General Zod is not a good Superman villain.
People have such fond memories of "Superman II," of how awesome Terence Stamp was as the villainous Kryptonian mastermind, of how bone-chillingly cool it was to hear him spit out those three infamous words, "Kneel before Zod."
People also think that Tim Burton's "Batman" was the pinnacle of celluloid superheroics. If people would actually go back and watch those movies, they'd find just how unreliable memory can be, particularly when blinded by the primary-colored glare of superheroes on screen.
The line "Kneel before Zod" has a lot of cool potential. Jay proved that in "Mallrats." It's just a shame that only Jay has ever used that potential. It's not that Terence Stamp is a bad actor, he was just working with what the script and director gave him, which was a catchphrase. I don't think a scene goes by where he doesn't say "kneel before Zod" or "kneel before me." Used once, it's "Luke, I am your father." Used twice, it's "Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?" Used as often as Zod uses it, it becomes "Yeah, that's the ticket!" or "Simmer down now." A cool line becomes watered down into a lame catchphrase.
So people remember Zod as a badass, when he was actually kind of lame and one-dimensional; I think people recall the cold, calculating, menacing villain from the first few minutes of "Superman: The Movie" as if he retained that sort of power throughout the sequel. I wish he had.
Now, the Donner Cut of "Superman II" remedies quite a lot of this. Zod doesn't overuse the phrase, and comes across as a stronger villain because of it. But until a year ago, the only person who'd ever seen the Donner Cut was Richard Donner, and yet Zod's reputation as a menacing, intimidating villain, rather than an impotent pull-string doll, has persisted for twenty years, against all logic.
In the post-Crisis universe, especially in recent years, it seems like every writer with a major storyline has tried their hand at recreating Zod. There was pocket universe Zod, Phantom Zone fake Krypton Zod, confusing Pokolistan Zod, and even more confusing Phantom Zone "For Tomorrow" Zod. More recently, Busiek and Johns mentioned Admiral Dru-Zod in "Up, Up, and Away," and now Donner and Johns have introduced Zod and his cronies yet again (but we'll get to those later). I guess there's been a Zod in "Smallville," as well, but since I'm still somewhere in the last episodes of the Fourth Season, I haven't quite run into him, and don't particularly care. Each of our previous Zods had some potential for coolness, each one got their requisite "kneel before Zod!" speech bubble, each one turned out lame. I personally thought that Pokolistan Zod was pretty cool, but they decided to kill him rather than have an evil superpowered monarch running around in the DCU. I guess that would horn in on Black Adam's schtick.
Three dead Zods, one left floating out in the Phantom Zone, and who knows which ones are still in continuity? Why is every Zod, at least in the modern era, a miserable failure?
It's a combination of factors, really. The first is feasibility: a murderous villain with the exact same powers as Superman is too dangerous to keep around, too hard to write stories about. You know, it's the same complaint that you hear about Superman so often, except with a little more reality behind it. Superman is among the most powerful people on the planet. He has taken over the world on at least one in-continuity occasion. What would stop an evil Superman from doing it himself? How many people would he kill? What could the DCU do to stop him? As cool as the idea is, it just defies a little too much logic. We saw what happened with this scenario in the four-color abortion that was "World War III," and even there Black Adam was bound by some sense of honor and morality, eclipsed though it was by his rage. Imagine if instead of anger, he'd gone about his task with cold ruthlessness and calculating intelligence. It'd make for a (potentially) fantastic story, but not for an ongoing character. They'd have to depower him (as they did in "Superman II" and with Black Adam in "52"), kill him (as they did with Pokolistan Zod) or imprison him where he can't escape...for now (as they did with the Phantom Zone criminals, Cyborg Superman repeatedly, Doomsday repeatedly, and Superboy-Prime). Essentially, we'd end up with a villain that you can only pull out every once in awhile, who is super-powerful and causes a major universe-wide event every time he escapes. Such a villain either becomes tedious (because every takedown ends up being roughly the same) or watered-down to the point of uselessness (see: Cyborg Superman, Doomsday).
This isn't to say that you can't have powerful villains. After all, Zod's whole point is that he's a dark mirror of Superman, with the same powers and an evil streak. We've got that character in Bizarro, with one caveat: Bizarro's lack of intellect and backwards thought process are enough of a hindrance, and his intentions usually aren't so much "evil" as "poorly-conceived," that he doesn't become difficult to accept as a character. We recognize that there are reasons why he hasn't made a bid for world domination, why he doesn't rampage through Metropolis on a mindless killing spree (or at least, he didn't until Johns and Donner got hold of him). Such reasons don't exist in Zod. The super-powerful evil characters tend to require some obvious flaw or defining character trait that keeps them from being unbelievable; Doomsday was mindless, Cyborg was enraged and vengeful and relatively fragile, Black Adam has a strict code of honor, Darkseid doesn't concern himself with the petty affairs of mortals, etc. Zod, given his powers and intellect, given his defining drive to kill Superman and rule the universe, given his ruthless efficiency and his complete lack of ethics, has no such restrictions on his behavior, and our disbelief-suspenders break under his weight.
The second problem is Superman's rogues gallery. There's Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo, the Parasite, Bizarro, Kryptonite Man, Mr. Mxyzptlk, uh...Toyman, Prankster, Silver Banshee...Live Wire...Bloodsport...and we're already into C-List territory. Superman's list of enemies has always been kind of anemic if you omit the Fourth World characters. There's the mental villains (Luthor, Brainiac) the physical villains (Metallo, Parasite), the magical villains (Silver Banshee), and few (if any) who can provide both a mental and physical challenge to Superman. Sure, Luthor keeps pulling out the armor, but when's the last time Superman and Brainiac got into a fist-fight? When's the last time Metallo displayed something like intelligence? Mr. Mxyzptlk comes close, but he can only show up every 90 days, and he lacks ambitions beyond screwing with Superman. These days, Mxy's not even really malicious (and don't get me wrong here, I hope the Rucka characterization sticks, because it's the best development Mxy has seen since the Simonson/Bogdanove days).
So, the writers exhaust their story options with the A- through D-listers in the first few issues, consider reviving Intergang, consider a trip to Apokolips, and eventually settle on General Zod. Why not? He's a smart guy, but with the same powers as Superman! How can you lose?
Then, inevitably, they do lose, because bringing in an iteration of Zod paints the story into a corner. He has to die, get depowered, or get banished to the Phantom Zone, or to some equally out-of-the-way prison, all of which has been done before, recently and repeatedly. And then you're left with trudging out the A-list villains again and repeating the cycle.
The other problem is nostalgia. Nostalgia has built General Zod into not only a cool character, a badass, but also a major part of Superman's rogues gallery. Before "Superman II," he was a footnote in Superman history. Even afterward, thanks to Byrne's purging of the Kryptonians, Zod didn't show up until Superman killed him, and then stayed a ghost and a memory for years after. Recently, for whatever reason, people have started seeing Zod as an essential part of the Superman mythos, and a character that every writer has to put his spin on. Maybe it's because of the fact that, at any given time, there is no Zod running around active in the DCU (since they always end up killed or Phantom-Zoned), or because of the limited nature of Superman's villains. Maybe it's because the Cyborg Superman has been gone for several years, except for the recent appearances in Green Lantern.
There's a thought. Pre-Crisis, there was a steady stream of Phantom Zone villains to menace the Man of Steel. Post-Crisis we had an early Zod, whose visage haunted Clark for a few years. Then Cyborg hit the scene and became the evil Superman du jour. Cyborg was another character who they set up as a "big story" villain, but who invariably had to be taken care of in a relatively permanent fashion at the end of the story. He was destroyed in Engine City, he was tossed into a black hole, he was merged with the Source Wall, he was trapped in the Elite's spaceship and dropped to the bottom of the ocean...I'm blanking on how they 'killed' him at the end of "Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey." It's a shame that so many of their fights have gone the same way, because he's a villain with a lot of potential. They've never really done much with the fact that his fleshy parts have Superman's DNA, and they've barely examined the extent of his ability to control and inhabit electronics. The best story I can remember featuring him, except for the whole Reign of the Supermen saga, was one where he disguised himself and started teaching art at some high school. No supervillainy, except that he told the students how much he disliked Superman, and more or less why. Then, of course, big blue busts in and 'rescues' the children, looking more than a little like the villain that Henshaw made him out to be.
Anyway, at least Henshaw always had an out. He could be imprisoned or whatever, sure, but his ability to transfer his consciousness to electronic devices allowed him a perfect escape clause. One that the Zods simply don't have. We can accept "my consciousness hitched a ride on a passing space cruiser" a lot more easily than "a black hole/nuclear explosion/transdimensional warp breached the Phantom Zone, and we just happened to be there!" Who needed Zod when you had the Cyborg?
But, the Cyborg got overused to the point of severe lameness. By the time he showed up in "Ending Battle" he was a joke, and was dispatched without fanfare. With Cyborg out of the picture, writers turned to the next best option for a dark mirror of Superman: Zod. And so we ended up with a long and meandering plot about the superpowered ruler of Pokolistan, which ended in a weird and anticlimactic battle and the revelation that the Metagene is powered by the yellow sun, which has been mercifully forgotten.
So, when it comes down to it, is there anything salvageable about General Zod? I'll admit, I had high hopes when the newest version showed up. See, one thing I like about Zod is that he fits in well with the Superman-as-Christ-Figure Monomyth model. See, Zod is only Superman's enemy by default; his real beef is with Jor-El. The things that seem to stay fairly consistent between versions of the Kryptonian General Zod are the fact that he was a high-ranking officer--perhaps even the highest-ranking leader of the Kryptonian military--and he led a rebellion against the ruling body of Krypton, hoping to usurp the council's rule. With his rebellion thwarted, Zod and his cohorts are punished, condemned by Jor-El to eternal living death in a realm that he discovered, that he essentially made, the Phantom Zone. Once Zod escapes, he finds that he is unable to exact his revenge upon Jor-El or to seek the thrones of Krypton, so the sins of the father are visited instead upon the Last Son.
So, if I haven't made it obvious enough, Zod is a Lucifer figure in our little allegory here. Lucifer, the left hand of God, rallies a third of the angels to do battle with God and usurp his position. God condemns Lucifer and his angels to Hell for eternity. Eventually Lucifer ends up trying to tempt Christ in the desert, offering him the world. Following this model, the perfect Zod story would feature the General offering Kal-El a space in his dominated world, and Kal-El naturally resisting.
And now, we've got a return of our Lucifer figure, and this time he has a son, who has been effectively adopted by Superman, who has recently returned from a lengthy absence. We've got a rather interesting Armageddon scenario here, or we would if the writers and artists would ever get their act together to finish the damn story.
Anyway, that's my favorite thing about Zod, that it ties in so perfectly with the whole Monomyth thing, which is one of my favorite things about Superman in general. I know people probably get kind of uneasy when I talk about this sort of thing, if only because of how clear it is that Superman is a Moses figure, especially given his Jewish origins. I'll have to do a post on that, delving deeper into the Monomyth and the various connections between Moses and Jesus (and Superman, natch). Short answer: you can't be a Christ figure without being a Moses figure; Moses is a Monomythic hero, and all Christ figures are a subset of the Monomyth. I've seen some pretty convincing cases made online for the idea that Superman is less "Christ figure" and more "Jewish concept of the Messiah," and while I have yet to do the requisite research there, it seems pretty solid.
I've gone off on a tangent again, haven't I? Back to the main thread, I think it would be interesting to increase the similarities between Zod and Superman, to make Zod more of a "through the glass, darkly" character. Imagine, for instance, that Superman defeats Zod and his cronies, and turns the Phantom Zone projector on them. Ursa and Non are condemned to eternal nothingness, but something goes wrong with Zod. Perhaps he's got a shard of Jewel Kryptonite in his pocket. He vanishes and awakens to see a world of stark, empty whiteness around him. He sees Ursa and Non with him, floating in the empty void, but then has a seizure, a sudden spasm, and finds himself in Siberia, alone and freezing. His essence is split between two worlds, the Phantom Zone and our realm, just as Kal-El's essence is split between humanity and his Kryptonian heritage. Earth-Zod suffers from partial amnesia, and his powers are greatly diminished (Golden Age Superman levels, or slightly less). Phantom-Zod blacks out for long stretches of time, and remembers his time on Earth only in a haze. But split though he is, forced to walk among humans and Kryptonians, he is still driven by the same megalomaniacal desire, the same zealous quest for dominance and revenge, even if he can't quite remember what he wants revenge for, or who from. Zod uses his abilities to gain prestige and recognition in the small, isolated, decimated towns in which he has found himself. He begins building an army, gaining territory, developing his own tiny nation-state. General Zod could be something like DC's Dr. Doom, I think, pulling a few ideas from Pokolistan-Zod. And while Superman remains more or less oblivious to the fact that his most powerful enemy is still active on Earth, Zod is beginning to put the pieces together. And meanwhile, this split between realms is threatening to tear both our universe and the Phantom Zone apart.
I think a story like that could salvage General Zod's character, turn him into something other than a one-trick pony. I like the idea that floated somewhere near the edges of the Action Comics Annual story, where Zod is something of a religious fanatic (persecuting Jor-El for heresy, for instance), and it would be interesting to see a semi-amnesiac Zod forming a militant vaguely Kryptonian cult, especially one with a mad-on for Superman. But in any case, this kind of story would introduce some weaknesses into Zod's character, allowing him to remain active in the universe without being a total disbelief-breaker. And we could build some new rogues out of it; some kind of creature might be spawned from the breach between realms, an entity of Phantom Zone energy with wisps of personality from Zod and other criminals in the Zone, for instance.
And I'd write it for...oh, sorry. Wrong type of post. Anyway, to sum it all up, Zod's not the great badass villain that everyone seems to remember. In fact, he's really pretty lame. He's got some potential, but it doesn't quite outweigh the fact that he's too powerful and too belligerent to be a regular recurring villain. He needs some characterization and some weaknesses if he's going to be anything more than an Event-villain.
And it would be nice to bring him up to "regular recurring villain" status. Superman has enough Event-villains, and even counting them, his rogue's gallery sucks. It is, quite frankly, one of the worst in comics. Superman needs some new villains, and good ones this time. Ones that aren't so-mysterious-that-no-one-cares, like Ignition, or vixens-with-hearts-of-gold, like Encantadora and Scorch. Obsession was nice, while she lasted, and there are a few other recent creations who could reasonably become recurring villains, but we need some new blood in the Superman Revenge Squad, because characters like Riot and Barrage simply don't cut it, and never really did.
But please, if you must use General Zod, try your best to do something new with him. Because we've all seen "Superman II," and we don't need to see it all play out the same way again.