Everyone loves a bad guy.
You may root for the hero, but you want them to work for their victory and it’s the bad guy who makes them do so. There’s also the fact that a good villain lets us unconsciously indulge our darker desires without feeling bad. It doesn’t matter that they kicked a puppy or burned a city to the ground; the hero will get them later, so we can enjoy how cool they look doing it.
Here at ‘The Book, The Film and The T-Shirt’ we like to
jump on the band wagon cover what interests you. Therefore we’re going to start examining some of cinema’s many villains and explore what makes them tick.
It goes without saying that these articles will be absolutely lousy with spoilers for the films they cover. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.
We’ll start with a fairly recent bad guy; Man of Steel’s General Zod; a villain who is a lot more complex than many audiences gave him credit for.
We’ll examine Zod, but I’m going to break it into two parts. First we’ll look at his actions and accomplishments (or lack thereof), then we’ll examine why he did what he did.
The film opens the way any Superman origin story does; with Jor El failing to convince anyone that Krypton is going to blow up soon. Zod decides to take things into his own hands and lead a coup against the ruling council.
It doesn’t work out too well; Zod (bred and raised to be a soldier) loses a fight to Jor El (bred and raised to be a scientist) and his coup is foiled within half an hour of it starting because the bulk of Krypton’s military remains loyal. This is quite a blunder on Zod’s part; as the leader of Krypton’s military, he would have had a good grasp on the amount of soldiers he’d need for a successful coup. He should also have understood (better than anyone) that, having been bred and raised to fight for Krypton’s rulers; most of them would not support the coup.
When Zod shows up at Earth, he gets his hands on Superman and tries to convince him to join his side by telling him how they’ll be killing everyone he’s ever known and loved. Superman decides he doesn’t like the sound of this and refuses. Effectively, Zod ends up making an enemy of the only person who could possibly stop him, quite needlessly.
It gets even crazier when you realise that Earth is not the perfect place for Zod’s vision of New Krypton. As he doesn’t want Kryptonians having to adapt to Earth’s alien environment, he has to terraform the planet just to make it liveable. Even then, that doesn’t do anything to block the effects of Earth’s yellow sun; they’ll still have to adapt to new powers like the super hearing and vision.
As a result of his stubborn refusal to change his mind, his plan is thwarted, his life is rendered meaningless. All he has left is a vengeful fight against an opponent who grew up on a farm and has never had to fight people as strong as him before that day.
Which Zod proceeds to lose.
In the end, his only victory is forcing Superman to kill him so he doesn’t have to live with his crushing failure to achieve anything.
So right about now, you’re probably thinking that I haven’t really sold you on the whole ‘Zod is a complex villain’. Well, the thing is, I was never arguing that Zod was a more effective villain than say, MCU’s Loki. Loki accomplishes things while Zod’s career is a train wreck. My point is that Zod is a complex and satisfying villain; just not an especially competent one. And all you need to do to see that is to examine why Zod makes such bad decisions. It’s not hard, he even tells us himself.
He was bred and trained his whole life to be a warrior.
Zod’s role, his purpose is to fight; he isn’t equipped to deal with challenges as anything but a soldier. So when he’s faced with a problem that isn’t an opposing military force, he makes mistakes because he doesn’t grasp that there’s a better way.
He leads a coup he had to know would almost certainly fail because he doesn’t know any other way to get around the stubborn ruling council. Jor El thinks of other ways of doing things because his purpose, as a scientist, is to consider the possibilities. But Zod goes into a fight he can’t realistically win because, as far as he knows, there’s no other way.
When he goes to terraform Earth, he’s starting a fight that could destroy his purpose in life for a planet that isn’t his first choice. Zod goes into the situation with the mind-set of a soldier; that there is an enemy to defeat. It doesn’t even occur to him that he could easily get what he wants (the codex data from Superman’s DNA) by not making him choose between Earth and Krypton.
And that is the ultimate tragedy of Zod that makes him a more complex character than your average superhero movie villain. Zod never realises that there is an easier, better way. The very society he’s fighting to save has rendered him unable to save them. This might be what turned him from the hero that Jor El mentions, to the angry villain we see onscreen. He saw his world heading towards destruction, but he didn’t know what to do to save it. So in the end, he did the only thing he knew how to do; he attacked. He loses everything he was trying to protect and dies; blind to the fact that there was an easier way.
Oh hey, look at that; I’ve managed to make Man of Steel even more depressing.