SPOILERS FOR "MAN OF STEEL" AND DC COMICS "JUSTICE LEAGUE" #22; TURN AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW.
A few weeks ago, a rift appeared in the center of fandom, and it all stems back to one movie scene: Superman snapping Zod’s neck in "Man of Steel." For my money, it was an awful, heartbreaking moment that you can read about in full here. But with "Man of Steel’s" box office success, it was only a short amount of time before Supes was neck-snap happy in the comics, too.
In the comic, Superman has been taken over by a villainous force. How, or why hasn’t exactly been revealed as of yet (it’s just the first part of a longer storyline). Without his knowledge, and against his will, he uses his heat vision to murder the two-issues-old Dr. Light, who was just trying to talk to him (and then lost control of his powers, blasting Superman's girlfriend in the face, but I digress). It’s an event that kicks off a massive fight between multiple superhero teams, because comics, that’s why – and while Superman is a full participant in that fight, there’s some bits that make this different than the "MoS" moment:
- Most of the issue is spent talking about how basically good Superman is. One mystical character even says there isn’t a shred of badness in him.
- There’s a scene where Wonder Woman talks about killing her enemies. Superman avoids the discussion (since they’re dating, and AWKWARD), but it’s pretty clear he stands against the idea.
- It’s also very clear, after Superman kills Dr. Light, that he had no idea it was happening, or how the dead body ended up in his arms… And is wracked with guilt for a full panel before Martian Manhunter starts beating the crap out of him.
- This was all the machinations of The Outsider, the leader of the Secret Society of Super Villains (who I incorrectly guessed the identity of a few weeks ago I’M SO SORRY).
So while in "MoS," Superman lets out a scream of primal rage after executing Zod, he’s pretty much fine a scene later, happily trying to murder members of the US Army by tossing satellites at them. There’s also no point in "Man of Steel" where it’s established that Superman WON’T kill – so when he does, it’s not like it goes against his ethical moral code, at least to our knowledge.
Now granted, you can make the argument that because the comics have so firmly established that Superman does not kill, writer Geoff Johns has to address the moment in a way that makes the continuity work. But I think there’s something even deeper going on here, and these parallel moments illustrate the massive divide between comic books and movies.
In a way, it’s almost like Johns – one of the main architects in the DC Universe, and a major consultant on the other DC entertainment arms – is responding specifically to "Man of Steel." Yes, he has Superman kill a man, and Johns has frequently shown in comics he has no qualms maiming or killing characters to make a moment hit. But here, we get what comics are best at: the physical representation of an esoteric concept.
By the end of the book, massive amounts of superheroes are (irony alert) at war over the idea that superheroes can kill. The Justice League of America was expressly set up with the idea that at some point the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc.) would step over the line. When Superman does, they literally fight for their beliefs. The Justice League, on the other hand is ostensibly standing in for the idea that killing is justifiable. In the middle, though, is the idea that only villains kill, and they have to be the ones behind Superman’s one-man murder spree.
Is this a bad thing for DC? Should they be syncing up the idea that Superman kills when necessary, set up in the movies and followed through in the comics? I don’t think so… I can’t imagine many viewers came out of "Man of Steel," went to pick up "Justice League," and were bummed out that Superman wasn’t suddenly The Punisher.
And what if Superman kills again? What if this was Johns breaking the seal, so to speak? I think that’s worth it’s own discussion, if it happens, but I don’t think that’s the point here. I’m drawing connections where none may exist, but I chose to read these sequence of events as:
1) "Man of Steel" says Superman kills when necessary.
2) DC Comics says he doesn’t – that it’s never, ever necessary for a good person to kill.
I don’t think it’ll be a shocker to say that I definitely side with the latter over the former, and I hope due to the outcry that "Man of Steel 2: The Streets" takes its cue from Johns and company. I’m not hopeful though. Because there’s another rift in fandom; between movie fans, and comic book fans. To make broad strokes and probably incorrect judgments, comic book fans are often a naïve lot. In the best comics, there’s still a sense of hope, that the heroes will always win out if they’re good enough.
That’s been eradicated from movies. Purely good characters don’t exist there anymore, or tank at the box office. We want our heroes – even the best, like Superman – conflicted, gritty, dark. That’s where the money is, so movies will keep going in that direction. It’ll change at some point, sure. But for the time being, I’m glad that comics are drawing that line in the sand, saying that killing is wrong… Even if the movies aren’t.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of MTV Geek.