Now that Boardwalk Empire star Michael Shannon has been cast as General Zod in Man of Steel – Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot film – the Interwebs have been ablaze with the usual impassioned reactions, which encompass the typical range of “I hate it!” “I love it!” and “Meh.”

The biggest complaint – the one that has some fans making all sorts of dramatic/hyperbolic declarations –  is that the inclusion of Zod in Man of Steel essentially turns this reboot – which is supposed to offer a ‘different take on Superman‘ – into a rehash of Richard Donner/Richard Lester’s 1980 Superman II film, in which Zod was also the primary nemesis.

However, does the simple inclusion of Zod automatically mean that Man of Steel is somehow doomed to run circles around an already familiar track? Certainly not, and today we have a few ideas to offer about how this Superman reboot might employ the character to a much different effect than Donner’s film did.

Who Is Zod?

If you’re not familiar with the character of General Zod, he has a long history in the Superman comic book canon, dating back to the 1960s. His origins have been revised several times, and there many “alternate universe” versions of the character, but the latest incarnation (developed by famed DC scribe Geoff Johns and Richard Donner himself) paints Zod as a military general on Superman’s home planet of Krypton. Superman’s father, Jor-El, was working with another scientist named Non to uncover the planetary disturbance that would ultimately lead to Krypton’s destruction. When the Kryptonian government learned of Jor-El and Non’s doomsday theory, they sent Zod and his troops to shut down the research. Jor-El began working in secret on the rocket to save his son, Kal-El (Superman); Non, meanwhile, tried to spread word of Krypton’s impending doom and was punished by the government by having his brain tampered with, leaving him a mindless thug (as seen in Superman II).

When Zod and his lover Ursa (who we know is likely to be featured in Man of Steel) learned the truth of Non’s warnings and his unjust fate, they sided with the tortured scientist and tried to overthrow the Kryptonian government, earning all three rebels a death sentence. Not wanting to see the trio dead, Jor-El proposed they be exiled instead of executed, and so he trapped them in “The Phantom Zone,” a pocket dimension that Kryptonians used as a prison. Eventually the trio were set free on planet Earth, and gained their own Supermanesque powers from the planet’s yellow sun. Endowed with the strength of gods, Zod and his team seek to conquer Earth and get revenge on the son of Jor-El for their imprisonment.

Zod In Superman II

general zod2 Why Zod Is A Good Villain for Superman Man of Steel

In Superman II, General Zod was famously brought to life by actor Terence Stamp (see above) in a truly hammy performance that forever immortalized the saying “Kneel before Zod!” In Richard Donner/Richard Lester’s film, Superman/Clark Kent decided to give up his powers in order to reap the imagined rewards of a mortal life (read: marrying Lois Lane). When Zod and his cohorts showed up, Clark Kent realized that no matter what his heart may desire, there are certain threats in the universe that can only be stopped by Superman, forcing him to restore his powers in order to thwart Zod and ultimately serve the greater good.

This Superman II version of Zod was primarily used as an example of Superman’s own dark reflection – a suggestion that super-powered threats require a super-powered counter measure like Superman to deter them. Zod’s role in the film also reinforced a lot of the family themes that Donner and screenwriter Mario Puzo (The Godfather) started in Superman: The Movie – namely Superman’s father condemning Zod to prison in The Phantom Zone, and Zod’s subsequent views of Kal-El/Clark Kent based on his opinions of Jor-El, and what Jor-El stood for in the face of Krypton’s destruction.

General Zod in Man of Steel…

Zod In Man of Steel

general zod Why Zod Is A Good Villain for Superman Man of Steel

Donner’s film only touched lightly on the idea of Zod approaching Kal-El as an ally (hence that “Kneel before Zod” quote). However, most of the purpose of Zod’s character in that film was the whole “there are super bad guys out there” idea, which reinforced why Superman had to be Superman and couldn’t indulge himself in the “normal” life he wanted so badly.

That theme is definitely one that is already coloring Zack Snyder’s film, which basically seeks to remind modern audiences why we “need” Superman, and why the character is still relevant in a modern context. This is a tricky goal when you think about it: Snyder can’t use the exact same approach Donner and Puzo did in Superman II, because the idea that there are “super bad guys” out there, who must be deterred by a force of unquestionable good, is one that’s arguably too simplistic for modern audiences. Nowadays the trend is to explain the “troubled” history of Zod and why he isn’t perhaps “evil,” but rather ‘a scarred and misguided survivor of a great tragedy.’ No thanks.

However, there IS in fact a good deal of Zod’s character that could be explored in Man of Steel, in a way that Superman II didn’t. The most obvious tweak to the character would be utilizing the modern appetite for “understanding evil” to color Zod as less of a generic and hammy evildoer, and more of a Kryptonian – i.e., an alien being who follows the militaristic ethical standards of an alien world, and views Earth and its peoples according to alien standards – the most striking difference between him and Superman, who has learned to view our world through “human” eyes, despite the fact that he is an outsider.

Michael Shannon as Zod

When I look at the casting of Michael Shannon – a truly great actor who emotes a powerful, but nuanced, gravitas – I imagine him being akin to his Boardwalk Empire character, Agent Van Alden, who walks around spouting rigid dogma and has equally rigid moral and ethical views (see HERE). With Shannon, I imagine a Zod who comes to Earth spouting Kryptonian military code, and views the last surviving members of his race as superior to the savage human Neanderthals. I picture a Zod who wants to make a new home in order to ensure his race’s survival, and thinks humans would be better off serving under Kryptonian rule, rather than being left to their own self-destructive pursuits (an interesting God’s will vs. free will parallel). I imagine a Zod who, while clearly fascist, presents a serious dilemma about duty and identity for Superman to wrestle with (basically a “You are Kal-El, not ‘Clark Kent'” debate). I imagine a Zod who is closer to Magneto in X-Men (a complicated villain) than Stamp’s hammy super villain from Superman II.

This approach to the character WOULD be fitting for what Snyder and Co. hope to accomplish, in that it would force Superman to actually question (and ultimately decide) what, exactly, he values about human existence over his Kryptonian identity. That belief would serve as the foundation for Superman being the superhero we know and love, while reminding us, the audience, what it is inside of us that is truly great, precious and human. It would also illuminate why Superman (the character) ultimately represents the best of humanity, despite his godlike powers.

I say all that to say: The concept of a God among men is interesting, yes. However, the question of why God loves man and should want us to prosper (despite the bad and the ugly that comes with our existence) is both interesting and timely. Isn’t that what fans ultimately want from their new Superman movie? For it to be timely and interesting?

An Epic Battle

superman vs zod Why Zod Is A Good Villain for Superman Man of Steel

Superman vs. Zod by Jim Lee.

There’s also another factor to consider: The action! Back in 1980, Richard Donner did some truly revolutionary things to bring Superman’s battles against Zod and his cohorts to life onscreen. But come on, you have to admit that the action in Superman II wasn’t anywhere near the potential of what could be done using modern movie making effects – a specialty for director Zack Snyder.

People have long been complaining about the lack of a truly epic Superman battle onscreen, and yet, now that we have a villain who can literally match the Man of Steel eye to eye (heat vision), hand to hand (super strength) and toe to toe (on the ground or in the air),  the big reaction has been…disappointment? Really? The Matrix Revolutions showed us some great possibilities for a fight scene featuring two supermen (see HERE) – and that was back in 2003. What could be done today using Zod, Ursa (and possibly Non) vs. Superman is just…awesome to imagine.

As usual I think that some of the more…impassioned fans out there need to relax and at least wait to see which direction Snyder and Co. plan on going with Zod in Man of Steel. The suggestion that already having Zod in one Superman movie somehow makes Man of Steel invalid is a bit silly. After all, how many of you reading this saw The Dark Knight and felt that the  presentation of The Joker (and all the themes surrounding the character) was just a rehash of all the previous Batman TV shows and films? Or did you feel like Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger managed to explore the character from a new and interesting angle? Just some food for thought. ;-)

The Man of Steel will battle general Zod in theaters during the 2012 holiday season. As always we’ll keep you updated on the film’s development.

Image Sources: Superman vs. Zod header by Weier11 on Deviant Art ; “Superman vs. Zod” artwork by Jim Lee