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Sunday, March 27, 2016 

Rob Salkowitz writes about the Superman killing topic

In a followup to the Mark Hughes op-ed on whether Superman should be depicted killing, another Forbes contributor, Rob Salkowitz, wrote his own take on the issue. It may be after the movie's opened, but it's still worth looking at. He tends to take a slightly different view than Hughes, but either way, there is what to ponder here. At the beginning, he brings up Supes' killing General Zod:
This plot twist divided the fan community between those who claim that Superman never kills, and those who defend David Goyer and Zack Snyder’s creative choices as necessary to the storyline. Hughes amply documents that whatever you think about the merits of the story, Superman’s lethal decision was not without precedent in the comics.

In this he is correct. Strictly speaking, Superman the character has taken a life on occasion. But the bigger question – and one that is appropriately discussed in a business publication like Forbes rather than a fan site – is, does Superman the brand stand for killing?

The answer to that, historically, is no. Does it matter that Warner Brothers has changed the Superman brand significantly in this way? I’d argue yes.

And we are not talking about just any brand here. We are talking about one of the most powerful and positive brands in American history, one that captured the imagination of generations and is instantly recognizable to almost everyone on the planet. The question is, will their decision pay off?
Globally speaking, yes, it does look that way. Foreign sales have become a major source of income for many blockbusters today, though the domestic gross is still remains to be seen about. As for the query whether the brand stands for taking lives, rest assured, of course even I don't think it stands for that. I just think that, if a story, in itself, were to be written where Superman does take lives, that it be portrayed in the appropriate circumstances, like self-defense and saving innocent lives endangered by the villains. And whether such stories are greenlighted, any agreements or disagreements have to be lodged with the assigned writers/editors.
Who is Superman? Superman the brand has traditionally stood for justice, not revenge; force, not violence. He is the most powerful being on Earth but feels a deep responsibility to stand up for the powerless. He is strong but never a bully, and he chooses to follow the laws when it would be simple to impose his own. He would rather die himself than kill another knowingly. In a word, his brand is “paragon.”

This was a deliberate choice by his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who saw the character as a beacon of hope during the Depression and the rise of foreign dictators. It’s tempting to say his wholesome quality was the product of a simpler time, but that’s not quite right. During the 30s, popular culture was dominated by bloodthirsty vigilantes like the Shadow, who had no problem dusting off thugs with his .45 automatics, or gangster anti-heroes who starred in movies like Scarface. Instead of taking that road, they made him an incorruptible champion. And it paid off.
Even so, I hope he realizes that they too wrote a few stories where Superman did wipe out some criminals, and it's just a question of what they and the publishers decided would be the best world view applied to Supes afterwards. But if the stories where Supes did take guilty lives were written well, then that should at least be given some consideration.
Billion-Dollar Boy Scout. Superman was an immediate success. His comics sold in the millions, launching an entire industry, and were followed almost immediately by toys, clothing, movies, radio programs and just about every kind of merchandise that licensers could put in front of the public.

The men who ran DC from the 1930s through the ’60s did not have many scruples, but they were scrupulous about protecting Superman’s honorable reputation. They recognized that they were sitting on a goldmine whose value rested on a character who was virtuous, restrained, and even a little bit stuffy. By managing their franchise shrewdly, they turned a sketchy printing and magazine distribution business into a company whose assets were eventually leveraged to purchase Warner Brothers, then merged with Time, to create the media conglomerate we know today.
I think he goofed on who bought who: it's the other way around; WB purchased DC, in about 1973 (most likely to for movie-making because they saw dollars in it). Whether DC was making money at the time, I don't think they were wealthy enough to buy a whole movie studio on the company's budget.

And is he suggesting the publishers were of the opinion that the audience wouldn't appreciate a character who kills even under the right circumstances like self-defense? I'm not saying Supes had to be depicted killing if the writers/publishers didn't want such stories done, but this honestly sounds at least a little bit like they don't have much faith in the audience's intelligence. The same could probably be argued with the early Marvel products.
Reinventing an Icon. One of the strengths of an iconic brand is elasticity. When people identify strongly with core brand values, you can get away with doing practically anything at the margins. And that’s what happened with Superman.

Over time, succeeding generations of creators aspired took the franchise in new directions. Superman changed his look, his costume, his personality, his powers; revealed his secret identity; married Lois Lane; you name it. But throughout all the changes, the editors – who were in fact underpaid brand managers – made sure to emphasize that what made Superman super was not his powers, but his choices.
Once, that was the case. But not today. Now it's all a matter of shoehorning Supes into every company wide crossover in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. And changing the Man of Steel's costume into electricity in 1997 did nothing for the brand. As for getting away at the margins, I think that could also be done with minor cast members, if they wanted to. It's not just Superman who bore those kind of standards most of the time.
Kingdom Come (1996) by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, for example, presents us with a grim older Superman who comes out of retirement to save the world from a new generation of heroes without a moral compass. This Superman has made plenty of mistakes, but he never took a life, even at great cost, and that decision is what gives his character force.
Boy, that was surely an early PC moment for Waid/Ross, in hindsight.
Were there some exceptions? Sure. Superman has been continuously published in the comics for over 75 years, and among the thousands of stories that hundreds of creators have told, a few are “off brand” or indulge the whims of folks who thought it was a good idea to “go there” just for the sake of being edgy and different. It’s the same kind of thinking that leads people to pitch stuff like “let’s tell the story of how Strawberry Shortcake got molested by her pervy uncle” or “how about having Scooby and the gang sent to a Turkish prison.” Missteps of that sort are perfectly predictable in an industry where professionals labor to make characters created for children relevant to an audience that is now mostly adults.
Here, Salkowitz is onto something. The mentality he alludes to is the exact same kind of mindset that led to Identity Crisis, and that's why I'm wondering: is he aware of that abominable miniseries laced as it was with misogyny? Because if he feels Superman shouldn't be exploited for cheap sensationalism, then neither should the rest of the DCU, and it's got little to do with whether they're aimed at children or not. It has what to do with whether the publishers lost their own moral compass and started pandering to people with low morale and bad taste, and sacrifice common sense for the sake of their own personal, perverted notions of fun. I'd be interested in knowing if he's aware of those kind of products and the harm they can do, not just to brands, but also to superhero comicdom as a whole.
Scale Matters. Superman comics today sell about 60,000 copies in a really good month, and what happens in their pages is of interest to only a hard core of serious fans. The impact of an out-of-character storyline to the overall brand is pretty limited.
I'll give him credit for acknowledging that such paltry sums do not a success make. But that's still no substitute for an argument about why alternatives to the monthly pamphlet model need to be found, since the current format is no longer viable. Towards the end, he says:
What did Warner Bros. get for undoing 75-plus years of equity in a multi-billion dollar brand? Well, it appears they set up the next movie, which picks up the thread of having a super-powered alien around who is unbound by any firm principle, and feels entitled to dispatch his enemies if he sees fit.

That might be a cool story. It’s just not a Superman story that anyone would recognize.
Again, I would note that it all depends on how the story with a killing is handled. If it's something involving self-defense, a them-or-me scenario, or saving the life of an innocent in danger, that's not something to be overly concerned about, and it wouldn't undermine the optimistic viewpoint that suits Superman's world by a long shot. Those of us familiar with Flash history know that Barry Allen killed the Reverse-Flash to save the life of a woman he almost married (Fiona Webb), towards the end of the Silver/Bronze Age run. It may have been accidental there, but it does count as a time when a speedster did kill, and was acting in defense of an innocent life. So let's not think it's wrong if a similar story were written with the Man of Steel. And then, what would matter is how talented the writing was.

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