NOTE: This story contains Man of Steel spoilers. There, you've been warned.
If there's one thing defenders of all superhero movies will tell you it's that they don't live up under scrutiny. Yes, even your precious The Dark Knight has some major issues, which is when someone will stand up and say, "It's just a movie!" Touché.
However, a loud group on the Internet has grown upset over the climactic finale in Man of Steel over a moment where Superman (Henry Cavill) decides the only way he can prevent Zod (Michael Shannon) from killing a family of Metropolis citizens with his heat vision (first world problems, amirite!) is by snapping his neck. Therein lies the horror and, yes, we'll get to the question of why four people matter more than an entire city.
Now, if you're like me, you found the moment in the film rather interesting as an alien being, trying to come to grips with his existence on an alien world, was forced to make a decision he didn't feel comfortable with, but believed it was the only decision to be made. That's it. You stopped there and didn't look any closer. You stopped for good reason, because the closer you look, the worse it gets.
Mark Waid, writer of the Superman comic "Superman: Birthright", chose to look closer and he comes away with the following rant posted on his blog:
Superman wins by killing Zod. By snapping his neck. And as this moment was building, as Zod was out of control and Superman was (for the first time since the fishing boat 90 minutes ago) struggling to actually save innocent victims instead of casually catching them in mid-plummet, some crazy guy in front of us was muttering "Don't do it...don't do it...DON'T DO IT..." and then Superman snapped Zod's neck and that guy stood up and said in a very loud voice, "THAT'S IT, YOU LOST ME, I'M OUT," and his girlfriend had to literally pull him back into his seat and keep him from walking out and that crazy guy was me... As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn't kill. Full-stop, Superman doesn't kill.
Beyond Waid's impossible M. Night Shyamalan twist wherein he is simultaneously himself and the "crazy guy" in front of him, his issues with the film speak to the issues with Superman in general and virtually every plot hole the movie faces. It's also important to note many are only quoting what I've included above and not the rest of his statement.
Waid acknowledges the attempt to put Superman in a position where he had no choice, but adds, "As Superman's having his final one-on-one battle with Zod, show me that he's going out of his way to save people from getting caught in the middle. SHOW ME that trying to simultaneously protect humans and beat Zod is achingly, achingly costing Superman the fight." Waid clearly realizes Superman and Zod's epic battle has destroyed about a five block radius in Metropolis. Buildings have collapsed and you better believe humans died and up until the final moment it would seem Superman doesn't care a lick about the death and destruction their little battle has caused until it's right in front of his face.
I can't speak for how Waid felt while he was watching Zod and Superman destroy the city -- killing what Watson Technical Consulting estimate to be 129,000 people, with over 250,000 likely missing and nearly one million injured -- but it is clear it wasn't until he snapped Zod's neck that he gave up on the film. Why? Why is Superman's decision to kill a villain attempting to eradicate the entire human race a problem, but not the hundreds of thousands of people injured during the battle?
Had Superman managed to "zap" Zod to the Phantom Zone, as director Zack Snyder has told Empire is how it went down in the original script, would that have solved everything? Would the thousands that died in his effort to not kill Zod matter then? Would the fact it would appear to be just an attempt to open the door for a sequel have made it any worse? Is it possible all of this supposed "controversy" actually adds a deeper layer to the film itself?
Waid recognizes the fact Superman doesn't appear to be concerned with protecting humans while he battles Zod, but he only comes co this conclusion after he says he "processed" everything. Superman didn't have time to process anything. He had to try to stop a loudmouth with a God complex who just rose from the ashes of his "World Builder". It's only once he's looking squarely in the eyes of the four humans about to be killed by Zod that he realizes what's going on around him and decides the only decision left is to kill him to prevent any further damage.
If anything, the scenes after this moment are the larger misstep. Kiling Zod clearly had an effect on Superman. He regret the decision but feels it was right, yet we don't see him continuing to struggle with it. In an email sent to me by a reader we can take this even further where he writes:
Superman is supposed to be this Christ-like figure. Now, I'm not religious, but why would people view him that way after the events of this movie? He has done nothing to show that he is this all-good, incorruptible being. All people would know at the end of this movie is that there is an very powerful human-looking alien who fought other aliens and most of a major city was destroyed. I expected the story to dig a little deeper, mainly because of Nolan and Goyer's involvement. With Batman, they did a great job with the whole "Batman is more than a man; he's a symbol" aspect of the character. Man of Steel talked about it (most of Jor-El's lines were about this idea of a omnibenevolent and omnipotent Superman) but that's all they did. It was tell, don't show. It could have been so much more.
I agree with this, writing in my review: "[I]n the end it proves difficult to accept him as the man the final moments of the film want us to believe he's become." It would have been far more interesting had we not seen glimpses of Clark Kent, super-reporter, and instead saw the world trying to comprehend what just happened, dealing with the idea of an all-powerful alien among them. After all, wasn't Superman's face all over the television? How in the hell are we supposed to believe a news organization isn't going to recognize him let alone the rest of the population?
In the end, I just don't understand how people can have a problem with Superman killing Zod. If anything, Zod's death, and the multitudes killed during their battle, creates a far more interesting and complex character out of Superman. The problem is the film's failure to recognize this beyond the brief moment after it happens. Superman regrets what he's had to do, we just don't get much time spent dealing with his grief. Instead we get a scene where Clark gets a job at a newspaper, which may actually be the most unbelievable thing about the entire film.
Man of Steel is a fun little piece of entertainment, but if you start looking too closely you're not gonna like what you see and I'm just barely scratching the surface.
NOTE: Here's the EMPIRE interview with Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer I referenced above.