Movie Talk

'Man of Steel' Controversy: Does Superman Go Too Far? (Spoiler Alert)

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Superman, handcuffed in 'Man of Steel'

Superman, handcuffed in 'Man of Steel' (Photo: Warner Bros.)

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the new Superman flick "Man of Steel," but plan to, you may want to leave this Burning Q page right now. It’s spoiler-tastic!

Still here? OK, consider yourself warned.

Superman violently kills General Zod in Man of Steel?!?!?! WTF??? I thought that Superman was a non-killer. Is the older, gentler Superman dead forever??? — Y.K.

Superman fans certainly are fearing as much. For what it's worth, Kal-El does feel pretty bad about having to snap that bad guy's neck, and the filmmakers do make an effort to sell us on the idea that superhero feels, at least, at one point, like he has no choice.

But still, you're right. The Superman brand isn't generally associated with the breaking of necks, even evil ones. Heck, even some enemies taunt him about his non-lethal ways (see the animated film "Superman vs. The Elite" or read "Action Comics" No. 775, on which it was based).

[MORE: Superman's 20 Least Super Moments]

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(Photo: DC Comics)

However, there are some notable exceptions.

"During the 'Death of Superman' series in the 1990s, he technically killed [supervillain] Doomsday," notes Siike Donnelly of the iconic Golden Apple Comics store in Los Angeles. "They fought to a standstill, and we were lead to assume they were both dead."

Supes also kills a supervillain in the video game "Injustice," but only after essentially being backed into a corner. The earliest significant killing by Superman dates back to the 1980s, during a storyline when Kal-El used green kryptonite to finish off a particularly nasty version of General Zod in a so-called "Pocket Universe" (translation: the regular General Zod was still alive in the normal DC Universe).

Still: Watching Henry Cavill's deadlier iteration of the classic hero isn’t sitting well with many fans.

[MORE: 'Man of Steel' Tornado Scene: Is It Too Soon? ]

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(Photo: DC Comics)

Comics writer Mark Waid (whose Superman stories influenced the film) summed up the sentiment in a recent blog post.

"As the credits rolled, I told myself I was upset because Superman doesn't kill. Full-stop, Superman doesn't kill," he writes.

Waid wasn't the only one left scratching his head — or rather, banging it against a wall. Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly unleashed an attack on the film's big surprise: "I think this is the single most disturbing plot point in any blockbuster movie this summer. Disturbing, because I get the vibe that the filmmakers don’t even come close to understanding how crazy, how unexpected, how just plain wrong Superman killing someone is."

Unlike Franich, Waid tried to make sense of it all: "But sitting there, I broke it down some more in my head because I sensed there was more to it ... I granted that [the filmmakers] at least tried to present Superman with an impossible choice and, on a purely rational level, if this had been a movie about a guy named Ultraguy, I might even have bought what he did."

"But after I processed all that, I realized that it wasn't so much my uncompromising vision of Superman that made this a total-fail moment for me; it was the failed lead-up TO the moment."

[MORE: Why Are DC Comics Movies Darker Than Marvel's ]

Donnelly essentially agrees.

"I'm scared this may lead to a decline in the character," says Donnelly, who also hosts a Superman-themed podcast called Up, Up and Away. "Superman is supposed to be a hero who finds the way out. The darker side in us may see Superman considering a kill and think, 'Do it!' But we count on Superman to, in the end, come up with a better solution."

Of course, "better solutions" have gotten grayer in a post-9/11 world. But for fans like Donnelly, that shouldn’t matter when it comes to a classic brand such as Superman.

[MORE: Analyzing the Curse of Superman]

"I was 100 percent into the movie until that happened," Donnelly tells me. "I mean, I had a cape on, I was like a 6-year-old boy, and then the second Superman does that, all the wind was taken out of me. My shoulders slumped as I was on my way of the theater. I took my cape off. I felt defeated."

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General Zod, played by Michael Shannon in 'Man of Steel'

General Zod, played by Michael Shannon in 'Man of Steel' (Photo: Warner Bros.)

As for why the Man of Steel filmmakers may have gone in this direction, their partners at DC Comics declined to comment on this story. Donnelly, however, has his own theory.

"I'm sure there was a lot of debate on whether they should do this," he tells me. "I think they wanted to get people talking, create controversy. I feel the decision was made for that reason, and was not true to the Superman character."

UPDATE: Some commenters have pointed out that it did appear that the Man of Steel killed General Zod and his Kryptonian companions in their first big-screen appearance in "Superman II." And it's true that in the theatrical version, Superman tricks Zod into losing his invulnerability, crushes his hand, and flings the villain away. Zod slides down a crevasse in the Fortress of Solitude, never to be seen again.

This gives the appearance that Superman offed his nemesis, but there was another scene that was filmed but edited out where Zod and his cronies are seen alive and well being taken away by arctic police. This scene wasn't included in the original movie or subsequent DVD releases, but it did appear in extended TV versions.

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