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Oh My Zod: Nolan’s Superman Movie Gets Its Villain…

It had been quite an exciting day for Superman fans. First, director Zack Snyder was confirmed as the man who will be helming the movie under the tutelage of Christopher Nolan. It was then suggested Brandon Routh would not be returning to the role. And then we got some supervillain confirmation. Thankfully it looks like the movie won’t be featuring Lex Luthor as its primary antagonist, but will feature General Zod.

I'm Zod-ding in approval...

I’m happy Luthor isn’t the primary villain. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great character who has never been handled properly on screen (because he’s so much more than the roguish petty conman that both Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey offered us), he has been a primary villain in three of the five big budget Superman films – and that’s not counting Superman III, which featured a Luthor stand-in because Gene Hackman wouldn’t come back. The Superman film franchise isn’t exactly known for it’s “super” villains. Aside from the awful “Nuclear Man” from Superman IV, there’s only really been one big baddie who could offer Superman a physical and psychological challenge.

It was Zod.

Effortless portrayed by Terrence Stamp, the character introduced the command “Kneel before Zod!” into the popular lexicon. Zod wasn’t the most complex of characters – his appeal was is straightforward nature. If Superman was the virtue of the American Way (and Luthor was its seedier underside), Zod was fascism. Superman came to help, Zod to conquer. Even Superman’s costume, constructed of bright primary colours, contrasted with Zod’s efficient black cloth. Both arrived in rural America, steeped in religious archetypes – Superman the only son of a benign ethereal presence sent to show us the way, Zod a man returning from his time in the wilderness, introduced walking on water.

What’s absolutely fascinating about Zod is that – both before and after the film, and in spite of his near-iconic status – he wasn’t really a key part of Superman’s selection of villains. Even afterward, he’s had a long and tangled history, with the writers clearly unsure of how to handle the character. In the comics, the “real” Zod has only recently been introduced (appropriately enough in a run on Action Comics by Superman and Superman II director Richard Donner). though character named “Zod” have appeared over the past twenty-five  the past he’s been a strange Russian mutant and an alternative universe “ghost”. Hardly an auspicious collection of appearances for the only non-Luthor Superman villain to appear on the big screen.

It’s remarkable that a character whose backstory is so simple (he’s another less benign survivor of Krypton) can get so ridiculously convoluted. How difficult is it to maintain those core elements. In fairness, editorial policy played its role:

Of course, whatever popularity Zod had thanks to the film was negated when Crisis On Infinite Earths was published a few years later. As part of DC’s efforts to streamline the continuity of their stories, eliminating what some readers felt were confusing alternate worlds and complicated back stories, it was declared that Superman would be the one and only survivor of Krypton: no more Krypto the Super Dog, no more Supergirl, and no more General Zod.

Still, you’d imagine a character as recognisable as Zod would have got an exception. Recently he has been somewhat invigorated as the ban has been lifted (with Supergirl and Krypto both reintroduced as well). Perhaps this turnaround has been driven by the increasing influence of Geoff Johns (a former colleague of Donner’s) at DC comics.

Searching for the one true Zod...

Over the past five years the character has become more complex and even almost sympathetic. During the recent New Krypton mega-arc which ran through most of Superman’s titles last year, Zod was appointed the military leader of a faction of newly-revived Kryptonians. The emergence of such a powerful group of aliens provoked something akin to a Cold War with Earth. Things inevitably ended in cataclysm (because if you believed that Superman would be allowed to remain anything other than one of the last few Kryptonians you weren’t being nearly cynical enough). Zod is now an avowed enemy of the Man of Steel, a status quo it shouldn’t have taken nearly thirty years to set up.

Still, I can help but wonder if Zod is really the best choice for a villain. Zod is an iconic villain and one most movie fans recognise (which makes him a better candidate than anyone save Luthor by default), but he is familiar and iconic not due to any personal aspect or character trait, but because of a given portrayal. Terrence Stamp as an actor may be so much more than General Zod, but General Zod is – at least in the public imagination – a facet of Terrence Stamp. Any actor stepping into the role has quite a task. Don’t attempt to immitate Stamp (or you’re ripping off another actor), yet don’t be too original (or you’re disrespecting a classic performance). Even writer David S. Goyer has a dilemma. Does he sneak a “Kneel before Zod!” reference in there, or play it entirely straight.

Sure, superhero franchises have recycled villains before. The Dark Knight featured two villains who had already appeared in the Burton/Schumacher series played by younger actors in a different tone. Why should Zod be any different? In fact, how is an actor taking over the role of Luthor from Spacey or Hackman any different than assuming the role of Zod from Stamp? The answer is simple: Luthor has a life outside these actors – he’s a character who has had a long and rich existence and who the audience can point to any iteration as valid (corrupt businessman, petty crook, mad scientist). The same is true of the Joker (harmless clown, mindless sociopath or aggressive nihilist) or Two-Face (gimmicky themed opponent, Batman’s former friend or hideously deformed gangster). Zod doesn’t. Zod has a shoddy and cobbled together chronology where the one iconic portrayal is tied to a particular movie and actor.

I can’t help but wonder if it might have been time to showcase some of the (many) lesser-known villains in Superman’s gallery of villains. Sure, it’s notoriously weak (the fact that a character like Zod has help a prominent position in it despite not really having a set or stable combination of back story and motivation), but there are some choices which might work on screen – perhaps most appealing to the “hokey sci-fi” aspect of the character, like robot man Metallo or power-draining bad guy The Parasite. My pet pick would have been Brainiac, who was rumoured when Nolan first took over the project.

Still, I’m glad that this project seems to be gathering steam. It’s been a while since Superman’s been on the silver screen, and I think Zack Snyder is right. It is his time.

10 Responses

  1. The more I hear about this thing the more excited I get.

    I really do hope that one day we get the “Man Of Steel” Luthor. When Spacey as was first announced I was sure that was going to be it.

    And then the first thing we see of him is some ninety year old lady telling him he’s “Shown her pleasures she had never known.” and I threw up in my mouth a little.

    • Hmmm. I’m about to betray my nerdiness, but are you talking John Byrne’s Man of Steel version of Luthor or Brian Azzarello’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel? Although either would be preferable to what we got in the other movies.

  2. Zod is a good villain to present a physical challenge to Superman. If there will be a Darkseid they may be holding on to him until they know this franchise is a sure-thing.

    • Yep. I like Darkseid. But I just thing Metallo is such an obvious choice. Aside from the visual spectacle of Superman vs. Terminator, you also have a fairly decent villain arc plotted out there – he’s an aging mercenary who is turned into a superpowered cyborg who loses all ability to feel. Given it’s Superman’s empathy which makes him so fascinating (and the fact he’s a superpowered alien pretending to be a mild-mannered reporter), I think that’s an effect juxtaposition.

  3. Darkseid and Doomsday are sexy choices but ZOD is a great pick. I bet Luthor shows up as well in some capacity.

    • Yep, I’d love to see him in a supporting role. But I don’t think audiences will follow Luthor as a main villain again. In five films, he’s been the main antagonist in three and a supporting baddie in another (and only missed the third one because Hackman was justifiably ticked off by the firing of Richard Donner). By contrast, Batman has faced: the Joker (twice), the Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face (twice), the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Bane, Mister Freeze, the Scarecrow, Victor Zsasz and Ra’s Al Ghul. Superman has faced: Luthor, Zod… and, at a stretch if you consider Nuclear Man as a clone of Superman, a very altered version of Bizarro. Superman’s pool of bad guys is weak, but it’s not around five times weaker than Batman’s.

      • It sucks though cuz Superman does have a weak Rogue’s gallery and the fact that he’s so invincible has always worked against him in my opinion.

  4. Glad they didn’t go with Lex Luthor. What do you think of Zack Snyder at the helm?

    • I wish this news story had broken when I had more time to respond to it. I cobbled together this and an article that’s coming tomorrow at ridiculously short notice.

      I’ll probably do an in-depth look at Snyder next week, but my gut feeling is that Nolan and Goyer will balance him out. He’s always been great with visuals and Superman with his primary colours is a very visual hero. Superman Returns demonstrates that he isn’t a character you can really go into a great deal of depth with – you can say a lot of things about him or with him, but the traditional “let’s make a superhero deep by adding angst” device doesn’t suit him. So I think Snyder will add visual flair to the production.

      I am a little worried by rumours circulating that the reason Warners drafted in Snyder was because Goyer’s script was rushed (by pressure to get cracking on Batman 3 or by the whole “start making a Superman movie by 2011 or lose the rights” dealio). That makes me uncomfortable. I think Snyder needs a very solid script to build on and I was hoping Goyer could provide it under the eye of Nolan.

      • Yes, that’s what I heard, that WB wants to make the movie as soon as possible and Snyder was not the top choice but the one of the few who would make the movie even if the script wasn’t “right”.

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