As General Zod gets dangerously close to murdering a family of four, the thought that kept running through my head was, “Superman, just snap his neck!” And then he did.
Yes, Superman snapped General Zod’s neck. And then he screamed in anguish about it for a while. Reactions from the crowd in the theatre included laughter, gasps, cries of “oh, shit!” and stunned silence.
As a scholar of peace studies and conflict resolution, I realize that my initial reaction is less than ideal. Yet, violence is a part of the human experience and it is important to understand how it is glorified and why we sometimes revel in violent eye-for-an-eye, or retributive justice. The superhero genre is especially guilty of this.
The genre clearly favors a retributive model leaving us little opportunity to imagine how Superman could have stopped Zod without snapping his neck. When forced into a situation where you believe your only options are killing or watching a family get murdered, Superman had only one option. Especially after Zod’s monologue where he declares:
“We could have rebuilt Krypton on this planet, but you chose the humans over us. I exist only to protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born. And every action I take, no matter how violent or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people. And now, I have no people. My soul, that is what you have taken from me!”
As an audience, we are primed to view Zod as a soulless, evil baddie, programmed to take any action necessary for his people. Zod is now depicted as a soulless warrior who will stop at nothing to kill all mankind. Our understanding of this makes the kill scene more palatable.
Oh, by the way–so what if Superman kills?
If we situate this event in the broader context of the superhero genre, it is clear that there exists a strong connection between violence and heroism. Superhero stories in comic books are powerful narratives that serve as metaphors for freedom, power, and overcoming oppression. Within these stories, there are numerous and graphic representations of violence as a common strategy used for exacting justice and resolving conflict.
Superheroes have become what Stan Lee calls “twentieth-century mythology… an entire contemporary mythos, a family of legends that might be handed down to future generations.” (For more on this see Morrison’s book Supergods. Review and interview here). Because of the way that this genre permeates our culture and the legacy it creates, it is imperative that we increase our efforts to understand its impact and contribute to alternative narratives.
With the glorification of the use of violence as a conflict resolution strategy, mass consumption of this media contributes to the way young people see themselves and also to the way that Americans and consumers of American media view justice.
If over ninety percent of the creators writing and drawing the stories that we see in comic books are men, then the narratives that are being explored represent the stories that the men who are running the industry want to see, or are capable of imagining.
If we consume heroism and superheroes as predominantly the province of hyper-masculine white men, then we are denied much of the imagination and creativity of what it means to be brave and heroic. These narratives shape our ideas of what we think non-masculine/white/men are capable of, or conversely, how masculine/white/men believe they should perform heroism and justice. And, in a despicable turn of events, maybe I will let let the words of Mark Miller and Tod McFarlane drive home my point for me.
As if the over reliance on violence to tell a good story isn’t irritating enough, the National Guard used the Man of Steel as a recruitment tool. Here’s an anecdote for why linking superheroes with recruitment for the military industrial complex is a terrible idea. This is a conversation I had last week with an eight year old boy who is a huge fan of Superman:
Me: Why do you like the military?
Boy: Because I like war.
Me: Why do you like war?
Boy: Because I like weapons.
Me: Why do you like weapons?
Boy: Because I like killing bad guys.
Me: Who are the bad guys?
Boy: shrugs shoulders
Superheroes beat up and at times kill the “bad guys,” for the proverbial common good. In the case of Man of Steel, as I mentioned above, Zod’s monologue offered us, as viewers, a legitimate reason for why he must be stopped at any cost. However, in our world, over 90% of casualties of war are civilians – most of whom are women and children. And the bad guys? It is unlikely they were genetically engineered to be soulless killing machines.
When we begin to weave themes of militarism and moral dualism into the superhero genre with the already compelling narrative of hyper-masculine violence as a means to make a point (i.e. rape is the way we show you someone is a bad guy) we see a tragic lack of imagination for how our superheroes resolve conflict and perform peace and justice in our world.
When Superman killed Zod he did exactly what I was screaming at him to do from my seat in the theatre. The use of this conflict resolution strategy was both predictable and easy. Snap his neck. Problem solved, right?
Not quite. Especially if we consider that the fight sequence that dragged on for-ev-er probably kills hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians long before Zod threatens to kill the family of four. If you are going to use Superman as a recruitment tool for the military industrial complex, portraying his conflict resolution strategy as snapping the neck of the bad guy is a gross injustice. Superman is capable of performing a more creative and restorative justice; and so are we.