Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, co-host of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast, available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman PodcastNetwork.You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other Tuesday.
When Michael Shannon was announced to play General Zod in Man of Steel, I was disappointed. Not because the actor lacks the chops to carry the role or even because my first thought was that this film could retread on the iconic character that Terrence Stamp portrayed in Superman: The Movie (1978) and more prominently in Superman II (1980). My problem is that there have simply been too many incarnations of the character in the last decade. None of that is to say that this version won’t be good, or possibly the best. But by looking back at how this villain developed over time, we may gain some insights as to who this person will be in the finished film.
Let’s step into the way-back machine to April 1961.
Superman was no longer the last survivor of Krypton with the likes of his cousin Supergirl, his menagerie of Super Pets like Krypto the Super-Dog, Streaky the Super-Cat, Beppo, the Super-Monkey, Comet the Super-Horse and many more. Some concepts in the world of Superman were abandoned after a single issue, such as Superman’s ability to shoot rainbows out of his fingers or to create a miniature version of himself that could do all the work while Superman lounged around his Fortress of Solitude. Other ideas worked out so well that they were revisited for later stories, and the Phantom Zone proved to be an ideal way to introduce new villains to tangle with Superman.
Before Krypton exploded, it was a society far advanced by Earth’s standards. One of the basic constructs of science fiction utopian culture is fair imprisonment of its criminals and a complete lack of a death penalty (The opposite represents the dystopian or “bad” futurism). So on Krypton, a decade or so before the baby Kal-El was born and the planet subsequently exploded, Superman’s father Jor-El created a device called “The Phantom Zone Projector” that transported Krypton’s most dangerous criminals to a separate dimension where they couldn’t cause any trouble for society.
Zod was one of those many criminals in the Phantom Zone. The story, which began in Adventure Comics #283 goes that an evil megalomaniac named Jax-Ur blew up Krypton’s moon. So General Zod used a duplicator ray to make imperfect robot copies of himself, first claiming he would save Krypton, but then deciding to overthrow the Kryptonian government. The robots’ skin was cracked and white, much like the Bizarro versions of Superboy and Superman. Despite Zod’s popularity today, he was not often used by the writers. It was Jax-Ur who tended to cause the most trouble for Superman.
The name “Zod” actually presents what we on Earth would call a last name. So if Kal-El for instance were in the Kryptonian Miliary, he might be Cadet El. Zod’s full name before becoming a General was Dru-Zod.
After Zod’s 40 year sentence was up, he was released by Superman, but quickly tried to take over the Earth until being put him back in. Although escape was always an option, he always ended up back in the zone.
The most famous version of General Zod to date is Terrence Stamp’s performance in Superman: The Movie and especially Superman II. Stamp had an imposing presence and a commanding voice. He and his cohorts, the male hating Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and tough, but mute Non (Jack O'Halloran) he tried to overthrow the ruling council on Krypton, so all three of them were sentenced to the Phantom Zone. Zod specifically blamed Jor-El for this punishment and vowed to make him and his heirs bow down before him.
Thanks to a nuclear explosion in space, the confines of the Phantom Zone were cracked, releasing the three criminals near Earth, where they gained the same powers as Superman and tried to make good on their threats and take over the planet. Fortunately Superman tricked them into relinquishing their abilities and stopped their reign of terror.
Faora, another Kryptonian in Man of Steel, first appearead in 1977. That was before the film was released, but well after the script was complete and production was underway.
THE POCKET UNIVERSE
After the events of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earth’s in 1986, Superman’s story was completely reimagined from the ground up. One of the primary tenets of the new continuity was to return Superman to his original status as the Last Son of Krypton. This meant there would be no Supergirl – or at least not one that was related to Superman, so no Krypto, and no Zod. However in 1988, Superman was brought to a pocket universe, a dimension specifically created by a character called The Time Trapper where the only inhabited planets in its entire Universe were Earth and Krypton.
Just as before, Krypton exploded, but not before Jor-El sent his son to Earth where he grew into his teenage years, and then sacrificed himself to save the world. Unfortunately he died not long before Zod and his cohorts Quex-Ul and Zaora escaped from the Phantom Zone and set about destroying the planet. They literally burned the planet’s atmosphere off with their heat vision. In the end, no human life survived.
Superman finally subdued all three of the supervillains with Gold Kryptonite, which permanently removes a Kryptonian’s super powers. Zod still vowed to find a way to regain their abilities and destroy Superman’s Earth as well. So Kal-El executed all three of them with Green Kryptonite and had to watch them die in agony. Since it was from another universe, Superman was not affected by it. This broke Superman’s cardinal rule, which was that he would never kill another sentient being, so in the following months he developed a second personality that he was unaware of, and finally exiled himself in space for several months for fear he might hurt someone.
The Pocket Universe execution remained a vital part of Superman’s character development for years, but Zod but Jeph Loeb created a new one on the Krypton another alternate reality in the story “Return to Krypton.” He was just as evil as ever and recommended that Krypton’s imperial council kill Superman and his father Jor-El for insurrection, but in the end they blew him up real good.
AND ANOTHER ZOD
You know what? I don’t even remember this guy. He wasn’t even Zod and just used his name for no good reason. He didn’t look like Zod, he didn’t act like Zod in anyway except for being generally evil. I’m not even going to waste your time trying to explain about him. At the end he killed himself and no other version of the character would ever have done that. Let’s move on.
INTRODUCING YET ANOTHER ZOD
In 2004, Superstar artist Jim Lee (Justice League – Issue #1 in stores on 8/31) teamed up with Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets) for the 12 part “For Tomorrow.” Towards the end, Superman entered the Phantom Zone and met a Zod who turned out not to be Zod. The story wasn’t very good and it didn’t matter anyway because once again, “Zod” was more of a title than a name.
NEW KRYPTON ZOD
Geoff Johns with the help of Richard Donner (Director of Superman: The Movie) crafted a story that brought the real Zod out of the Phantom Zone in 2007. They also created two new characters named after Ursa and Non from Superman: The Movie and Superman II, but they were hardly carbon copies. Zod and Ursa had a child together in the Phantom Zone who escaped to Earth and was found by Superman, but in the end Zod, Ursa, Non and the child all disappeared again.
They all returned later in the New Krypton Saga where 100,000 Kryptonians were released from the bottle city of Kandor and unleashed on Earth. Soon, they created their own planet in the same solar orbit of Earth, but on the other side of the Sun. They named it New Krypton and reestablished their separate Guilds as they were on Krypton. Zod was the leader of the Military Guild and again played a major role in this continuity of Superman.
However with the major changes in the DC Comic Book Universe, any further appearances of Zod will have to introduce yet another version.
Although the concept of the character had been explored in Smallville as early as its fifth season, his clone became a regular for all of season nine, played by Callum Blue (Dead Like Me). He had worked closely with Jor-El on Krypton and he along with a number of others were recreated by accident with all the memories from the time their DNA had been taken. So this was a younger version that was still learning to be as evil as the original had become as he aged on Krypton. Clark banished him to the Phantom Zone, but he appeared again very near the end of the series when Clark went into the Zone.
MAN OF STEEL ZOD
Michael Shannon will be portraying the General in the upcoming film in 2013. Will we see a version that borrows from several incarnations or will he be another completely different character? Will he be purely evil like the films, or will he begin with good intentions like the Smallville version?
One thing is for sure, Shannon has big boots to fill to show the audience something that can top Terrence Stamp’s legendary performance in Superman II, which has its own cult following. What would you like to see?