the fact that many times those who are appropriating characters like Superman are doing so without really and strongly reaching an understanding of the character and what it was that both created them and has allowed them to endure. Failing to do this and then appearing dismissive to those forces really does not help one appear to be the kind of stewart I can feel confident in having control over such an iconic character.



Works Cited


Enk, Bryan “11 Super Things We Learned from the ‘Man of Steel’ Live Fan Q&A Event” Movies Blog. 9 Nov 2013. Web. 10 Nov 2013.


Attempting to Map the Changes in Superman over 75 years…

Major Changeover Moments in the History of Superman

Golden Age: 1938 – 1950

Silver Age: 1956 – 1970

Bronze Age: 1970 – 1985

Modern Age: 1985 – 2001

Post-Modern Age: 2002 – Present (my assertion, my take on our current “age”)

So, trying to figure out how to approach the history of Superman’s changes, I have started compiling an overview of those changes. This is my first go.

In addition, I am working on looking at how in our “Post-Modern Age” the Superman we know is changing, again, and the changes are creating a rift between attempts to reinvent Superman and a Superman that modern audiences “identify” with.


So, here we go, and we start Superman as a villain:

Science Fiction #3 (1933) – The Super-Man as Supervillain

Interestingly, this Superman is a villain who reforms and looks a lot like Lex



Birth of a hero from the imagination of Siegel and Schuster, sons of Jewish immigrants, brings to life a child’s escape fantasy and hero who works outside the law to stop those who would take advantage or persecute the weak.

Birth of Superman – Action Comics #1 (1938)

Taking Flight and other powers – Superman #10 on (1941 and on)


Broadening of Superman and his identity, spreading out from his expansion into Radio, TV, and Newspapers from Golden Age Expansion and additions to his essence and powers incorporated

First Major Relaunch – Superman #113 (1957)

-Birth name Kal-El given

-Building on his history

-Introduction (up to 1961) of new elements: Bizarro, Brainiac, Gen. Zod, Bottle —City of Kandor, new krytonites, and Supergirl

-Fortress of Solitude

-Knew Luthor in Smallville as kids


Reinvention of Superman evolves along storylines that attempt to modify and reinvent Superman’s essence, his powers, and redefine him in a new direction away from Silver Age conception. Some interpretations lead to notions of Superman as “boy scout” and government stooge.

No more Kryptonite – Denny O’Neil run (1971)

Return to kryptonite – after O’Neil run (1973)

Christopher Reeve’s depiction of Superman in Superman the Motion Picture

1986 Man of Steel revamp – John Byrne mini-series

-powers emerged until late teens-

-rewrite mythology

-did not know Luthor in Smallville

-Got rid of phantom zone, fortress of solitude, and Supergirl and Krypto

-Power levels lowered – vulnerable

-New realism, darker

Depiction in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns


Attempts to generate identification with character lead to experiments with death, marital life, and evolution of the character into more science fiction like re-modification

Death of Superman (1992)

Marriage to Lois Lane

Electric – energy Superman


A period re-identification and new attempts to reinvent Superman within both traditional and updated retro-continuity surrounding Superman’s essence, identity, and relevance

Mark Waid’s Superman Birthright (2003)

-Return to Pre-Crisis mythos

-Return of Silver Age elements

Mark Miller’s twist in Superman: Red Son (2003)

Morrison’s exploration of Superman’s end in All-Star Superman (2005-8)

New 52 Relaunch of 2011

Snyder and Goyer’s Man of Steel Movie