Man of Steel vs The Dark Knight

I have tons to say about the Man of Steel film but I think this is my last entry on the film for a while. I have participated in a facinating critique of the “killing” from the end of the movie. What I want to do is compare what Nolan/Goyer did with Batman and Superman in their respective origin story films.

First let me put, as best I can, the critique that I’ve been seeing against this ending for Zod. Before I do, let me say that if Man of Steel was to be a stand-alone film I would agree with the critiques. But Warners has fast tracked a sequel for a projected 2014 release (I hope not, rushed films suck). But I have noticed three things: Superman NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER kills, period; Superman is validating Zod’s worldview; Man of Steel never condemns Superman’s killing of Zod.

I want to think about Batman Begins. When Bruce has traveled the world he is recruited by Ra’s al-Ghul (posing under a false name). Ra’s tells Bruce that to complete his training and be fully inducted into the League of Shadows he had to kill a man who had committed murder. Bruce refuses, remembering what Rachel Dawes taught him about justice not being vengeance but harmony and balance. He won’t be an executioner and insists on this murderer being tried by the justice system. Ra’s disagrees and says that Bruce cannot lead the League if he does not kill the man, demonstrating a true commitment to justice. What ensues is a really cool actions sequence where Bruce blows up the palace but saves Ra’s, demonstrating the compassion that Bruce believes sets him apart from the criminals.

Fast-forward to the end of the film during the climax. Batman must stop Ra’s from releasing the chemical into the air and sending Gotham into a fear-induced panic and literally killing itself. He gets Lt. Gordon (not the commissioner yet) to take the Tumbler (not a website but an awesome tank!) and destroy the train tracks that Ra’s is using to disperse his weapon. Meanwhile Batman storms the train itself and engages Ra’s in combat. When Batman has foiled the plot and the train rushes to its destruction, Batman tells Ra’s that he won’t kill him but he won’t save him either.

(Why people insist on comparing Man of Steel to Batman in The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises? Seriously, before I move on I need someone to answer this. Compare the origin of one character to the middle and end of another character. Please. Cuz that makes a lot of sense.)

Now, historically, Batman doesn’t kill people. He hates it. In Batman Begins he insists on not doing it. He’s protecting the innocent and demanding that the guilty face society for their crimes. He is not judge, jury, and executioner. That’s the way of the villainous Ra’s al-Ghul and his evil League of Shadows. But during his lengthy publication history, Batman has occasionally killed someone. He’s even–gasp!–used a gun to kill someone. The killing of Ra’s al-Ghul doesn’t force me to destroy Nolan’s origin tale because it’s not out of Batman’s character. Michael Keaton in Batman and Batman Returns showed very little value of human life when it came to his enemies. Just ask the Joker…oops. Ask Penguins Circus gang…oops. We let Batman get away with this, why? We shouldn’t but we do.

In Superman’s long history, killing villains isn’t absent either. The original creators of Superman wrote stories where Superman literally threw cronies out of the window with their machine guns tied around their necks. If they die they die. An executive order given by the editor of DC comics that banned Superman from killing. In 1980 Superman kills General Zod in Superman II. In 1987 John Byrne has Superman kill General Zod in Superman #22. Killing isn’t out of the character of Superman. When I hear people say that it is, it’s usually drawing upon Allen Moore’s amazing book, “What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (1986). Superman had killed someone and realized it’s not alright for him to do so. It’s a highly selective reading of Superman’s history. Even Frank Miller had Superman killing soldiers in The Dark Knight Returns.

Now we get into a more direct comparison between Nolan/Goyer’s origin films. In Man of Steel Zod declares the only way for his quarrel with Superman to end is one of them dies. Superman killing Zod validates his worldview. He accepts the view that killing your enemy is okay. And that’s wrong of Superman. In Batman Begins it is the view of Ra’s al-Ghul that you kill criminals. That you act outside of society’s justice system and dole out justice yourself. You act above the law–something Frank Miller’s Batman also believed. Batman, at the end of the film, killed Ra’s (the whole it’s not killing but choosing not to save is a terrible attempt at justifying murder). By the logic of the critique against Man of Steel Batman has erred, failed, in that he adopted Ra’s wrong code, that Batman had earlier openly refuted! Yet Batman gets off the hook for some reason… I’d like to think because there are two more films where Batman is redeemed, but I could be wrong.

Finally, the film itself never condemns Superman’s killing of Zod. Now let’s bring back to mind exactly what happens in Batman Begins after Batman kills Ra’s. The movie cuts to the burned down Wayne Manner where we find out that Batman is going to rebuild the house exactly as it was, only updates to the foundation that leads into the Batcave. We also see things about masks that will come back full circle in The Dark Knight Rises. Then we cut to Batman on the roof with Gordon and the Bat-signal. They talk about escalation and introduce the Joker. Gordon wants to thank Batman but the hero says he’ll never have to. Then we see Batman glide over the camera, cut to black, credits. No where do we find a condemnation of Batman killing Ra’s. No demands for him to face justice. There is a passing remark in The Dark Knight about facing the people for his crimes. But nothing is said in Batman Begins.

But in Man of Steel, Superman kills Zod and that’s completely unacceptable. The film pass it off as okay. Good even. Or so goes the critique. The cry that Superman unleashes, tears in his eyes, at killing Zod doesn’t count for nothing. But at least Superman reacts to the killing. It does something to him. Whether it’s the idea of killing or that the only other Kryptonians alive are in the phantom zone. The rest are dead. I don’t know which because I need more information for that kind of detail. But Batman actually seems to feel that it’s okay to kill Ra’s. Superman didn’t. He had a reaction. Batman gets to rejoice in killing and taking the law into his own hands and intentionally violating his explicitly stated moral code.

My point is this. When it comes to killing Ra’s al-Ghul, Batman gets a pass, largely in part because the story doesn’t end with Batman Begins. There’s more story, acts 2 and 3, to show how Batman has committed crimes against Gotham in how he has prosecuted his mission. But the opening act of Superman doesn’t get the same treatment. We want to rush to judgment based upon an idea of Superman derived from a highly selective reading of the character–which is fine, Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid is still the definitive origin story. But with the fact that there will be a Man of Steel 2 (which I hope is called Man of Tomorrow to indicate moving forward). So the same benefit of the doubt that is extended to Batman must be given to Superman. The critiques are valid if either a sequel wasn’t coming or the sequel fails to do what The Dark Knight did. But until then, let the filmmakers tell their whole story first. Then let them have it.

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~ by hankimler on June 17, 2013.

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