So Michael Shannon is General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. It’s good casting, no question. What we should be questioning is the need to bring General Zod back to the big screen in the first place. The next Superman movie will be the sixth live-action movie to star the American icon, but for some reason only two proper supervillains from the comic book series have ever made an appearance in the franchise: Lex Luthor and General Zod. Played by Terrence Stamp in Superman II, Zod became Superman’s greatest nemesis on the silver screen. In the comics, he’s practically a footnote. What gives?
Zod is obviously an attractive villain to choose for a Superman movie: as a fellow Kryptonian he’s able to match The Man of Steel blow-for-blow, and he represents the antithesis of the hero’s story, an alien seeking to conquer Earth rather than make his home there. But his very existence also diminishes Superman’s effectiveness as a character. “Superman is the last son of Krypton… except for this guy. Oh, and his friends.” One of the protagonist’s defining characteristics falls apart whenever Zod’s around.
Needless to say, we’re not fans of the decision to feature the character… and we can think of quite a few great Superman villains we’d have picked instead. Characters who, for the most part, would make their stellar debut in cinemas and give Man of Steel a fresh start from a creative perspective. Here they are now… Ten Superman Villains Who Would Have Been Better Than General Zod.
Don’t know him? Magog first appeared in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s acclaimed mini-series Kingdom Come in 1996. Magog was actually an anti-hero created to represent the more ‘modern’ superheroes of the era, and his design was actually intended as a parody of Rob Liefeld’s then-popular design of the Marvel Comics hero Cable: an old, scarred man with a name and costume that appear to have been crafted independently of each other, and kinda willy-nilly at that. More than a physical match for the Man of Steel, Magog’s practical take on superheroing – killing villains rather than arresting or attempting to rehabilitate them – was initially celebrated by the citizens of Earth before his ‘Shoot First and Ask Questions Later’ policy resulted in a national tragedy, annihilating much of the American Midwest with his reckless behavior. The polar opposite of Superman’s oft-derided boy scout demeanor, and an excellent foe for any Superman film.
Many of Superman’s most famous villains are simply bruisers, capable of taking and dishing out the kind of physical punishment the Man of Steel can provide but not quite industrious enough to conquer the world. Parasite is no exception, so – like several of the other supervillains on our list – he’d make a better secondary villain than a Big Bad, and would probably need to be paired with the likes of Lex Luthor to carry an entire film. But whatever the plotline, Parasite is a memorable Superman antagonist: a normal guy (a hapless schlub or a small-time criminal, depending on the version of the character) who gains the ability to steal the powers and memories of anyone he touches. He made a prominent appearance in the excellent DC Animated movie All Star Superman as a monstrous creature with a mindless addiction to power, and his memorable rampage was proof-positive that he’d make a great live-action foe as well. A large-scale threat who just needs to lay a single finger on our hero give him the biggest fight of his (cinematic) career.
Considered a rather whimsical character by most standards, Bizarro is in fact an exceptional enemy for our hero, capable of fighting Superman on equal physical terms and too far gone mentally to be reasoned with. The chaos represented by Bizarro could in fact be the rough equivalent of a superpowered, although perhaps less malevolent, Joker. Early versions of Bizarro depict the character as a Superman from an alternate, backwards dimension where everything is reversed. In Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, a classic tale from Watchmen writer Alan Moore, the parallel-universe version of Bizarro took the Yin-Yang mentality to horrifying new levels, coming to Earth and going on an unthinkable killing spree because ‘our’ Superman refuses to kill anybody. Alternatively, and much less disturbingly, they could also go with the animated series origin of the character in which Lex Luthor clones Superman but the process goes awry, resulting in a bizarre abomination who waffles between Superman’s good nature and his own lashing out against the tragic nature of his existence. Great drama either way.
Doomsday is best known as the villain who successfully killed Superman (at least temporarily, but that’s still a career best for any rogue on our list), and yet he’s not much of a character really. Doomsday is an artificial life form originally designed to clear out the hostile original inhabitants of Krypton, but the process of creating this monstrosity led him to become completely indestructible and hate all forms of life. After he ends up on Earth he begins a rampage that only Superman can stop, and only at the cost of his own life. Doomsday is a force of nature, having no motivation beyond destruction, so as a result you would, again, probably need to include another villain in order to tell a proper story (the DC Animated movie Superman: Doomsday did a pretty good job of balancing Doomsday and Lex Luthor), but at the center of the film would be an all-out brawl unlike any yet seen in feature films.
Like many of our older villains on this list, Metallo has a variety of origin stories, but all of them center around small-time criminal John Corben, whose brain is placed in a kryptonite-powered robotic body. He wavers between bemoaning his fate and reveling in his newfound strength and (in later versions of the character) his ability to transform parts of his body into new tools and weapons to use on the Man of Steel, not to mention his ability to increase in size. That’s right, it’s on old school giant robot fight in the heart of Metropolis. We imagine that in the movie version Metallo would be a construct of Lex Luthor that goes awry because Luthor fails to grasp – or at least care about – the psychology of a man who loses his humanity, forcing Superman to save his arch-nemesis from the vengeful cybernetic monstrosity who turns on his maker… and the rest of the world.
Mongul was the leader of Warworld, a planet whose culture thrived on gladiatorial combat. Mongul brought Superman to his world to participate in these deathmatches, and of course the Man of Steel kicked his ass. An enormous yellow alien with strength to match our hero Mongul is also an intergalactic dictator with the brains and muscle at his command to be a serious, world-threatening force of evil for our protagonist to defeat. In his most famous story, also written by Alan Moore, Mongul ensnares Superman in an alien plantlife called the Black Mercy, which sends our hero into a coma and forces him to hallucinate a life of happiness back on Krypton. When Superman rejects the fantasy he’s forced to bid a tragic farewell to the son he knows he will never have. Many of Superman’s foes have beaten him, at least temporarily, but few have ever broken him. Mongul has.
In theory Darkseid should be at the top of our list. The despotic ruler of the planet Apokolips, and in his own way an honest-to-god god, Darkseid’s many attempts to conquer Earth have been only narrowly stopped by the Man of Steel. He has vast armies of superpowered soldiers at his command, ranging from the disturbing Granny Goodness to his own adopted son Kalibak, and is himself almost entirely indestructible. There are a ton of great Darkseid stories, and the only reason he’s not in the top spot is that putting him in the first new Superman movie would be blowing the franchise’s load too early. You can’t have Superman face his most powerful, undefeatable adversary and then have a sequel with Metallo in it. It would only be a let down.
3. MANCHESTER BLACK AND THE ELITE
In one of the best Superman stories ever written, “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way,” writer Joe Kelly set our hero against a new team of superheroes who kill every criminal they encounter. Like Magog, but with a more modern and sadistic bent, the psychic Manchester Black and his team of anti-heroes – Coldcast, Menagerie and Hat – represent the darkest superhero characters to gain popularity over the last decade, specifically The Authority. Superman finds himself at odds with enemies that have both the ability and the will to kill him, but is also incapable of defeating them on their own terms lest he prove their point. His solution is a combination of genius and genuine badass, with a climactic battle that tests Superman’s brawn and brains, and an ending for Manchester Black in particular that stretches the limits of the Man of Steel’s morality without quite breaking it.
Truly one of Superman’s greatest foes, Brainiac is an artificial intelligence crafted on Krypton, who stood idly by while the planet was annihilated. At least, that’s the version we like best (it’s from Bruce Timm’s Superman The Animated Series). It provides all the pathos of General Zod, being the last remnant of Superman’s home world, without the drawback of actually being another Kryptonian. An extremely powerful robot with an unbelievably high IQ, Brainiac traversed the galaxy cataloguing various species, learning everything there is to know about them, taking a few samples, and then completely destroying their worlds, since they’re now preserved in his memory banks. As in many of the best Superman stories he finds himself in a moral dilemma, needing to destroy Brainiac without letting his research and menagerie of nearly extinct animals perish too. It’s the ultimate struggle between human compassion and pure sociopathic detachment.
1. LEX LUTHOR
As far as we’re concerned, we’ve never actually seen Lex Luthor in a Superman movie, just unusually ambitious real estate barons played by Academy Award-winning actors. Where’s the mad scientist Lex Luthor? Where’s the billionaire entrepeneur? The real Lex Luthor isn’t Superman’s greatest villain because he’s some criminal mastermind… No, he’s Superman’s arch-nemesis because in reality he’s the real Superman. The height of physical and intellectual perfection (yeah he’s prematurely bald, but come on, that’s just manly, manly testosterone), he turns to villainy out of spite. Superman comes along in a silly red cape and steals the great Lex Luthor’s thunder, forcing Luthor to become everything the object of his hatred, (and deep down also his envy) is not. Had Superman come to conquer the world it’s Lex Luthor who would have saved the day. But since Superman came to save us, it’s up to Lex Luthor to prove him impotent. We suspect Lex Luthor has a place in Zack Snyder’s Superman, but we haven’t heard any casting rumors yet so we can’t be certain. Let’s just hope that when he does make an appearance in the new franchise it’s as Lex Luthor, the human ideal, and not Lex Luthor, the guy who likes beachfront property.