General Zod is a Gateway Villain
2013’s Man of Steel, the latest incarnation of Superman on celluloid, is said to be rebooting the franchise for the foreseeable future. The intention of the filmmakers is to establish a new universe for Superman films, much the way that Christopher Nolan has done for Batman in recent years. The announcement that the villain of Man of Steel would be General Zod was largely met with groans from the hardcore Superman fan base. Every time the discussion of General Zod comes up, there are inevitable cries of “Why not Darkseid? Or Doomsday? Or Brainiac?” I can certainly sympathize with the desire to see more of the Superman universe made flesh. However, those who want to see more of these intergalactic supervillains should be rejoicing about the appearance of General Zod. The General is, in fact, the perfect gateway villain to get us where we all want to be.
The most common complaint about the appearance of General Zod is that he’s already been done. That’s true, in the most literal sense. He was portrayed remarkably by a vinyl-clad Tarrence Stamp, and has appeared numerous times across years of comics, animation, and television. But Zod hasn’t been featured on film in three decades. For most general audiences, Zod is nowhere near as recognizable as Superman himself, and certainly not as commonplace as the hardcore fan would have you believe. To many, Zod will be as fresh as Heath Ledger’s Joker. But let’s step back further.
Verisimilitude. That singular word acted as the marching orders for the Richard Donner production of Superman The Movie. The key to that film’s success was wrapped up in just how believable the world was. It is the reason that Christopher Reeve was implanted in all of our minds as the definitive incarnation of the iconic hero, and has ensured that the film endures even to this day. It is also that very believability that currently prevents Superman films from featuring villains like Darkseid and Doomsday.
For comic book fans, it’s easy to see Superman as a science fiction story, and therefore worthy of extraterrestrial villians of all kinds. We all know that he is a hero capable of flying to the very edge of the universe, and he has in fact done just that and more. But to general audiences, what defines Superman is that he is “super” among a sea of normal men. In a very ordinary world, he is extraordinary. People process his extraordinary abilities in relation to the “normal” world that Lois Lane lives in. For much of the general film-going audience, that is Superman. For this reason, it is essential for a Superman movie to establish that relationship solidly.
If we are ever to move beyond that relationship in a way that is as believable as Superman’s world itself, the expansion has to be a seamless blend of story elements that the audience already understands and accepts and story elements that are new. General Zod is the ideal way to open the doors. In a basic Superman universe, there is simply Earth and Krypton. We know that people on Earth are normal, and people from Krypton are extraordinary. Those are all concepts that we are familiar with. When Zod is introduced, we know what to expect – he will be “Super” like superman. Zod also has ties to Sueprman’s father, Jor-El, a character that is already accepted and understood in Superman’s world. General audiences can understand these ideas and readily accept them into the film they are watching because they are drawing on the familiar.
But along with the familiar ties, Zod also brings new story elements and poses new questions. Whether he’s represented as being long-trapped in the Phantom Zone or as some space-faring Kryptonian who was off-planet when Krypton was destroyed, he opens doors to allow audiences to naturally wondering things like, “Are there other Kryptonians out there?” or “What else might be in the Phantom Zone?” People will naturally make the leap from understanding the established borders and elements of Superman’s world to questioning how they might expand, even questioning what else could be out in the universe.
Once the audeince has asked these questions of themselves, the film-makers have built-in opportunities to introduce characters like Brainiac and Darkseid to answer those questions. Dropping them in the audience’s lap without first establishing the possibility that they exist will be the fastest way to kill the new Superman franchise. If you want the Superman universe to expand to it’s fullest science fiction potential, you should kneel before Zod and welcome him as the villain we all need for a franchise beyond the Man of Steel.