Should Superman kill?
I have not seen the new Superman: Man of Steel movie. But from what I have heard online, it has generated a fair amount of controversy. Specifically, as I understand it, at the end of the film there is a tremendous battle that nearly decimates the city of Metropolis. Superman, in order to prevent the Kryptonian arch-criminal General Zod from murdering even more people, kills him.
I can understand how this would cause some fans to be up in arms. After all, Superman is supposed to be one of the most noble and ethical heroes in popular fiction. As a firm believer in the sanctity of life, he is typically written as always looking to find non-lethal methods to defeat whatever menaces he is facing.
So, the question is, should Superman kill? I think that every comic book reader will have differing views on the matter. All I can do is offer my own individual opinion. Feel free to agree or disagree:
I honestly feel that, yes, Superman should do everything in his power to preserve life. And that means that, whenever possible, he ought to avoid the use of lethal force… but please note that I did say “whenever possible.” Given his amazing powers & abilities, 99.999% of the time Superman will somehow find a way to stop his enemies without killing. But, I think that inevitably, there is going to be that 0.001%, a no win situation, so to speak, when Superman may be forced by circumstances to kill.
Let’s look at such a situation, one that occurred back in 1988. The three part “Supergirl Saga” ran through Superman #21, Adventures of Superman #444, and Superman #22. The main creative force behind this story was writer-artist John Byrne. Also on hand was Jerry Ordway, who co-plotted & penciled Adventures #444. The final chapter in Superman #22 is titled, appropriately enough, “The Price.”
I need to set the stage for this one. It’s a bit complicated, so bear with me. In the aftermath of Crisis of Infinite Earths, the new continuity established by DC was that Clark Kent had never been Superboy, and he did not become a costumed superhero until he was an adult, when he took on the guise of Superman. This created a huge problem for the Legion of Super-Heroes, who had Superboy as both their inspiration for forming and an actual long-time member. So the creative types at DC came up with a solution of sorts:
Post-Crisis, it was retconned that the Legion’s arch-nemesis the Time Trapper had (for reasons best left unexplained here) created a “Pocket Universe” which was a duplicate of our own, but with all the life-bearing planets other than Earth or Krypton removed from it. In this artificial reality, once again Krypton exploded, and baby Kal-El was rocketed to Earth, where the Kents adopted him. Here he did become the teenage Superboy. Every time Superboy traveled in time to meet up with the Legion, he would be travelling back & forth between the real universe’s 30th Century and the Pocket Universe’s 20th Century without even knowing it. Oh, yes, the Time Trapper also ensured that no other superheroes came to exist in the Pocket Universe, i.e. no Justice League, Batman, Teen Titans, etc. Yeah, this was a really unwieldy explanation, and it certainly didn’t work perfectly, but I guess it was the best they could come up with at the time.
Eventually Superboy dies in the future on a mission with the Legion. Back in the Pocket Universe, no one knows what has happened to him, though. That Earth’s version of Lex Luthor, although arrogant & egotistical, is nevertheless not a villain, and he examines Superboy’s cache of inventions, hoping to contact the Legion. Instead, he accidentally communicates with three Kryptonians imprisoned in the Phantom Zone: General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora. The criminals trick Luthor into releasing them, and immediately embark on the conquest of the Earth.
Despite this Earth’s absence of superheroes, humanity manages to fight Zod’s forces to a draw for a decade, aided by the fantastic weapons built by Luthor. He even creates Supergirl, a “protomatter” life form based on Lana Lang, to help in the battle. Eventually, though, the triad of criminals tire of the conflict and decide to wipe out humanity completely. They use their powers to drill down to the Earth’s core, and the heat transforms the oceans into super-heated steam, which completely destroys the atmosphere. Everyone on Earth is killed, save those in Smallville, who are living behind a force field erected by Luthor.
Realizing that the war is all but lost, a desperate Luthor transports Supergirl across to the “regular” universe to recruit Superman, hoping a genuine Kryptonian will be able to finally stop the Phantom Zone criminals. Even with Superman’s presence, though, in the final battle the remainder of humanity is wiped out. But a dying Luthor reveals to Superman the location of a piece of Gold Kryptonite, which the hero uses to strip Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora of their powers. An understandably confused Superman asks Luthor why he didn’t use the Gold Kryptonite years before, thereby preventing all the bloodshed. With his last breath, Luthor confesses that, driven by wounded pride, he wanted to be the one to personally defeat the Kryptonians for tricking him into setting them free. Remember what I said before about arrogance and ego?
So now Superman is confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem: what to do with General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora? Yes, they have been de-powered, but they have the blood of billions of innocents on their hands, and they are defiantly unrepentant, gloating to Superman that they will somehow find a way to regain their powers and escape to his universe to wreck havoc there. And so Superman is forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of his entire life. Using Green Kryptonite, Superman executes the Phantom Zone criminals. (Click on the image below to read the entire scene.)
Did Superman make the right decision? It is very difficult to say for certain, but, yes, I think that he probably did. Yes, it was extremely drastic. But keep in mind that the Phantom Zone criminals had murdered the entire population of the Pocket Universe Earth, five billion people. I am typically against capital punishment, but that is an absolutely monstrous crime.
Also, there is the question of exactly what else Superman could have done with Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora. He had no way of exiling them back to the Phantom Zone. And, as I explained before, the Pocket Universe had no other inhabited planets, so he could not hand them over to that dimension’s equivalent of the Green Lantern Corps for trial. I suppose he could have brought Zod & Co back to his own reality and asked the Guardians of Oa to take charge of them, but who knows if those little blue bureaucrats would have even accepted that it fell under their jurisdiction. And why even take the chance of removing them from the Pocket Universe?
Really, the only other choice Superman had was to maroon Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora on the dead Earth. And if he did that he certainly couldn’t just leave them there unsupervised in case they somehow did regain their powers. This would of course mean spending the rest of his own life in the Pocket Universe as their jailer.
So between the very real worry that somehow they would escape, and the sheer scope of their horrific crimes, it is understandable that Superman felt he had no choice but to execute Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora. And it’s made very clear that this is not a decision that Superman makes lightly. He is troubled by it right from the start. Returning to his dimension, Superman leaves the gravely injured Supergirl in the care of his parents, the Kents. And, as can be seen from the final page of the issue (see below) they can immediately sense that something is very wrong with their adopted son. So “The Price” ends on a very melancholy, introspective note.
Regarding this three part story, some readers have subsequently criticized John Byrne for A) writing the character into an impossible corner where he would have no choice to kill and B) immediately departing from the Superman titles, leaving it up to others to pick up the pieces. On the first point, in Byrne’s defense, I would argue that sometimes, in the real world, you do have literal no-win situations such as the one in issue #22. Yes, writers of fiction can, and typically do, include convenient escape clauses that allow their protagonists to find a way out of a seemingly irrevocable moral dilemma. But, y’know, once it a while it is interesting and refreshing to see a writer push the boundaries, not give the hero a convenient “out” and watch what happens when the $#!+ really hits the fan.
And that brings me to the second point. I really do not know how abrupt Byrne’s departure was from Superman. But as Jerry Ordway relates in the Modern Masters volume covering his career, he and Byrne had been working pretty closely together for some time to plot out the direction of the Superman books. They had concrete plans to show the serious, long-lasting effects of Superman’s actions in the Pocket Universe. The whole subplot of Clark Kent having a nervous breakdown and taking on the Gangbuster identity originated with Byrne and Ordway. After Byrne departed, Ordway carried it forward with new writer Roger Stern. And that, in turn, led to Superman’s decision to temporarily exile himself from Earth.
The point is, yes, I do think that a character like Superman should willing to use lethal force, but only where there is absolutely no other option available. I certainly do not want to see him making a habit of killing bad guys! Written properly, Superman will attempt all other possible alternatives to resolving a conflict before resorting to killing a foe. If he does have to take a life, it should be seen to weigh heavily on him. And when a writer has him make that decision, it should be in the service of the telling of a really interesting, thought-provoking story, rather than just for the purpose of generating gratuitous bloodshed!
Of course, your mileage may vary. No doubt there are some who will completely disagree with me on this. Indeed, a quarter century later, Superman #22 still remains a very controversial issue. Looking at this, one can certainly infer that the character of Superman is such an icon, and has come to mean so much to so many, that a story such as “The Price” continues to inspire such passionate debate.