Posted by: Doc Comics | June 24, 2013

MAN OF STEEL and the Superhero “No Kill Code”


The ‘Dark Knight-ification’ of Superman… and the politics of American Exceptionalism?

The long-anticipated Superman movie by the Nolan Brothers and writer David Goyer has finally hit the multiplex and stands poised to be a summer blockbuster, but it’s breakneck ending with epic CGI battles have sparked controversy over its ‘disaster porn‘ mayhem and what some comics fans consider an unforgivable violation of the superhero icon’s moral character. But despite wishes to the contrary, 2013 is poised to cement the superhero summer blockbuster as the defining global post-9/11 cinematic zeitgeist for the foreseeable future. Spoilers ahead, superscholars.

Superman is not a hero in this movie; he’s a liability. This is a movie where everyone would have been better off — and thousands more people would be alive — if Superman had never come to our planet. It’s hard to see that as a message of hope.

So opines an article at Comics Alliance, “Choice and the Moral Universe of MAN OF STEEL,” which best reflects my own expletive-laden outburst during the film’s final act. But it was Superman scribe Mark Waid, writer of definitive comics like Kingdom Come and the poignant Superman: Birthright, who set the Twitterverse afire with his heartbroken early reaction (and dorkrage blowback from some fans). Despite mixed reviews of this “Dark Knight-ification” of Superman, and a few accusations of latent fascism, it’s worth keeping in mind that the action movie “kill-happy” heroes operate by a very different narrative logic than the “No Kill Code” unique to comic book superheroes. In response, Chris Nolan admitted the ‘final act’ was hotly debated with Goyer and WB. But Goyer is a comics fan so there’s a good chance these issues will inform the inevitable sequel. Even so, the comic book Superman doesn’t exactly have a spotless record when it comes to taking life (much less Batman), but comics have arguably been far more ethically reflective in dealing with consequences. At the end of the day, however, these ethical dilemmas of superheroes reflect some persistent social anxieties and existential issues over redemptive violence, superhero “militainment” and debate over WHY the world still needs a Superman we can believe in (and goodness knows plenty of folks want a Wonder Woman who matters). Among the countless themes this illegal alien immigrant touches on, his utopian rather than dystopian view of humanity both inspires and is inspired by the noble heroism around him. As Mark Waid famously observed in his forward to Morrison’s must-read modern classic All-Star Superman:

Gods achieve their power by encouraging us to believe in them. Superman achieves his power by believing in us.

Not a lot of those sentiments in this hypermasculine uberviolent mass-murdering protofascist apocalypse. Like The Dark Knight, this Superman seems incapable of imagining otherwise outside the ‘forced choice’ of murder or surrender within a terroristic ‘State of Exception,’ and that is perhaps its biggest disappointment: a lack of Hope. Ultimately, my movie review as both a comics fan and pro-democracy pop-culture scholar amounts to this:

Civilian casualties? Redemptive humanism? Hope in… Eh, fuggit.



  1. Reblogged this on Ravingnerd and commented:
    If my thoughts weren’t good enough, this guy literally teaches super heroes.

  2. As usual, fantastic points.

  3. Yep.

  4. The controversy is still raging, and now in the mainstream media. “Superman holds a strange place in the hearts of many, it seems,” notes a writer at TIME, “he may be a fictional character, but he’s nonetheless someone that we look up to and expect more from than we do other such unreal constructs.” This is particularly true, says the CSM, for a darkly cynical age ruled by more conflicted heroes like Batman or Iron Man. Ethics in an era of Terrorism is an obvious thematic in this superhero Zeitgeist, and it is ironic that the movie’s box office sales is battling the threat of zombie apocalypse from World War Z.

  5. Hey Doc T, here is an article I wrote which might make a different but viable case for this being a modern interpretation of Superman:

    • This is indeed a solid counterpoint and, although we disagree on whether or not this Man of Steel compromises some core aspects of the character, you are correct that even the comics are not without some of these precedents. IMHO, the Comics Alliance article “Choice and the Moral Universe of MOS” [link in original post] nails most of my objections mirroring Mark Waid.

      That said, I have some faith in screenwriter Goyer that this film very consciously intends to set up these very same themes for examination. Predictable fanboy snark aside, Superman’s moral universe *does* need some post-9/11 reexamination, rethinking, and new relevance. But considered aside the surprisingly more optimistic AVENGERS and the underappreciated CAPTAIN AMERICA movies, Nolan’s ‘Dark-Knightification’ of the DC pantheon delves into a pretty grim worldview (BTW when did Marvel and DC get an attitude switcheroo?). The sequel could just maybe redeem this beginning, but lest we forget: Superman was pummeled to death by Doomsday because he was repeatedly saving lives in the mayhem and minimize casualties, he was helping others first and foremost. Unlike this super-soldier in MOS, Superman’s mission is to ‘protect and serve’ above all else, even if the writers force him into life-and-death decisions for the sake of shock-and-awe. I hope Superman turns out to be the superhero symbol for the principled hope we need, not the kill-happy super-antihero we seem to deserve.

  6. Clever take on “How Man of Steel should have ended.”

  7. More from superhero movie critics on whether these cinematic Übermensch are inherently fascist, or perhaps its the Hollywood action hero that undermines the comic book source material. Perhaps the argument could be made that comic book superheroes are anti-fascist? Maybe superheroes are a rhetorical trope for thinking through fascism? What do you think, superscholars?

  8. It’s becoming widely circulated that the BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE movie will indeed tackle the ramifications of the breakneck MOS ending “in BIG ways”…

    An interview with writer David Goyer:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: