This one comes with a serious SPOILER ALERT. If you have not gotten out to see Man of Steel and plan to do so, you may not want to read further. The same goes if you’ve somehow managed to get this far without seeing each entry in The Dark Knight trilogy.
Throughout the Dark Knight films, Bruce Wayne pursues his crusade against crime following a single rule. He refuses to kill. That sole self-imposed limitation becomes a huge liability in the second film once his enemies begin to leverage it against him. Nevertheless, he abides by it until the end, never killing even when the act could be wholly justified.
By contrast, the recently released Man of Steel produced by Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan from a script co-written by Dark Knight scribe David S. Goyer ends with Superman choosing to kill his Kryptonian nemesis, General Zod. Acknowledging that each franchise takes place in different universes, there nonetheless exist significant stylistic and thematic similarities which spawn from their common artistic pool. We may therefore ask whether Superman’s morality proves inferior to Batman’s. Is Clark less of a hero because he chose to kill? Does Bruce present a higher standard?
As we mull such questions over, we do well to consider the inadequacy of Bruce’s standard in the Dark Knight finale. Recall that Batman is rescued by Catwoman, who kills Bane in the process. Since Batman goes on to remove a nuclear weapon from Gotham City, it can be accurately said that Catwoman’s willingness to kill ultimately saves not just his life, but millions of others. Can we derive a lesson from there?
Whether it was intentional or not, Nolan’s D.C. superhero multiverse presents a mature consideration of when we may morally take a life. The conclusion offered abides by the widely accepted use of force continuum employed by law enforcement. Put simply, you should never bring a knife to a gunfight. When defending yourself or others, a level of force greater than that encountered is required. At the point where you encounter a potentially lethal threat, deadly force becomes justified. To cap your response, to say you will not kill, is to concede any encounter to an assailant who will.
Superman chooses to kill Zod for that very reason. The alien general, deprived of his genetically encoded purpose for living, seeks revenge upon the people of Earth. At the climax, while the two Kryptonians grapple, Zod strikes out with his otherworldly power in a sincere effort to murder a family. No ambiguity exists in that moment. The family will die or Zod will.
Superman’s choice takes on added weight when we consider his broader dilemma throughout the film, a choice between the world of his birth and this one he has adopted. The fact that Superman was born unique among his race, free to craft his own destiny in defiance of several generations of genetic predisposition, takes on great significance in the moment he chooses to protect human beings at the expense of Krypton’s remnant. Far from calling into question his heroism, the choice to kill defines it.
In a time when the death penalty has become increasingly unpopular, and the notion of self-defense and Second Amendment rights in particular languish under fire, it is refreshing to encounter an affirmation of the right to protect innocent life in a summer blockbuster. Christopher Nolan and company have intelligently woven legitimate moral principles into popcorn entertainment without coming off as preachy. Here’s hoping the trend will continue as the Man of Steel universe expands in sequels and other DC Comics properties.