###SPOILER ALERT### If you have not seen Man of Steel, DO NOT READ###
In the past several years, nearly every major comic book/graphic novel has been restarted on the big screen, which means die-hard fans have had to sit through the retelling of origin stories. In some cases, the origins have been changed slightly, which has allowed writers license to go in new directions (e.g., Star Trek). Other movies, however, have retold the origin stories so poorly that it felt like nothing more than filler. In some instances, the origin stories took up too much time and did nothing for the plots involved, such as the 2012 version of The Amazing Spiderman.
Needless to say, when I saw the ads for Man of Steel, I was wary because it was rather clear that they were going to retell the origin story. Fortunately, the movie’s writer, David S. Goyer, found a way to balance Superman’s back-story with the momentum of the plot, and he did so in a way that beautifully establishes the dynamics of the characters for the next movie (s).
Beyond Goyer’s phenomenal balancing act, I believe his more detailed inclusion of Krypton’s history played a vital role in re-creating a new version of the antagonist, General Zod. Instead of a cardboard-cutout-Hitler-esque bad guy bent on genocide, as he’s been portrayed in previous adaptations, Goyer’s careful use of back-story and crafting has created a version of Zod that actually gains sympathy from the audience.
Most Superman origin stories agree on certain key facts:
Basically, Kryptonians have become advanced technologically, yet they have somehow depleted their natural resources and, as a result, the planet is on the verge of destruction. The head scientist, Jor-El (Kal-El/Superman’s father), has been trying to convince the government that things need to change, but the government doesn’t listen until it’s too late. The head of military forces, General Zod, for whatever reason believes Jor-El about the oncoming destruction of their planet. These two individuals diverge greatly on their ideas for potential solutions, though. Zod, generally cast in the role of villain, promotes a more militaristic solution of choosing the best Kryptonians to survive, while Jor-El, pseudo-hero and scientific idealist, wants to either use science to save the planet or use science to build technology to get everyone to safety.
In Man of Steel, these base origin elements are mostly in play, but Goyer includes some brilliant and thought-provoking additions to make us question Kryptonian culture.
First of all, the new origin establishes the fact that Kryptonians have abandoned natural childbirth methods in favor of producing offspring genetically predesigned for particular vocations. While this may sound ludicrous to us, it’s completely rational and normative for Kryptonians. Controlling population expansion and genetically altering individuals to be custom-designed for certain professions allows for focused growth and steady advancement in every professional field. Although the movie does not explain how long this practice has been going on, we know it’s a socially accepted practice due to Zod’s response to Jor-El’s announcement about having fathered the first naturally born Kryptonian in ages. Zod has a moment of shock and disbelief, and perhaps a brief moment of amazement, but he follows it with his Kryptonian social programming by deeming such an act “blasphemy.”
Second, since Kryptonians have abandoned natural procreation, they have established specific DNA sequences that supposedly carry the history of Krypton. Although this part is not thoroughly explained in the movie, one can assume that they are implying some sort of genetic memory, or at least some sort of genetic imprinting, but the logistics are not well discussed. For the sake of the movie, all we as viewers need to know is that the genetic information of Krypton has been stored in some device that looks like a skull fragment, and that this device is used to create offspring.
When Jor-El steals it and genetically attaches all the codes to the cellular structure of his son, he does so in an attempt to preserve the history of his people. However, we have to remember that Zod has been programmed and conditioned to be a perfect soldier. He only rebels against his government due to military logic. In his eyes, they have failed to preserve the sanctity of Krypton. Likewise, Jor-El’s actions to create a child through natural procreation and to steal the Kryptonian historical data sequences are both actions that Zod views as direct threats to his people.
Although Zod recognizes Jor-El’s actions as threats to the Kryptonian empire, there are brief moments where we see Zod questioning his own predesigned programming. For instance, after Zod and his team storm the senate and declare martial law, Jor-El asks Zod who gets to choose which Kryptonian bloodlines will be preserved. He even follows up his statement with a direct accusation of Zod being the one who will make such choices. Jor-El’s accusations imply that Zod is some sort of genocidal extremist, but Zod provides no answer. His lack of a response shows a moment of questioning. His military programming has told him that the government has failed and therefore he must declare martial law until the government can be restored. Making such decisions about choosing specific bloodlines would change Zod from military soldier into dictator. Although Zod has no problems being a leader to defend and protect Krypton, his actions do not necessarily imply he is ready to become dictator.
Goyer’s third addition to the general back-story includes flashbacks of Zod and his team searching for other Kryptonian settlements. Even though Zod and his fellow soldiers were sent to the Phantom Zone by the Kryptonian government, these outcasts still consider themselves true Kryptonians. After the destruction of their planet, their prime directive has changed to promote the survival of their species. They are not bent on revenge, and nor do they have any bloodlust against humans.
Like any military force, Zod and his soldiers are operating on certain protocols and procedures. They need to accomplish their goals of reestablishing their species, and they know they can do so through obtaining the DNA sequences that Jor-El stole. Granted, their choice to sacrifice the inhabitants of Earth for the re-creation of Krypton is ethically questionable, to say the least. However, all of their actions come from genetically pre-programmed ideals. Every part of their identity is about being a soldier. If they have no Krypton, they have no purpose. That’s why they are so willing to sacrifice billions of alien earthlings to rebuild their own planet.
All of these additions and others have added so much depth to the Kryptonian back-story, and these additions have allowed viewers the chance to feel sympathy for Zod. In the end, after his soldiers have been pulled back into the Phantom Zone, Zod is left alone on earth with Superman.
Talk about a man with truly nothing left to lose!
Zod has no hope of extracting the DNA sequence from Superman, since his only science officer was sucked up with the other soldiers. Therefore any hopes of rebuilding Krypton have been completely crushed. Zod literally loses it and gives in to his monstrous rage. He can’t live without a purpose. He can’t live without Krypton. Yet everything about his training and programming as a soldier stops him from killing himself. He has to become an unstoppable monster and he has to tell Superman that he will never stop, because he knows that Superman, the son of an idealist, would never kill unless pushed to the breaking point.
And for all of these reasons, we as viewers feel a heart wrenching sense of shock the moment that Superman kills Zod. Not only are we shocked because Superman has NEVER killed before, but our shock also comes from empathizing with the supposed villain. Such an in-depth back-story has allowed us the opportunity to understand everything about how Zod operates, so it’s not surprising that we feel both shock and confusion at the climax. Part of us wants to hug Superman and let him know that he HAD to do what he had to do, because Zod would never have stopped. But at the same time, another part of us wants to shed tears for the fallen soldier who lost everything.