Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Morality of Murder in Superman

052213_manofsteelzodtrailerfeat-600x450If you have seen the recent Man of Steel movie, some of you may be crying foul because of the ending.

Superman has always been a Christ figure and has always been a symbol of all that is morally good and right in the world. Superman is your basic good guy. Yeah, he struggles with it—there are some days he’d like to kill Lex Luthor (or at least beat him unconscious like Batman does with his villains), but he usually doesn’t. If Superman could, he would solve all his problems nonviolently, but it’s not always an option. Still, he tries to harm someone as little as possible and he certainly never kills anyone.

Big Man of Steel spoilers after the jump!

9f3But in Man of Steel, Superman murders General Zod, a bold and risky move on the part of the writers.

So what does this mean for Superman’s character? What happens when the hero who never kills, kills someone? Are the new movies now going to show a darker, edgier Superman who is willing to kill his villains? And is Superman no longer the hero that upholds morality?

We have seen in many adaptations that, when Superman kills people, bad things happen. In the Justice League animated series, the episode “A Better World” shows an alternate universe where Lex Luthor kills the Flash and Superman murders him in return, finally having enough of simply arresting Luthor. This leads Superman and the Justice League to become dictators and take over the world for the greater good. In the new fighting video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, the Joker tricks Superman into killing Lois Lane, their unborn child, and all of Metropolis. Superman, in retaliation, kills the Joker and takes over the world.

KC15So it seems that the new Superman is going to become more villain than hero if this trend is to be believed. Interestingly enough, a similar storyline to Injustice plays out in the comic book Kingdom Come. The Joker takes over the Daily Planet and murders Lois Lane, but Superman doesn’t kill him. He instead arrests him, but before he can bring the Joker to trial another superhero murders him. This new hero is hailed as a public servant for doing what Superman wouldn’t; meanwhile, Superman locks himself away in the Fortress of Solitude, believing that the world has changed too much for him if murder is an acceptable course of action.

So it seems that Superman almost has to avoid killing, when the few times he has done so have lead him to world domination. The very idea of not sparing someone’s life is so horrible to him that he would rather not live in a world where that is the norm.

So is this new Superman going to be evil? Not necessarily. The Superman of the new moviesuperman-no-kill is new to the hero game and new even to his powers and weaknesses in a lot of ways. He already used and closed the Phantom Zone to stop the other Kryptonians, and he currently doesn’t even know anything about things like Kryptonite. Even Superman’s Fortress of Solitude was seemingly destroyed by Zod and his followers. General Zod wasn’t going to stop killing people, and Superman had no way to subdue him and lock him away. So as far as Christian morality goes, would Superman’s actions be considered morally good or bad?

While some Christians still believe in the death penalty, in recent years the Catholic Church has denounced the death penalty as something unnecessary and barbaric. The main reason that the Catholic Church no longer supports the death penalty is that they believe there is no legitimate reason in today’s society. The death penalty is only viewed as acceptable if it is the only way to protect society, but with today’s modern methods of imprisonment, murder in the name of justice seems utterly unnecessary. The United States Catholic Council of Bishops (USCCB) explains the Catholic Church’s stance on the death penalty in A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death. They write:

In Catholic teaching the state has the recourse to impose the death penalty upon criminals convicted of heinous crimes if this ultimate sanction is the only available means to protect society from a grave threat to human life. However, this right should not be exercised when other ways are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life.—USCCB, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death

From a Catholic moral standpoint, Superman had no other way to protect society and punish Zod for his crimes. There was no way to subdue him or keep him locked up that Superman knew of in order protect others.

So morally speaking, Superman did the best possible action he could in his given situation, even if it wasn’t ideal. This doesn’t mean Superman needs to be darker or edgier in the next movie. Instead, maybe Superman is even more hesitant to kill now. Killing Zod was clearly something he didn’t want to do and was devastated after doing. The next movie should show a Superman who won’t kill until he exhausts all other options. In that way, Superman still ends up being one of the most morally good superheroes in comics.