We’re only weeks away from the premiere of Batman v Superman. And it remains to be seen if that movie will retroactively justify some of the most widely-hated choices in Man of Steel. Based on Zack Snyder’s comments over the last three years, we can guess that it won’t.
It’s been almost three years since Man of Steel opened in theaters. And for almost the exact same amount of time, Zack Snyder has been fielding questions about the controversial ending.
There are a number of things about the climax to Man of Steel that infuriated people watching the movie. There was the massive death and destruction. There was the hilarious product placement during the massive carnage. And then there was Superman snapping the neck of Zod. Maybe fans could have handled one of these awful things, but all of them, piled on top of each other, was hard for people to take. So everyone began to ask Snyder: “Why?”
The earliest in-depth response came a few days after the film was released, in an interview with the Empire Film podcast. In it Snyder, and writer David S. Goyer (who should not be let off the hook for this either), talk a lot about how that ending came to be. And it doesn’t make anyone sound great.
Here’s what Snyder said in 2013 about Superman killing Zod:
In the original version of the script, he just got zapped into the Phantom Zone. David [S. Goyer] and I had long talked about it, and Chris [Nolan] and I talked long about it. And I was like, “I really think he should kill Zod, and I really feel like Superman should kill him.”
This account is backed up by Goyer, who, in the same podcast, said that Nolan told them there was no way they could have that ending. He flat out told them not to write it. Goyer added that they talked to people at DC who told them “No way. No way.” Which Goyer and Snyder apparently didn’t see as a logical reading of the character, and more of a challenge to find the one situation where Superman would kill. Snyder said, later in the Empire podcast, “I just felt like we were able to create this scenario where either Superman is going to see these people get chopped in half or he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.”
Snyder’s original reasoning for having Superman kill is more than a little disturbing:
The why of it for me was, well, if it’s truly an origin story, his aversion to killing is unexplained. It’s just in his DNA. And I felt like we needed him to do something—just like him putting on the glasses or going to the Daily Planet, or any of the other things that you’re sort of seeing for the first time, that you realize will then become sort of his thing.
Yes, if you don’t murder once, how can you ever come to the conclusion that murder is bad? That’s how morality works, right?
That Empire podcast in June of 2013 is also where Snyder explains that the goal was to make the audience less sure about Superman as they had known him:
If there were more adventures for our Superman to go on, then you are also given this thing where you don’t know 100 percent what he’s gonna do. When you really put in stone the concept that he won’t kill and it’s totally in stone, it really erases an option in the viewer’s mind.
Now, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t now have a code ... but you’ll always have in the back of your mind this little of like, “Well, like how far can you push him?” Right? Like, if he sees Lois get hurt or he sees his mother get killed or something, you just made a really mad Superman that we know is capable of some really horrible stuff.
Consistent characterization just isn’t any fun, apparently. There’s every chance that Superman loses it and starts killing in Batman v Superman, since we’ve seen Lois in peril in the trailer. Remember this when it comes out.
In 2013, Snyder also gave a justification for the massive destruction of Metropolis. Here’s what he told the Japan Times that summer:
I wanted the movie to have a mythological feeling. In ancient mythology, mass deaths are used to symbolize disasters. In other countries like Greece and Japan, myths were recounted through the generations, partly to answer unanswerable questions about death and violence. In America, we don’t have that legacy of ancient mythology. Superman (who first appeared in ‘Action Comics’ in 1938) is probably the closest we get. It’s a way of recounting the myth.
Snyder’s belief that comics are America’s version of mythology is a fairly widespread refrain among a certain set. And yet, his interpretation that mythology needs death is a specific twist. This is all of a piece with everything Snyder was saying in 2013, including a press conference where he confidently asserted, “I felt like in the recent past, people have been apologizing for Superman a little bit, for his costume, for his origins, the way he fits into society. And we really wanted to just say, ‘No, no, this is the mythology, this is how it is, and it’s supposed to be this way.’”
Neither “Superman needs to murder so he won’t kill again” nor “mythology means death” stuck around as explanations, as Snyder kept getting asked about that ending. But he did continue to assert that his Superman is the realest Superman. That remained one of the few constants in his ever-evolving defense.
By the end of 2013, Snyder’s justification for Superman’s willingness to kill had already changed. Now, this was less about making a really great and interesting choice, and more about setting up sequels. We also saw a sudden turn towards the idea that Snyder was being more true to the comics than anyone was recognizing—even though Goyer had already admitted that they asked some people at DC, and those comics people weren’t really on board with the whole “murder” thing.
At a Man of Steel fan event in November of 2013, Snyder said, “It’s a real world problem... It is a deeply difficult decision for [Superman] to make. It’s not a thing that he takes lightly, and you can see it affects him pretty profoundly.” He then teased that it would come up in the next film: “And maybe we’ll see the repercussions of that in the next film. How that’s affected him, making that decision… Maybe.”
Later, Snyder would claim everything was all a part of a plan. Retroactively.
By 2014, Snyder had refined his answer about Superman a bit, so it sounded less as though he welcomed the challenge of making a Superman who killed believable, and more like he’s the one true fan who understands Superman, and everyone else is faking.
A Forbes interview, published on April 17, has Snyder putting down “movie-only” fans, and trying to appeal to “real” comics fans. Including a pretty condescending treatment of Christopher Reeve’s Superman:
I think with Superman we have this opportunity to place this icon within the sort of real world we live in. And I think that, honestly, the thing I was surprised about in response to Superman was how everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, you know? How tightly they cling to those ideas, not really the comic book version but more the movie version… If you really analyze the comic book version of Superman, he’s killed, he’s done all the things– I guess the rules that people associate with Superman in the movie world are not the rules that really apply to him in the comic book world, because those rules are different. He’s done all the things and more that we’ve shown him doing, right? It’s just funny to see people really taking it personally… because I made him real, you know, I made him feel, or made consequences [in] the world.
Which may be true, but a) comics have a huge history and backlog that provide more context to occasional outliers such as Superman killing and b) he wasn’t writing a comic, he was making a movie. And c) that’s not how he defended it originally. Snyder’s original reasoning was that they wanted to explain why Superman didn’t kill any more—not that Superman has always killed, and saying he didn’t was a betrayal of the comics character.
The “realism” angle was not only brand new, it was also in direct contradiction to the “mythology” reason that he’d given earlier. And which Snyder then goes back to in his very next answer in the Forbes interview, which he begins by saying, “I really believe this — and I think it’s obvious — I believe superheroes, they’re our modern myths.”
Snyder presented himself as bewildered by the bad reaction to the ending in a July, 2015 Entertainment Weekly interview, saying, “I was surprised because that’s the thesis of Superman for me, that you can’t just have superheroes knock around and have there be no consequences.” He’s focusing on the destruction in Metropolis here, and not the death of Zod.
Presumably Snyder wasn’t actually surprised by the reaction to Zod’s death, since David S. Goyer told Empire in 2013 that “We were pretty sure that was going to be controversial.”
In the Entertainment Weekly interview, Snyder goes on to say:
There are other superhero movies where they joke about how basically no one’s getting hurt. That’s not us. What is that message? That’s it’s okay that there’s this massive destruction with zero consequence for anyone?
It’s an interesting trick he’s pulling. His original defense was a more cerebral story puzzle, about how Superman’s origin requires him to learn the hard way. Then Snyder’s response became more about being true to the comic book character. But now, it’s more that everyone upset is stupid because there are consequences to having Superman around, dammit—and Man of Steel was smart enough to know that. The longer Snyder gets criticized, the more defensive he becomes. Which might be fair, but it doesn’t actually stop the questions.
We’re only a few months into 2016, but since Batman v Superman is coming out in just a few weeks, Zack Snyder’s been faced with these questions again. In an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, published in late January, Snyder once again defended Metropolis’ flattening:
I stand by it, because for me, I’ve always said when I was working on Watchmen—and maybe it’s sort of left over from a Watchmen philosophical sort of thing—that there should be consequences to superheroes’ interaction with the Earth. And that was kind of the way that we approached Man of Steel. I wanted a big consequence to Superman’s arrival on Earth. Certainly, Batman v Superman sort of cashes in all its chips on the ‘why’ of that destruction.
Not only are the consequences necessary, he says, but they set up Batman v Superman. They had to do it. Of course, that still doesn’t explain the murder of Zod or his utterly terrifying notion that Superman could snap and kill again at any time, but okay.
Then we’ve got the February 4 “Hall of Justice” podcast episode. Which brings every justification he’s ever given home in a giant basket of condescension:
I knew that we were really updating a character, a beloved character. And I don’t think changing him… you know, people are always like, “You changed Superman,” and I’m like, if you’re a comic book fan, you know I didn’t change Superman. If you know the true canon, you know that I didn’t change Superman. If you’re a fan of the old movies, yeah, I changed him a bit. But you know that’s the difference.
You know I’m a bit of a comic book fan, and I always default to the true canon. Not the sort of cinematic canon ... where they play slightly fast and loose with the rules. And so, I feel like I tried to create a Superman that would set a tone for the world.
At this point, he’s given up using plot and story and sequels and mythology to justify it all. He’s even stopped dodging the issue of Zod. Snyder’s literally asking to see the geek card of everyone who has ever disagreed with him. He’s asking people to prove they’re real fans. “Tell me how many comics you’ve read. Well, I’ve read more, so my interpretation is more valid” is an argument that has never really worked.
And, bizarrely for someone making a movie, he’s also saying that movie canon is intrinsically bullshit. Of course, his canon is true, because his heart is pure. And he is tired of trying to explain this to people in a reasonable way.
With all the different rhetorical tactics he’s deployed, there’s every chance that Zack Snyder is going to be defending his choices in Man of Steel for the rest of his life. He could have gone conciliatory and said, “We did what we felt was true to the character, apparently other people disagreed. Maybe it was a mistake not to consider how a wider audience would react, but we still think we made the right movie.” But he hasn’t. If anything, he’s only gotten more defensive with time.
Which is actually really worrying, because it could indicate that, instead of learning from Man of Steel, he’s going to double-down in Batman v Superman. You can’t learn from a mistake that you refuse to admit you made.