It’s pointless to relitigate the Great Super Necksnap Trial of 2013. You know what I’m talking about — SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO DIDN’T SEE MAN OF STEEL, YOU LUCKY BASTARDS — that big scene at the end of Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot when Superman snaps General Zod’s neck.
That narrative decision inspired lots of criticism, from brilliant comic book writers and gasbag pundits alike. But whatever. The trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice pretends that “Having a Major Moral/Ethical Problem with Man of Steel” was always the grand plan, and now Ben Affleck’s Batman gets to be the onscreen incarnation of all the people who had issues with Henry Cavill’s Superman.
And yet: Man of Steel screenwriter and superhero profiteer David Goyer just reopened the cold case on an episode of the Nerdist podcast. “You have to do what’s right for the story,” says the guy who wrote the screeplay based on the story he and Christopher Nolan came up with. “This was a Superman who had only been Superman for like a week. He wasn’t Superman as we think of him in the DC Comics… he’d only flown for the first time a few days before that.”
It’s true, Man of Steel did compact a curious amount of Superman’s early history into the span of a few very eventful days — a storytelling decision that you may find strange or haphazard, but which we can all agree could only end with Superman snapping someone’s neck. Of course, Superman in the comics doesn’t snap people’s necks, and has only killed people in very specific non-neck-snapping circumstances that inevitably result in ruinous emotional consequences.
But again, Man of Steel’s Superman wasn’t actually Superman, even though everything about him besides a propensity for neck-snapping was explicitly and ineffably Superman-like. “He’d never fought anyone that had superpowers before,” Goyer continues. “And so he’s going up against a guy who’s not only superpowered, but has been training since birth to use those superpowers.”
Goyer is referring to General Zod, although he actually appears to be confusing his own fake science just a little bit. It’s true that Zod was a supersoldier, but Zod didn’t actually have superpowers until he arrived on Earth and stopped wearing his bio-suit. So actually, you could argue that Superman was vastly more experienced than Zod at using superpowers, since he had spent a lifetime picking up schoolbuses and getting vengeance on douchebag truckers and not saving Kevin Costner.
“If you take this powered alien who says, ‘You can have your race back, but you have to kill your adopted race,’” says Goyer, “The moral, horrible situation to be in is to actually be forced to kill — not wanting to — the only other person from your race.”
It’s true, if you are specifically telling a story filled with one-dimensional characters defined entirely by the zero-sum character trait of Saving Earth or Destroying Earth, you may find yourself writing a scene where a hero has to make an impossible moral decision after an entire movie spent making no moral decisions.
Typically, the best Superman stories of the last 77 years focus on how Superman manages to successfully save the world without compromising his integrity, often with a combination of superpowers, ingenuity, and an infinite capacity for believing in the best possible version of humanity. But again, man, you’re looking at it all wrong. “If you take Superman out of it,” says Goyer, referring specifically to the Superman movie he wrote about Superman, “what’s the right way to tell that story?”