[Warning: This article contains Man of Steel spoilers.]
Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the ‘80s, but watching Michael Shannon play General Zod in Man of Steel I cringed at moments and longed for Terence Stamp’s performance of the infamous Kryptonian in Superman and Superman II. In fact, while dazed and bewildered leaving the theater (that will happen after watching CGI focus pull for two-and-a-half hours) I rushed home to cleanse myself by popping in Superman II.
A day later I cleared the cobwebs. It’s clear Shannon is playing a different Zod, one more in the vein of the comic book, and as the actor has put it in interviews about the character, “reinvent it for himself.”
That’s fine. We’ve been down this road before of appreciating actors who’ve brought a new feel to a legendary comic book villain. Most notably, Heath Ledger won an Oscar in 2009 for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, 20 years after Jack Nicholson brought the character to a new generation in Batman, which followed Cesar Romero playing the madman on TV in the late ’60s.
And that may be why it’s such a challenge for those of us who love Stamp’s Zod to accept a newly minted one. Unlike the Joker or even Lex Luthor, we’ve seen different portrayals of these villains, however with Zod there’s only been Stamp’s performance (in regards to feature-length movies) and with it growing to iconic status for the last 35 years in both pop culture and the annals of movie villains, it’s built an allegiance stronger than his two disciples in the Donner/Lester classics.
Now thanks to the evolution of CGI technology, Shannon’s Zod tops Stamp’s in the realm of physical prowess and superpowers (Zod in Man of Steel is doing way more than just blowing hot air on humans to show his sinister ways). And with the more serious, adult, post-9/11 storytelling of the current comic book adaptations we don’t get the fish-out-of-water bits like “So this is planet Houston” in Man of Steel.
That’s not my gripe.
We’re in a new generation of Superman lovers who didn’t grow up on “Kneel before Zod” or the ridiculously deep plunging V-neck costume (though they do have to live with Shannon’s comical order to his crew to “Release the world engine!”). But I was taken aback by Shannon’s stuffy military portrayal of the villain, which I felt lacked the grandiose performance that Stamp gave the character. Zod of Superman had dreams of a new era on Krypton, like the Zod in Man of Steel, but being sent to the Phantom Zone by the time we see him again in Superman II he’s understandably become hell-bent on seeking his revenge, which leads him to Jor-El’s son. Zod of Man of Steel (with the full-on “Shannon craziness”—beady eyes, nasal voice, looking like he’s in pain all the time) is dedicated to re-creating his homeland on Earth and sees Superman as only a roadblock between him and his quest. The deep-seeded hatred for Superman, I felt, is shown best by Stamp, which made their feud more compelling to watch.
But even more than that was how Stamp carried Zod at his less menacing moments. He exuded an intimidating aura through subtle remarks and slow meticulous movements that made the character come off as an all-knowing, all-powerful being, thus making him chilling to watch when he flipped the switch and showed his madness. In Man of Steel it felt like Shannon’s Zod was always at a 10, and it got exhausting to watch by the end of the film.
Some of this criticism falls upon Goyer’s writing, some of this is Shannon’s instinct of the character, and yes, some of this is my own hardheaded nostalgic love for a character that I grew up watching.
The man himself confirms this:
“Well, there's a special place for Zod in my heart,” Stamp said. “And the fact is, I'm rather thrilled at the amount of people for whom it was their first film. At the time I did it, I thought to myself, by the time a lot of these kids grow up, there's going to be many people who love General Zod as they do Superman. And that's come to pass, so I'm rather proud of that.”
At the end of the day Man of Steel will have done its job: launch one of the most lauded comic book franchises back to respectability in Hollywood, leading to sequels and the Justice League spin-off. While I’m sure I’ll enjoy all of that and the new villains resurrected, there’ll still be the boy in me who will always cherish Stamp’s performance.
The one true Zod.