There comes a time in any power-mad general’s life when he must take a stand for what’s truly important: the future of the Kryptonian race, one’s ability to make one’s enemies debase themselves on bended knee, dramatic posturing, and looking good in alternative black fabrics.
These are the sorts of things that a super villain just has to nail if he wants to make the grade. But there is only room in Metropolis for one General Zod. And now we have two: Man of Steel‘s Zod, portrayed by Michael Shannon, and Superman II’s Zod, played by Terence Stamp.
Which Zod is the Zoddiest? Who will emerge victorious? Could anyone survive a battle of the Zods? Anyone at all?
We will determine the answer to these questions scientifically and permanently here and now. It’s time for a good old-fashioned Zod Off.
Please send the children from the room and tie down the cat.
ROUND 1: First Glance
In case you don’t recall, Zod first appeared on screen in 1980’s Superman II, the sequel to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. The film was partially shot concurrently with Superman but then there was drama and Donner got the boot.
Richard “Hard Days Night” Lester finished filming Superman II and it is, well, not the brightest star in the firmament.*
In it Gene Hackman has a grand time as Lex Luthor, Christopher Reeve is the Boy in Blue, and Margot Kidder outclasses them both as Lois Lane. In Superman II she refrains from composing any mid-air poetry and generally succeeds in making her character seem believable. To be fair, hers is the only role with anything resembling sensible motivation in this picture — but it’s a 1980’s superhero flick. Comic books were still kids stuff then and Lester leaned heavy on the camp.
Into this meandering story crashes General Zod. He’s played by the great Terence Stamp as if he were Joseph Stalin somehow trapped in a bit part from Xanadu.
If you haven’t yet seen Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, here is a spoiler alert for you: it is also not the brightest star in the firmament.
As goofy and directionless as Superman II is, Man of Steel is equally incoherent and cacophonous.
In this new film, we jump around in time as we are given an alternate version of the standard Superman origin story mixed in with some plodding character development and an episode of the X Files. Henry Cavill’s chin dimple plays Superman, Russell Crowe plays Jor-El and the nattering ghost of Jor-El, Kevin Costner plays twister, Lex Luthor is on break with Jimmy Olsen, and Amy Adams outclasses them all as Lois Lane — the only role with anything resembling sensible motivation.
Into this meandering plot crashes General Zod, played by the excellent Michael Shannon as if he were Mao Zedong with a severe case of constipation.
So ROUND 1 is a tie. Xanadu Stalin vs a shit-filled Mao seems too close to call.
ROUND 2: Background
This round gets more competitive.
In Superman II, General Zod begins the film by staging some sort of unexplained insurrection. He’s a criminal and his motivations are simple: he wants you to kneel, preferably before him.
Anyway, he gets caught depressingly easily so he and his cohorts Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and Non (Jack O’Halloran) get sentenced to the Phantom Zone, which is like pressing your face up against the car window for eternity.
While most of Superman II looks like it was filmed in your basement, there’s some real creativity to the effects in the beginning. You’d have to have a hard heart indeed not to appreciate the creepy spinning ring prison, the ghostly council of scientists, and the Phantom Zone.
Zod swears vengeance against the scientists and Superman’s pappy Jor-El (Marlon Brando, not actually in this film), before being shunted off into space in his 2-D cage.
In Man of Steel, the film also starts with Zod. While this new version is much expanded it amount to the most complicated and least interesting chunk of backstory I’ve seen since Star Wars Episodes I, II, & III combined.
Whereas Krypton was a sort of crystalline ice planet in Donner & Lester’s Superman movies, here it’s like Pandora shoved into Zion from the Matrix films. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) watches his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) deliver Kal-El via natural birth while the planet is about to explode because they’ve been tapping the core for fuel instead of using solar power, or say the core of another planet that they don’t live on, or batteries. Jor-El begs the council of scientists for permission to send the Codex away so it can be saved (whatever the Codex may be) because it’s too damn late for everyone who lives on Krypton. Why? Because the plot says so, that’s way, and they’re all out of space petrol or something.
Also meanwhile, General Zod is mad as hell and he’s not going to take any more of your shit.
Surprise suckers; it’s a coup d’etat! Michael Shannon busts in with his shock troops, kills the hoitiest toity, and declares that he’s going to save the bloodlines of Krypton from corruption, or he’s going to corrupt the bloodlines to save Krypton from eugenics, or something like that. It was hard to tell with all the screaming.
Let’s just say there was bad blood and not quibble.
In any case, ginormous planetary battle plan 51X occurs, forcing Jor El to jump on his space dragon and swim through the kelp matrix to steal the magical groat of turducken — which of course is shaped like an Australopithecus skull because otherwise we’d think it was an MP3 player or a Mario Kart prize.
The movie hasn’t even really started yet and we’re already redlining into stupid.
Right. So fight fight fight. Fly fly fly. Pew-pew-pew. Choose skirmish tactics: ‘stupendously irrational’ and we end up with Jor-El launching baby Supes off to Earth while General Zod plays Wolverine and gives his one-time ally a first-rate colon cleansing.
Despite his brilliant strategy of not paying attention to anything and leaving his soldiers outside, Zod fails to stop infant Kal-El from going warp speed with the Codex. He also gets himself and his cohort (mainly Antje Traue as Faora-Ul) arrested. They get sent to the Phantom Zone which, in this case, is a bite-sized black hole with no cable that you get to by riding your own personal space penis to the squid ship to generic CGI space/time warp effect #2.
Phew. That was exhausting. Are you sure you want to go see Man of Steel? And that was just the first ten minutes or so.
But the Zod Off. Who wins? I’m torn. Stamp’s Zod is much simpler and in many ways cleaner. He’s just a baaaaad dude with a giant ego who wants you to lick his boots. A criminal with aspirations to greatness. You don’t get a lot of backstory about who he is or why, but then who really cares?
Shannon’s Zod is a more complex character. He’s got a motivation that is detailed but hardly coherent. It also seems to fluctuate over the course of the film in unexplained ways. Does he want to fix the bloodlines of Krypton? Or recreate the bloodlines of Krypton? Or avenge himself against Jor-El whom he torments himself for killing and who happens to be the only dude that presciently thought to save the bloodlines of Krypton in the first place?
And while we’re at it, if all he wants is to salvage the Kryptonian race, why’s he got to go all ninja-death-strike on Earth?
This is a spoiler so shut your eyes if you’re sensitive to that stuff, but the Codex, which is the macguffin driving this stupid plot, is encoded in Superman’s blood. Superman is willing to surrender himself to Zod to save Earth. Zod just showed up from a tour of a ton of other previous Kryptonian colonies — so why doesn’t he just take Kal-El and his blood and go to one of those places to make super babies? No, not like that. With the space kelp. Duh. Seems like the least he can do to make amends for killing his dad with a pointy stick.
If he were a simply motivated character — like Stamp’s Zod — you’d just go, well, he’s doing it this way because he’s a dick. But Shannon’s Zod isn’t supposed to be a dick. He’s supposed to be purposeful.
I guess his brain got scrambled in the Phantom Zone? Or, perhaps, this script is written by the David Goyer who wrote Blade instead of the one who wrote the story for The Dark Knight? I guess it is just one of the great mysteries of the universe and we will never know the answer.
Now that I’ve written all this up, though, this round isn’t so hard to decide. Terence Stamp’s Zod is the winner. His background is simple, clear, and mainly focuses on him being a total dick. What’s not to love about that?
ROUND 3: Ass Kicking
If a super villain can’t throw around a little muscle, what’s the point? So which Zod’s dad can kick which Zod’s dad’s ass? Let’s find out.
Both Zods find themselves superpowered on Earth due to our young sun and our rich atmosphere. They are — for all extents and purposes — god. Or Zod. Vastly strong, burny-eyed, gravity-unchallenged, blow hards.
There are differences between them, though.
Terence Stamp’s Zod is a criminal and too egotistical to consider that he might find his match in Superman. He also somehow has telekinetic powers and a mean streak. The mean streak and the megalomania both trace their roots back to the comic book Zod (which, like all comic characters at this point, has had a number of appearances and reboots and costume changes and at least one gay wedding).
Stampy Zod also has one secret weapon and I’ll get to that at the end of this round.
Michael Shannon’s Zod isn’t a criminal. Well, sure, yes, he is a criminal, but that’s your fault, not his. He was just trying to save his damn planet and is that so horrible? So what if he had to shoot some old lady in the face to demonstrate his commitment? That is, I think he was trying to save his damn planet. He may have been trying to shake up the solidified caste structure of Krypton through the manipulation of genetic material which was used to artificially gestate space babies and turn them into drones and leaders and snack cakes.
Honestly, you tell me what the hell he was trying to do in the beginning of the film? And what all that had to do with the catastrophic danger of imminent planetary core collapse? Besides nothing, I mean?
But this Zod is a real bona fide general with an army and military training. He also has space armor which seems a bit superfluous since he’s indestructible anyway. And a fancy-pantsy mother ship with fighter ships and ray guns and the most ginormous pile driver you ever done saw.
I’m thinking this one is going to Shannon’s Zod. He’s better trained, better armed, and less insane. But he does have a near inexplicable weakness: he has no idea what strategy is. Stamp’s Zod does — that’s his secret weapon.
When Stampy Zod first has his go at the Boy in Blue, he goes in as a team with Ursa and Non, directing them to flank their target so as to overwhelm Supes with superior numbers. He also uses the threat of causing pain and damage to humanity in order to keep Superman on the defensive. He finds Superman’s weakness — his soft heart — and uses it against him.
What a dick.
Shannon’s Zod… I just don’t know what to say. He’s an actual general with military experience but his strategy sucks. He goes in alone. He takes off his armor. He doesn’t defend his positions or matériel or prisoners. Hell, he puts Lois Lane in an unguarded, unobserved cell with an unsecured terminal link to his ship’s central computer. Rookie mistake.
Who wins ROUND 3? Shannon’s Zod is tougher and better supplied. Stamp’s Zod is stompier and somehow smarter. If they actually faced off against each other? Shannon by a nose.
ROUND 4: Acting
Which Zod is totes emosh as the kids say? Well heck. That’s like asking which tastes better, mango or fresh croissant? They both taste better!
Terence Stamp is and has been a damn fine actor since before you were ejected into space to preserve your doomed race. His General Zod isn’t particularly complex, but you know what he wants and when he wants it (kneeling; now). He’s got just the right amount of wry humor to keep him in this film and the sort of quiet, callous threat that makes people who find Superman believable feel quaky.
Stamp rocks out some great scenes — his television broadcast to the world ends with a triumphant “Zod!” that makes you tremble with both fear and laughter. His surprise at being defeated at his assumed moment of triumph is well played, too.
In general, the General owns the screen when he’s on it. High marks to Terry for making the best of limited material.
In Man of Steel, Michael Shannon acts the pants off of most everyone around him. This is no surprise; Shannon is great. His Zod has more to work with, but less of it makes sense. So Shannon’s Zod plays with a greater range of emotion, arcing from fury to pathos to, well, yeah. Fury to pathos about covers it.
It’s easier to empathize with his Zod and that’s Michael Shannon’s work shining through. You can’t blame him that the writers thought it would be smart to have his character try to win Superman to his cause by inserting Kal-El in a hallucination wherein he drowns in a morass of charred human skulls while the Earth explodes.
Yeah. That happens. Remember what I said earlier about strategy?
This round is a tie. You like mangos better? You like fresh croissants better? Make yourself a fresh mango croissant and leave me alone.
ROUND 5: Death Match!
Our final round covers the final essential component of super villains: their defeat. What’s a super villain that doesn’t get some comeuppance, right?
How do our Zod’s compare here? Again, this one is a tough round to judge.
In Superman II, General Zod proves himself the superior enemy. He bests Superman in Metropolis, forcing him to flee to his Fortress of Solitude. There, with Lex Luthor, Ursa, and Non, he corners his nemesis and Lois Lane. The superhero is out matched, out gunned, and out of time. So what does he do? He pulls a fast one.
And really, as dull and poorly paced as Superman II is, you have to give the team credit for this: Superman pulls victory from the jaws of defeat by forgoing his superpowers altogether. He just does something clever. He switches the settings on the crystal chamber and tricks Lex and Zod into forcing him into it — they think it will rob him of his strength. Instead it goes all reversies and depletes Zod, Ursa, and Non of their Kryptonian edge. Then, finally kneeling before Zod, Superman lifts him up like the Stanley Cup and throws him over the edge into the Arctic water, where he presumably drowns, like the Stanley Cup.
In Man of Steel, General Zod is, despite his vast superiority in every way, constantly on the ropes. How this happens is really not clear. Superman escapes from his clutches the first time because Lois Lane infects the ship (and seemingly every other ship) with the techno-ghost of Jor-El. Then Superman defeats Faora-Ul and the non-Non without ever actually doing much. Somehow non-Non is destroyed by being thrown into a train yard even though none of the Kryptonians ever get bruised or bloodied no matter how many times they’re smashed through a series of skyscrapers. In any case, that’s it for non-Non. He throws a goodbye locomotive and we never see him again. Faora gets sensory overload when her mask busts and she has to be flown off by one of those fighter ships that could destroy all of Kansas with its exhaust fumes but which doesn’t. Then a bunch of other stupid stuff.
Finally, after Superman has destroyed the world engine because that battle went on long enough and CGI is expensive; and Colonel Hardy and the plucky reporter Lois Lane somehow convert a space pod into a miniature black hole and fly it into Zod’s mother ship, Zod is left all by his lonely lonesome in the total ruins of Metropolis.
Then, Superman lures Zod out of the city to avoid destroying yet another place that means something to him (Smallville being now a collection of ash and shrapnel) or endangering yet another million lives.
Oh wait. No he doesn’t. They just duke it out downtown. For ever and ever and ever. Fuck those people, yo.
Finally, after Zod takes his armor off and threatens to kill just one single family, Superman puts Zod in a headlock and breaks his neck. This is possible now and wasn’t before because Zod has the sads over his dream being all spoilt. Or maybe it’s because Zod has a history of spinal trauma? Or, um, because Superman is really really really good at twisting things? He did have a job in a bottling plant at the beginning of the film, I think.
Fuck. I have no idea why this is possible. Nor do I care. I am just glad that endless battle ends so Hans Zimmer’s score can stop trying to mate with my earholes.
It’s a dumb defeat. It’s a meaningless defeat caused not by Zod’s error or Superman’s strength or anything other than the demands of the plot. I give it an F minus minus. They should have just kept kicking the living crap out of each other until the world turned into The Walking Dead for the few humans left alive. That would have been a nice ending and worked well for the spin-off television show.
As sub-moronic as Superman II is, and as thin a character as Stamp’s Zod is, his defeat makes sense and actually works in a satisfying way.
Round 5 goes to Stamp!
Tallying up the scores…. Hooray!!!! Terence Stamp’s Zod is the winner!
Does that mean Superman II is a better film than Man of Steel?
Nope. They both are pretty not good. Or not pretty good. Pretty much: not good: movies.
One is seriously dull, totally corny, and mostly unwatchable. The other is incoherent and not nearly distracting enough to make you overlook its dreary stupidity. It’s plodding, destructive, and features Pa Kent suggesting that letting a school bus full of kids drown might be the right choice. Then he runs into a tornado to prove his point.
Yep. That’s the role model I’d stick with if I were the super-powered last survivor of an alien race. Christ. What an asshole.
*There is also available a version of Superman II recut using Richard Donner’s footage primarily. That is a kettle of worms which we will not pack for lunch.