If you were a kid when the Superman movies came out and also a comic book fan who was watching for the first time as someone took live action superheroes seriously, then you probably share my nostalgia and love for these movies, regardless of all their imperfections. Magical is not a strong enough word to describe the thrill of going from reading the new Action, Wonder Woman or JLA (still have those) over a hamburger and milkshake and then go see that stuff unfold pretty faithfully on a huge screen. Though the effects are dated and maybe even silly now compared to what CGI can accomplish, those first Superman movies still satisfy, and they did something more important–they set the tone for bringing comic heroes to the movies in grand and epic semi-serious style, not as a silly costume party or a campy joke about hopelessly old fashioned ideas, and we’re still enjoying that trend today.
Though the first Superman is in my opinion the better movie, the second complicated and almost ruined by money spats with Marlon Brando, some wacko script ideas and a change of director, Richard Donner to Richard Lester, not only do I still really enjoy it, I just had to feature General Zod, the villain from the sequel. Zod makes that movie, indeed Zod probably saved it from its cheesier moments, maybe even from being a disaster. He also matches and even outshines Christopher Reeve’s Superman in some scenes, which is a huge feat. Zod’s far more terrifying than Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, and I believe Zod did more to set the standard for modern era comic book movie villains than Hackman’s Luthor, which was a character not well used in those films. It’s even more of an accomplishment when you consider than General Zod had been in the Superman (actually more Superboy) lore since the early 60s but wasn’t as widely known to the non-geek public as Luthor, since he missed out on the era of the Superman craze, the serials and TV shows. Yet Terence Stamp took this relatively obscure character and made him such a strong and unique Superman foe that 33 years later, with a new Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel, Stamp’s version still loomed large in audiences’ minds and proved very difficult to live up to. Zod jumped from the panels of a comic to defining a blockbuster movie to being a signature role in a long career of a fine actor’s fabulous roles, to entering and being firmly entrenched in pop culture. For all that, and for the little chill the name Zod still sends up your spine, you can thank Terence Stamp.
At the time the first two Superman movies were being cast (the plan was to film them back to back) Stamp was feeling forgotten by the film industry. Hard to believe about one of the coolest actors ever to grace the screen, but after an impressive run through the 60’s he struggled to find work and was at that time in India, studying philosophy and meditation, and if that’s what made him so great as Zod then I approve. For his big comeback role he made Zod’s hatred and superiority complex intense and focused. Stamp may have played Zod more broad, grandiose and cartoonish than Shannon does for our era of more realistic supervillains, but somehow even playing it to the hilt, Stamp still comes off to me as the more genuine and believable version. You buy his supreme confidence and arrogant, pompous entitlement and regal bearing. He believes he deserves to rule, and is superior in every way and if you mental midgets don’t agree he has no qualms about squashing you like a seedless grape. Even better, he took this Napoleonic attitude motivated by a personal grudge and made it as big as the universe by giving Zod cold, inhuman qualities, far more alien than militaristic, something more unknowable and foreign than just a top soldier gone bad, and he did this partly through the use of that accent and those sharp features and icy eyes, and partly through his choice to act as a vengeful maniac with an eerie, still, single minded analytic center.
Sometimes he’s even mischievous and comically befuddled and annoyed with us stupid pathetic humans, and you can’t decide if he’s more dangerous when he’s cool or when he loses patience. I can’t overstate the creepy impact of Stamp and his partners Ursa (the otherworldy badge-collecting vamp Sarah Douglas, who’s just devilishly, playfully destructive***) and Non (the grunting, monstrous brute Jack O’Halloran) on us kids of the Reeve generation. Just the concept of these uber-criminals being banished, crammed and laminated together for all eternity into a three foot square mirrored tile spinning forever in space was weird and scary enough (not to mention awkward); that these dangerous megalomaniacs could possibly escape and come to Earth with the power of three Supermen, that was Doomsday.
As I said, Superman II has some big flaws, mainly the misstep of having Superman give up his power to have a romantic liaison with Lois–even Margot Kidder said in a recent interview that was a big big mistake. It needlessly strayed from the mythology to that point, it made the kids of 1980 more than a bit uncomfortable, threw in something that consequently had to be miraculously rewound, and it screwed up the screwball by pairing them too soon when their unrequited chemistry was already super. Kidder and Reeve were experts– few have been able to pull off the lovable heroism, slapstick, wry and touching dance of affection and rejection the way they did as Lois and Clark.
The other problem is, it’s just not necessary to make Kal-El (Supes’ Kryptonian name for those not in the know) any more human with that device, since losing his powers and the battle against the villains of this story already do that so well. Kal’s humanized by his love for Earth and careful defense of it against his “people” laying siege to his adopted planet, and by facing opponents with the exact same powers (actually Zod seems to have acquired a few extra), which makes Kal ordinary and beatable. And as Zod points out, Superman’s weakness is that he cares too much for the puny Earthlings (not all of them, though– it’s nice to see he’s not above a little juvenile taunting and payback at the end).
Just think, with all that large scale wreckage, with Stamp and company occupying the White House and with those truly spectacular city battles (which also look like the battle of the brand names and the product placements), you also get lots of mind candy that grown ups can appreciate, instantly memorable lines Stamp delivers with Shakespearean aplomb, stuff like:
General Zod does not take orders. He gives them.
Be nice to them, my dear. Blow them a kiss.
So this is planet Houston.
Ursa: You are master of all you survey. / Zod: So I was yesterday. And the day before.
You are not the President. No one who leads so many could possibly kneel so quickly.
and of course,
Any actor that elevates a previously second string comic character to iconic status, one that even a non-comic reader knows and knows to fear, one that can still scare the kraptonite out of you over three decades later while also being a delight to watch and fun to quote, is one that lasts and deserves high praise, and is villain enough to be counted among
The Great Villain Blogathon, brought to you by Ruth of Silver Screenings,Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy — once you’re done kneeling you can see all the movie baddies at any of these three blogs.
here’s something from my own collection 😀 believe me, it really is 3D
* you think Zod was scary? I still want to see the Gil Kane redesigned Giger-looking Brainiac in a Superman movie. Even Sigourney Weaver would run screaming from that thing.
** I imagine Yul Brynner would have done an equally awesome job as Zod
***that scene when Ursa arm wrestles a jerk who says “let me know if this tickles” and she gleefully uses him to break a diner table in half … 😀