Image by Compulsive Collector.
Krypton blows up. If you didn't already know that, you won't care anyway. And this isn't going to be a review of Man of Steel, because Mark Waid has already nailed that - everything that I would say, only phrased better and with more than adequate spoiler warnings.
Still here? Okay, so I share Mark's reaction to the final showdown between Supes and Zod. I wouldn't actually jump up and shout my opinion to a crowded cinema, as I figure they paid £15 to watch the movie, not listen to me. But hey, it's the USA. They do things differently there. (Here in the UK we do our shouting on the inside.)
That final snap (listen, I did say spoilers ahead) is just the last in a whole chain of narrative dominos that start toppling with relentless inevitability from the point that Zod and his rebels turn up in their big spiky ship. Here's how I picture the writers' meeting:
"Zod's got like a dozen guys with him. How's Superman going to beat all of them? Kryptonite?"
"Nah, we're keeping kryptonite for the sequel with Luthor."
"Okay, so how about this? Jor-Ex-Machina figures out a way to suck 'em all back into the Phantom Zone."
"We're calling it a black hole, but OK so far."
"But we still need a big showdown with Zod. So he's gone off to get something, and he isn't on the ship when it gets black holed. All his soldiers have gone. His dream in ruins. He's alone, nothing to lose. Big punch-up."
"How's that going to end? Even if Superman beats him - and this is Farm Boy vs G.I. Joe, remember - what prison can hold him?"
"He's gotta die..?"
"Uh-huh. Gotta die."
[Both think furiously.]
"Got it. In the fight, Superman gets the upper hand. Arm round Zod's neck. But Zod, he's berserk now. 'I'm going to kill all these bitty humans!' So he's lasering his heat ray towards a few little people. 'Don't you do it!' says Kal. 'I will!' snarls Zod. So, tearfully, Superman snaps his neck."
Now, why am I (and Mark Waid) so profoundly pissed off by this outcome? First of all, it's Superman. He's not just a superhero, he's the superhero. Here's what the film-makers want us to think: boy, what an impossible situation. He has to take one life to save a half dozen others. At least they're innocents and Zod is a murdering arsehole, so the moral arithmetic works out fine.
No it doesn't. Captain Kirk was several times faced with that kind of a choice: sacrifice one to save many. And Spock may raise an eyebrow, but Kirk would say no, that's unacceptable - taking one life or taking many, I reject those choices. And he would find another way. Why? Because that's what heroes do.
For all that, it's not the disastrously misjudged morality of this Superman that bothers me most. It's that the writers just went with the laziest solution because coming up with a genuinely heroic conclusion would have called for much more ingenuity. Well, I shouldn't be casting stones at other writers, and Lord knows we've all been face to face with a deadline only to find the Muse hasn't got our back. Maybe they'd got tired by that point in the proceedings - two and a half hours of CGI devastation in 3D can do that. But if you're going to tell a story about a hero - about what it really means to be a hero - either know your play or pass the ball.
In Blade Runner, who saw it coming when Roy Batty lifts Deckard up onto the roof? That's a moment of heroic redemption, surprising but inevitable as all endings should be. Or, for a less familiar tale, watch André De Toth's 1959 western Day of the Outlaw. Robert Ryan is one of those guys out of time - a relic of a hero, now a danger to the settled community he made possible. Then a bunch of outlaws show up and hold the townsfolk hostage, and it's up to him to save the day. Today that part would be played by Bruce Willis with a quirky grin and two meaty fists, and he'd be quickly dispatching those baddies with a series of lethal Home Alone type manoeuvres, but in De Toth's movie it's not so easy. Ryan has no gun, he's one man with a mere mortal's strength. So, in the absence of any easier choices, he has to dig deep and be a hero. The ending of the story? I won't spoil it, but it's surprising and inevitable.
That's a lot harder work for the writer. Maybe some writers welcome the glut of comic book movies because they think it's all about biffing bad guys through skyscrapers. But I'm a comics fan from way back, avidly hanging on the escapades of Spider-Man and the X-Men while my schoolfriends were reading The Beano, and even as a little kid I always knew that being a superhero isn't about the cool powers. It isn't about ethical sums. It's a quality from within that shows the rest of us how to live. Without that, even the Man of Steel is just a muscle-bound jerk in a silly suit.