We do not know what the citizens of Earth know about the full facts of the story, but nonetheless, there are Man of Steel detractors that blame Clark for bringing Zod to Earth. They reason that all of Zod’s crimes are Clark’s fault for bringing Zod to Earth. Now admittedly anyone can be blamed for anything. Bigots are no stranger to scapegoating. However, is such a position reasonable, logical, or well thought out? Based on our conception of justice and reason, I don’t think it is.
Justifiable blame- or culpability- generally attaches if one has a culpable mental state, for example intending harm, combined with an avoidable action that is the proximate cause of that harm (and there are no excuses or justifications for the action).
In other words, we don’t punish people for wrongful thoughts if they do nothing wrong and we don’t punish people for conduct with harmful results unless their mindset behind the action was wrongful (purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently). There must be an aspect of free will to the act.
So what, if anything, can people allege that Clark did wrong?
Clark had no choice or free will in being naturally born, in having the Codex bonded to him, and in being sent to Earth. Those all resulted from Jor-El. Logically, Clark isn’t to blame for the actions, choices, and thoughts of others… and this extends to Zod. Clark is not responsible for Zod’s free will and actions. It is Zod who decides to exterminate humanity and endeavors to do so. Clark did not make those choices or take those actions, so how can he be blamed?
Generally, the alleged fault lies in Clark’s interaction with the Scout Ship, which makes him the cause-in-fact for Zod coming to Earth. [FN1] To be fair to detractors, Zod seems to level a similar accusation at Clark:
For 33 years we prepared until finally we detected a distress beacon which you triggered when you accessed the ancient scout ship. You led us here, Kal.
What did Clark actually do?
The ONLY thing Clark did of his own accord was enter the ship.
That’s it. Clark didn’t willfully send a distress signal. Detractors may blame Clark for also inserting his Command Key, but careful thought demonstrates that to be completely irrelevant. First, even if the signal was caused by his Command Key, Clark did not willfully transmit the signal so there is no blameworthy mental state or act.
Second, note that Zod characterizes it as a “distress beacon” which would have triggered irrespective of Clark. Consider the sequence of events. Clark enters the ship. There is a security drone already active and floating behind him BEFORE Clark presses the Command Key all the way in. The security drone attacks. THEN Clark presses the Command Key fully and the Sentry drone disengages.
Now, consider the possible sources of the distress signal. It could come from the Ship or the Command Key. Neither makes any sense AFTER the insertion of the Command Key. If the Ship is calling to Kryptonians for aide, the Command Key itself indicates the Kryptonians are there (thus why the Sentry Drone ceases hostilities)… there is no need to call for what has already arrived.
If the Command Key is the alleged source of the signal, well, Jor-El forged the Key with instructions for Kal-El after the presumed destruction of Krypton. Even if there were miraculous survivors, Jor-El did not even trust himself and Lara to join Kal-El on his journey to Earth, much less anyone else from Krypton. Jor-El held this conviction at the expense of his own life. Jor-El would not have coded the Command Key to send a distress signal to a people he believed to be dead or who might compromise his son’s ability to demonstrate free will and act as a bridge between peoples.
So, much more likely and reasonably, the ship sent the distress beacon upon breach of the ship’s security. It is logical to call out for the Kryptonians for help when none are present (no Command Key) and your security is breached (robots engaged).
This means that Zod would have come to Earth ANYWAYS.
Even if Clark had not been on Earth, the military was already uncovering and investigating the Scout Ship. They would have eventually breached its hull, encountered its sentry drones, and triggered a distress signal just like Clark did. [FN2] The only difference is that Clark’s actions equipped him to deal with Zod, whereas if the military tripped the signal, all hope would have been lost. Zod would have come for the Genesis Chamber if nothing else. [FN3]
If Clark’s only free will action or act of agency was to walk onto the ship… something that Lois Lane did and that the military was certain to do… is that something we can reasonably saddle Clark with moral culpability? Of course not!
Unless, we can attach a wrongful mental state to the act. For example, if Clark walked onto that ship intending that Zod and his genocidal tendencies would come to Earth and attempt to raze it. However, I think it is self-evident that Clark did not purposely or knowingly bring Zod to Earth. That leaves us with the lesser standards of recklessly or negligently.
The definition of Recklessness is if he is aware of and disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk of the result occurring from action. The difference in the knowledge standard and recklessness is between being virtually certain of a risk occurring and merely being aware that a substantial risk exists. However, as both require awareness, I think we can cross of Recklessness too.
That leaves us with Negligence where there is a substantial and unjustifiable risk he is unaware of but should be aware of.
Now remember, the negligence we’re talking about isn’t the insertion of the Command Key, but stepping onto the ship. Something that he knows the military were inevitably going to do and which their experts would have permitted. From Clark’s perspective, the only additional insight he has is that IF this ship is related to him and his people… his people sent a vulnerable asthmatic infant to a distant world. Not exactly the actions of an aggressive militant race. Believing in a baby based blitzkrieg burdens basic common sense. Clark has no reason to believe or suspect his people are still alive (who is to say his vessel travelled faster than light and, even then, how much faster). Additionally, we saw that the military readily shared the fact that the object was 18,000 years old with the Press. So Clark may have been privy to the fact the ship nearly predated human civilization. He had no particular reason to take any special precautions against stepping onto the ship.
While you can make a case for negligence, it’s a stretch and whatever culpability you might assign is severed by Zod’s intentional malfeasance. Clark’s actions could have just as easily resulted in the arrival of extraterrestrials who came in peace and brought utopia to Earth. Willful intentions always trump alleged negligence. Zod’s choices and actions, over which Clark had no control over and had no ability to expect, negates any possible claim against what Clark maybe perhaps should have done.
The audience can’t reasonably to hold Clark accountable for Zod.
From the perspective of the citizens within the film it will depend on how much they’re told about the Black Zero Event.
[FN1] If Clark is allegedly negligent, being the cause-in-fact is not sufficient by itself. Proximate Cause is required. This is a notoriously complex and confusing concept that borders on being a tautology (too much to elaborate on here). Nonetheless, we don’t hold people responsible simply because they were the cause-in-fact. For example, the company that made an alarm clock may set its snooze to a certain duration… as a result of their decision, you arrive at a crosswalk at a certain time, should you have an accident there, it would not have happened if the manufacturer’s specified a shorter or longer snooze time- so they are the cause-in-fact- but as a society we’ve decided they are too far removed from your crosswalk accident to be held liable.
[FN2] If you accept the Prequel Comic as a canonical source, the Scout Ship is already emanating a signal before either the military or Clark arrive at Ellesmere Island to uncover the ancient ship, completely removing Clark from the chain of causation entirely! That said, there are reasons to discount the authority of the comic (beyond this matter as well). First, in the film, the discovery of the ship is described as the result of being “pinged.” In computing terms and sensory detection, a “ping” is the result of a query or sensory feedback… that is, your computer, satellite, sonar, etc. transmits a signal and the “ping” is the reply. This suggests that the ship was discovered because a signal bounced off of it from the human satellites, as opposed to a signal emanating from itself. Second, although not inherently a plot hole, it’s incredibly convenient for the ship to begin to emanate a signal exactly when it did. Granted, Clark’s roughly 16 years of wandering is nothing compared to the ship’s 18,000 years of dormancy, however, that is collaterally addressed by suggesting the ship was capable of subconsciously drawing Clark to itself. When one considers that Ellesmere Island is 5,000 miles from Kansas and the whole of the United States is only 3,000 miles across, Clark’s movement appears to be subconsciously deliberate. In the art book, Man of Steel: Inside the Legendary World of Superman blurbs with the filmmakers reinforces the belief that the ship drew Clark to itself. Incidentally, if this was an “irresistible impulse” there would be another argument for severing Clark’s liability.
[FN3] Detractors may claim that absent Clark and the Codex, Zod would have spared Earth from terraforming. However, I don’t think so. We can reasonably assume that terraforming is difficult. There were no sister planets and no successful colonies for Krypton to flee to because none had been successfully created. Moreover, we can assume that the phantom drive is finite. If it was an infinite resource then Krypton would not have mined its own core. This means that Zod has a limited number of attempts at successfully terraforming a planet, being one-half of his critical plan for restoring Krypton. If terraforming were trite or easy, there’s no reason he couldn’t have left a wake of terraformed planets in his path or opted to terraform Mars instead. Rather, the fact that Earth is selected makes it likely it is one of the few planets within the narrow band of environments eligible for terraforming. Thus, even if Clark or the Codex were not on Earth, Zod still would have terraformed the planet as one of the rare locations eligible for such modification.