There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the ending of the Man of Steel. If you have not seen it yet, I highly recommend watching it before reading this post; it has a lot of spoilers. If you have seen it already, keep reading more past the jump.
So a lot of people got their feathers ruffled about Superman killing Zod. At first, I did to, even . But after taking 4 days to process and ponder, I came to a few realizations. The first one I had was immediate; Killing Zod bothered me a lot, yet it made sense and fit with both what I understood of Superman and Zod, and with the story they had crafted. But it still bothered me deeply. It took me some time to figure out why.
It bothered me because there was not enough character development to lead into it, to show how difficult and excruciating a decision it was for him, and there was also nowhere near enough focus on the emotionally devastating aftermath for Kal El. First, I’ll go into the lead in that was lacking.
First off, though I did think Kevin Cosner did a good job as Johnathan Kent, I feel that his part was far to limited and there was nowhere near enough dialogue with him teaching good values to Clark. This is a key part of the character development of Superman I feel that the movie lacked in. There were tons of artistic shots, lots of quietly emotional scenes, but these were such a huge focus that it took away from the lessons that Clark got growing up on the farm that made him the hero he grew into. This might not seem terribly important, but it is; it establishes where Clark learned to value life, respect, honor, and “The American Way.” The few scenes with Pa Kent barely scratch on it or simply are Pa trying to tell Clark why he needs to hide his gifts, even if it means the deaths of other people, including himself. These lessons drastically conflict with what he does after finding the Kryptonian scout ship, and in how he deals with Zod initially, yet there is no internal conflict shown from Clark that would match these two very opposed outlooks.
What should have been done for the movie was more dialogue between Pa Kent and Clark, of Pa teaching Clark valuable morality lessons about respect, kindness, hard work, and what it means to be free in the USA. These are what Superman would later stand for, and are lessons that Jor El’s teachings would mirror; the bridges between Humanity and Krypton. It’s these common values that make Superman the hero he is, and what give him that sense of place in the world, even with his own planet being gone. It gives him a kinship with Humanity that is vital to the character, and is one of the things that is in every primary incarnation of the character. This movie, unfortunately, fails to deliver this.
Then there is Pa Kent’s death. In the movie, Pa Kent dies in a tornado rather than let his superhuman son save his life, because he insisted that the secret being kept was a higher priority than his own life. That is a pretty huge lesson for Clark, and a key moment in the movie. But this lesson, again, is in direct opposition to what Jor El will teach him later.
In the comic books, however, Pa Kent has died or been dead in many re-writes of the Superman story, but it has almost always been from a natural cause, the most popular being a heart attack. This gives Clark a VERY different lesson. It teaches him that Humanity is fragile, and even his amazing gifts are not enough to change that. Their time on this Earth is limited, and they need to make the best of it; he cannot stop death, but he can protect what life they have, and he can help lead them to enjoy what time they have in peace and co-operation. He learns to use his powers to protect humanity, even from themselves, and to improve the quality of life they have. They are a young and delicate species in need of guidance and protection, and Superman takes on the job of doing both those things. These lessons he learns both from the life and the death of Pa Kent, and those vital characteristics are not portrayed anywhere in this movie. Not once. Jor El touches on it a bit, but barely. If Kal/Clark and Jor spend more than a few hours talking together, then they do not portray this clear enough for my taste, and I think a lot of people would agree.
What I feel should have happened with Pa Kent’s death was NOT having the tornado itself kill him. Having Pa insist Clark let him go help rescue people while Clark seeks refuge with his ma did make sense, and having Pa keep telling Clark to not reveal his secret by helping also made sense. But I would have had Pa hobbling back towards the overpass and suffer a heart attack part way back. As his heart fails him, Clark would rush over as best he could without revealing his abilities, and Pa Clark would give a few last words of wisdom about death being a part of life we cannot fight, no matter how strong or fast we are, and that it’s going to be okay. A final plea to Clark to take care of his Ma and to always use his powers to make the world a better place, to temper his actions with wisdom.
This is yet another place I feel the movie failed, and these values are vital to adding to the impact of the final battle with Zod. Without any of this, the choice to kill Zod is lessened in importance and impact. They do not show Clark learning to value life to that extent, and so anyone new to the Superman mythos will not see why killing Zod is such a big deal, especially in the current modern pop culture where people kill and die in video games all the time. For what the movie was attempting to establish in the character, I feel they failed to establish it.
Now let’s get to the final battle with Zod itself. There’s a lack even there as well. Mark Waid had some great thoughts on this topic that I share with him. I agree with a lot of what he says; after Zod finally snaps, there wasn’t quite enough showing Superman fighting to take the battle with Zod away from populated areas. I feel it should have shown Zod actually killing a few innocent people, pushing Superman more into a moral corner as he fights to not only stop Zod, but save what people he can. Superman’s lack of combat training would show through here, though. Then there’s the death of Zod itself. Superman breaks his neck with a single smooth twist. After they have been spending how long beating the snot out of each other, punching each other hard enough to give normal humans break-neck whiplash and neither one is phased or hurt a bit, he suddenly is able to snap Zod’s neck fairly easily. Sorry, but that was just sad.
And finally, there’s the aftermath of Zod’s death. Now, the anguish Superman shows immediately afterward is right where I would expect it to be… But it is far too short-lived. It lasts maybe 2 or 3 minutes, then goes immediately to him destroying a US spy drone, acting like it’s all fine. That doesn’t sit well with me. Earlier in the movie, there’s a brief scene where Clark is in a church and speaks with a Catholic priest. The scene is brief, but well written/acted. Why did they not show Clark going back and “confessing” his “sin” to the father, then seeking comfort from his Ma? Show how much he did not want to make that choice, and how much he felt backed into a corner with no choice left to him. Show his anguish and pain at being forced to do the last thing he ever wanted to do.
All in all, it was a very good movie, and even though I have these gripes, I still loved it. I still plan on getting it when it comes out on disk, and I do recommend it to people who have not seen it. The look into Kryptonian society is absolutely marvelous and I loved the depth it gave them. Russel Crowe’s as Jor El, Michael Shannon as Zod, and Henry Cavil as Clark/Kal/Superman deliver awesome performances worth watching. Despite the issues with the movie itself, it is a beautiful and artistic piece of filmography. I am eagerly awaiting the sequel, and there’s a lot of ways that even the lack of character development could feed into struggles with Lex Luthor and his xenophobic ways. For now, though, all we can do is dream ^_^