Badfan v Superman 1: Dawn Of Rebuttal Justice

E. Stephen Burnett and Austin Gunderson begin a new series about what critics miss in “Man of Steel.”
on Jul 7, 2015 · 16 comments
· Series:

E. Stephen Burnett: As the release date of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice approaches, it would be great to co-write a conversation/article about what Man of Steel was trying to be and why folks keep misunderstanding it.

(Please note: This article and the complete Badfan v Superman series will include gratuitous wanton spoilers.) 

As I’m writing this the internet is all a-flutter about a video someone put together titled, “What if Man of Steel was IN COLOR?1 That video release, after the release of the first Batman vs. Superman trailer and quite a lot of fan hubbub, convinces me that some fans are:

  1. Unconsciously going along with negative media narratives about Man of Steel (2013).
  2. Being a bit naive about how media narratives in general can co-opt our response to a popular story or song.
  3. Accepting some myths about “what Superman (or superhero stories in general) are Supposed to Be,” similar to some people who still believe Sherlock Holmes always said “Elementary, my dear Watson,” or who believe Kirk always said, “Beam me up, Scotty.” For example, I’m not even a comic book fan, but I know enough about the character to know that the friendly, idyllic, Richard Donner version of Superman is only one possible interpretation … more about that later.

Austin Gunderson: I would love that [conversation]. It’s a subject about which I have strong opinions.

Stephen: Same here. We could split the opinions and do an outlined two-parter, or have a conversation we know will be used later for the article, or co-write one or two articles. Plenty of time before 2016 of course.

Austin: Cool. The conversation option sounds fun (and more conducive to my natural tendency to think faster in response to others’ ideas than when conjuring up my own).

Stephen: Oh, I’m looking forward to this.

I’ve written some thoughts on the trailer at ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Trailer Debuts. I have a sneaking suspicion that you and I are about to be vindicated that the overwrought destruction of Metropolis was actually meant to do this all along. Someone very, very smart could have said, especially after criticisms of “Superman Returns”: Okay, all the fans complained that they wanted to see Superman beat people up, so let’s 1) give them what they want, 2) remind them that they may not exactly like it.

manofsteelposter_ascensionAlso I recall I wrote this too: Man of Steel, Heart of Flesh. Ah, I’d forgotten my point about how Superman in either version of “Superman II” turns quite selfish and jerky, surrenders his powers, and goes a-fornicating.

Austin: Mm. And I would say that while Supes’ clothes-nabbing and semi shish-kabobing in Man of Steel are indeed illustrative of his imperfect state (mitigated by the fact that the clothes were being donated and the semi belonged to a man Supes very deliberately refrained from maiming), his destruction of Zod was both carefully calculated and supremely moral.

If Superman hadn’t snapped Zod’s neck in that moment of truth, I would’ve lost respect either for him (were he too weak or stubbornly idealistic to do what was necessary) or for the story-world that he inhabited (were he able to sidestep the problem by magically incapacitating Zod).

And yes, the storytellers forced him into that situation. Of course they did! But it’s not as though the situation’s unusual. Millions of human beings have faced the exact same dilemma since the dawn of time: is it moral to take life in order to protect life?

The answer, in many cases, is a resounding “Yes.” But this isn’t because human beings are strong or just or righteous enough to know when it’s best to kill; no, rather, the fact that we must sometimes put others to death is an indictment of our weakness, our ineffectuality, our fundamental lack of control.

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord,” but we often can’t afford to wait. When a foe stronger than us threatens our lives, our need to destroy said foe is contingent on our inability to contain him peacefully or otherwise manipulate him into quiescence.

And that’s why it was so important to demonstrate Superman’s powerlessness. It’s why the destruction of Metropolis was a necessary evil.

Read part 2, Super-Nostalgia Knockdown, in which E. Stephen Burnett challenges the objection of why Man of Steel isn’t like all those great classic Superman films.

  1. Cinematic Ramblings offered a rebuttal, saying the video-makers actually further altered or de-saturated several scenes from the film in order to re-saturate them and make their point.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Tim says:

    Good convo. As the movie portrays Supes’ killing of God, I didn’t have a problem. What I don’t like is Snyder’s commenting on Superman having to kill him because no prison could hold him. That takes it from having no choice to save a family to execution in part. The defense of another was perfectly defensible. Superman having an execution as part of his motivation is not. Period. Also, while I’m happy Snyder has an in-universe reason established for Supes’ no kill rule, I am irritated at the distaste he has for that concept of a no-kill rule. I get the feeling he’d rather be writing idiotic ’90’s antiheroes.

  2. Tim Frankovich says:

    Thank you. I am a big fan of Man of Steel and like it far better than any of the previous Superman movies (heresy, I know).

    I was taken aback in the theater when a friend leaned across two other people to look at me wide-eyed and exclaim in a hoarse whisper: “Superman just KILLED somebody!!!” Uh… yea. He did. What else was he supposed to do?

    So much to say… so little time and room… oh, well. You’ve said a good part of it. Keep up the conversation.

  3. dmdutcher says:

    We did have a Superman that kills in Kingdom Come’s Magog, and that graphic novel was excellent at showing how fast capes descend into a pack/gang mentality if they set themselves as the authority to do just that. It’s also more realistic to have the joker problem/revolving door because it shows that evil is always with us, and all we can do is mitigate; the black and white killing of a villain tends to lead to totalitarian solutions over time, if its done outside of the human justice system.

    Plus, there probably were better heroes to use if you wanted to go that route. Mark Waid’s Invincible would be a better hero to make a movie about powerlessness and choice.

  4. R. L. Copple says:

    I think the moral dilemma is okay, and his decision to kill Zod is understandable. Usually, the villain ends up doing something that forces the superhero’s hand or killing themselves, often with the superhero making a vain attempt to save them at the last minute. But this is closer to reality in what people tend to face.


    My big beef with that scene wasn’t the moral issue, but the believability of it. One, the people in danger of getting zapped by Zod’s rays had plenty of time to escape while SM slowed Zod down. Instead, they just stood their, cowering as I recall, waiting to see if SM would save them.


    Two, if Zod was so strong that SM couldn’t stop him from turning his head, where did the strength come from for SM to snap his neck? Made absolutely no sense. Either SM had the ability to stop him from moving his eye-beams towards the people and snap his neck if need be, or he didn’t. Can’t have it both ways.


    So to me it was not only forced, but made as much sense as SM circling the earth to reverse time. Which, interestingly enough, he didn’t do here (I know, different “universe”). Otherwise, the movie was interesting and good.


    • Tim says:

      To be fair, the folks in-universe don’t know how the heat vision works as we do on a meta-level. Also, the cowering was realistic, which these folks in charge like.


      I think it’s possible that Zod gave in at the last moment when he got what he wanted -Superman killing him. The aftermath of the fight, in the novelization, has Superman believing Zod wanted Superman to kill him, and got what he wanted unfortunately.


    • I think a reaction along the lines of “Why don’t you bystanders just move?” says more about one’s acclimation to the previous hour-and-half of superhuman combat than it does about the admitted plot-convenience of that particular gaggle of townsfolk. Immersed as we have been in a battle that’s demonstrated the full capabilities of beings with impossible speed and strength, we look at the saps huddled in that corner with incredulity. They seem so slow, so helpess. It’s like we’ve exited the freeway into a 25mph zone. And so we wonder why. What are you doing, Zack Snyder? Why are you forcing Supes into this position?! Why don’t those people just move?!


      But the reality is that those poor bystanders are behaving like normal folks. They’re in shock. They don’t know what’s hit them or why. Many of them are probably injured. And it’s only been thirty seconds since two grappling supermen punched a gaping hole in their roof.


      So what we’re faced with isn’t some arbitrary, ginned-up plot device, but an illustration, a microcosm of the current threat that distills everything down into one stark contrast: Zod vs man. And in that face-off, man doesn’t stand a chance.


      “Stop!” Superman pleads. Many people have died in the destruction Zod has wreaked, and these who now cower before them are but the latest batch. But suddenly, in this moment, they represent the whole. Supes has Zod in a headlock. For the first time, the Man of Steel has some measure of control. He knows what he must do to save Earth. And still he pleads: “Stop! Don’t do it!”


      “I’ll never stop,” snarls Zod, and Superman knows it’s true. And then he decides. Between idealism and reality. Between actively killing and just watching men die. Between Krypton and mankind.


      Who knows how long Supes could’ve held Zod down? One hour, two? Long enough for those people to escape? Probably. Long enough for the military to show up with the mightiest human restraints? Possibly.


      And what then? Zod already escaped the mightiest Kryptonian restraint. Nothing on Earth could’ve kept him from carrying out his self-assigned genocide. Nothing but death. Superman didn’t kill Zod because Zod was about to murder a half-dozen people. He killed Zod because Zod was about to murder billions of people. It was a decision that had to be made sooner or later. Supes just happened to make it in front of a particularly shellshocked smattering of civilians.


      Good thing he thought that one through before calling it a day.

      • R. L. Copple says:

        But the reality is that those poor bystanders are behaving like normal folks. They’re in shock. They don’t know what’s hit them or why. Many of them are probably injured. And it’s only been thirty seconds since two grappling supermen punched a gaping hole in their roof.


        I’m still not buying it. True, there would be some initial shock for a few seconds that would be paralyzing, but the scenario is beams are shooting from Zod’s eyes, burning a trench into the wall, and it is inching its way toward them. No sane person is going to stand there and wait for it if they can move out of the way. Their feet weren’t glued to the floor or anything. It wasn’t happening that fast thanks to SM.


        Now, I could see maybe a person or two so paralyzed with fear they couldn’t move. Maybe some were hurt enough they couldn’t get out of the way (though my memory was they were all on their feet, but that was a few months ago so I’m not certain of that). But I’m sure enough of them would have enough self-preservation, seeing the danger slowly approaching, would have run. Instead, they all huddled there as if they had no choice but to wait and see if SM would save them or not.


        At least SM could have done the decent thing and yelled at them to run. That’s what the Doctor would do. 😉


        I just think they could have come up with a more realistic scenario for that moral/ethical point. Not only because of the crowd’s reaction, but in how SM dispatches Zod.

        • Kerry Nietz says:

          I would recommend to you the book The Survivor’s Club for a breakdown of what people actually do in emergency/life-threatening circumstances.

          Believe it or not, a mental shutdown is not only a possible reaction, it is quite common. The  “survivors,” meaning those people who will maintain their mental faculties and decide the best course of action, make up only a small percentage of the population.

          (I referred to the book while I was writing Amish Zombies from Space and tried to show people reacting in all the ways it presents. Believe it or not, “running around the room and trying to do the wrong thing” is a normal response too. )

          • R. L. Copple says:

            I understand. I’ve been able to function in an emergency situation before, and one time I did do the wrong thing (which ended up working anyway, thankfully, in that I put out a kitchen fire with water!).


            But we’re also looking at group dynamics as well. Unless the whole group was made up of people who freeze in the face of danger, despite an obvious escape from it, one, two, or three of them would have seen that and ran. Group dynamics being what they are, many of the others would have followed. I think it would have been more realistic for some to run, even if all didn’t. Keeping in mind the coming death rays were slowly making their way to them.


            But I would say the neck snapping was more unbelievable than the crowd frozen in fear. It just didn’t compute for me.


            • Leanna says:

              They’re also in a corner by a stairway… they’d have to run AT Superman and Zod before they could actually run away. Just a random note.


              I think Man of Steel is a terrible movie but that has nothing to do with Superman killing Zod or comparison to the previous superman films. Interesting to read this back and forth anyway though. 🙂

        • I’ve also read that this shutdown response manifests itself surprisingly often and in many circumstances–from awkward conversations, to philosophical disagreement, to even (I must say this) instances of sexual and other forms of abuse. One recent article explored the very tough issue of the latter, in which victims of rape and abuse said they found themselves, despite being very well-educated about how to respond, had to fight their own physical shutdown response more than anything else. I distinctly recall one woman saying that she knew she should fight, take flight, or shout for help (and people who would help were right nearby). But her overwhelming impulse was to just wait it out.

          • Kerry Nietz says:

            Fascinating, Stephen. The mind.

            What it usually most wants is to continue the established routine. Those were the stories I found most unbelievable (sad) in that Survivors Club book–the situations where people would blindly keep on doing what they’ve always done, even if that meant putting themselves in more danger. One story I remember was about a large subway fire. There was smoke billowing out of the stairwells, yet folks kept walking down them like nothing was unusual. Something to be mindful of…

            (I’m sure there is an analogy here for the current state of nations, but I’ll resist the diversion.)

  5. Tim says:

    This idea of consequences isn’t new. One time Lex Luthor in the comics called out Superboy (Connor Kent version/the clone) for damage during his heroics. Superman AGREED with Luthor, stating he himself (Superman) tries to fix any damage he causes, and Superboy should as well. So there is a COMIC BOOK basis for this. In the New 52, there is some suspicion of the new heroes as well.


    Also, then lack of warning in Metropolis versus Smallville does have sense given how the events were wherein he had more time to warn others than against Zod. I actually liked him warning folks, so agreed with you there, but here was a plot difference.

  6. Julie D says:

    The only DC film I’ve seen is the first Reeves Superman…I’m assuming Man of Steel is better?

What do you think?