>> Tuesday, May 28, 2013
In the latest trailer for "Man Of Steel," mysterious evildoer General Zod demands that the people of Earth hand over Superman... "or else." But who exactly is Zod, and why should humanity be afraid? Well, because he's Superman's Khan, that's why.- Todd Gilchrist, "'Man Of Steel': Is Zod Superman's Khan?MTV.com, May 22nd, 2013.
Well it's a great headline, but of course the article's fluff. I knew it would be--but still, with that headline, I had to go and see if they answered a great question the right way... or the way they actually did.
I don't know if there's supposed to be a spoiler warning on this whole post. Is it still any kind of secret that the big bad in Star Trek Into Darkness is Khan Noonian Singh, last seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan? Nerds had this figured out a year, a year-and-a-half ago. STID's writers let it slip that they were using a canonical villain, and everybody assumed it was Khan, and then the writers said it wasn't Khan, then the writers said it was somebody named John Harrison, then the nerds said there was nobody in the original series or movies named "John Harrison" and "John Harrison" must be a nom de guerre for Khan, then the writers said it wasn't, and the nerds speculated about whether "John Harrison" was Khan or Garth Of Izar or Khan or maybe Gary Mitchell or possibly Khan (you see how well the John Harrison ruse worked, right?) and finally the movie came out and John Harrison is Khan. So it's not much of a surprise. Sorry if I just ruined everything you would have found out if you happened to check IMDB to see who was in the movie before you went to the theatre.
But okay, so the question: is Zod, who is going to be the big bad in the upcoming Superman reboot, Man Of Steel, Superman's Khan? Which I think, from the post at MTV.com, is a Millennial-Who's-Only-Been-Raised-On-TV-And-Movies' way of asking if Zod is Superman's Moriarty, or his Iago if you want to really get old school and show you didn't sleep through every high school English class you attended.
If you take the question at face value though, it's an excellent question that highlights one of the (many) problems with Star Trek Into Darkness and a reason to be maybe a little leery of Man Of Steel. Because Zod probably is Superman's Khan, but not his Iago (maybe his Moriarty, though).
What Zod and Khan have in common is that they're both B-list villains who were promoted to the major leagues by popular and beloved film franchises released in the early 1980s, and therefore old enough to be "classic" but recent enough to be remembered (however murkily) and celebrated (however ironically) by the pop culture collective unconscious (repeated airings on television through the 1980s and early 1990s, and subsequent sporadic sightings on various cable channels to this day, don't hurt).
Zod, actually, was a little more of a B-lister and Khan more of a C-lister before Superman II and The Wrath Of Khan made them household icons. General Zod made several dozen appearances in various DC comics from his introduction in 1938 to the release of Superman II in 1980, while Khan's sole appearance was in a single 1967 Star Trek episode, "Space Seed", in which he (like several rogues before him and many rogues since) tried to take over the starship Enterprise (with slightly less success than any of a dozen other antagonists you might think of). But to put Zod's place in the mythology into perspective, you probably need to account for the fact that Zod made several dozen appearances over the course of almost half a century in about a dozen different titles, including reprints. Superman alone starred in Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman, Superboy, The Superman Family and World's Finest Comics (along with possibly other titles I'm overlooking). And Zod appeared slightly more often between his brief appearance in Superman and his star turn in Superman II; I don't know if that reflected a renewed interest by the writers or merely an attempt to cash-in, since DC was doubtlessly aware that Superman and Superman II were originally two halves of the same script.
Khan, again, was nobody. Star Trek: The Motion Picture underperformed and Gene Roddenberry consequently was promotion-fired from the movies. Paramount gave the sequel to a TV executive named Harve Bennett who knew nothing about Star Trek but said he could make the sequel much more cheaply than the over-budget and over-schedule ST:TMP; Bennett decided the problem with ST:TMP was the lack of a strong villain and sat down with all the original episodes looking for one, concluding that Khan was his guy. History ensued.
The thing is, I watched "Space Seed" again, right after seeing Star Trek Into Darkness--you can watch it on Hulu or at StarTrek.com--and no, it isn't a terribly good episode. It's not a bad episode. More of a middle-of-the-pack episode, I'd say. The ScatterKat has a remarkably high tolerance for cheese and we've been known to argue over movies where I pointed out how mediocre or even just plain awful it was and she said, "Well, I thought it was fun!" (which I guess is probably all that should matter, but I'm a dick), and she laughed at the fight scene between Shatner's and Montalban's body doubles near the end of the episode. Aside from that kind of thing, it's sort of a fluffy, inconsequential episode: Enterprise finds guys in space, guys in space try to take over Enterprise, guys in space fail pretty miserably, Kirk kicks them off the ship, the end. Star Trek was known for at least attempting to be smart or philosophical or scientific, but most of that in "Space Seed" is incidental: there's some dialogue about the future history of Earth that could be considered a finger-wagging at contemporary audiences ("Don't be eugenicists or we might have WWIII!"), but it's sort of wedged into the infodumps and doesn't have a lot of real heft.
So you kind of have to conclude that the main reason Harve Bennett decided Khan was the perfect villain is that he was a TV exec and recognized Khan's actor, Ricardo Montalban, as Mr. Roarke from ABC's long-running hit series Fantasy Island. Not that there's anything especially wrong with that, just that Khan is basically just some jerk who tried to steal the Enterprise and failed and was never heard from again.
Let me put it this way: I recently went on a Trek kick and re-read a bunch of James Blish's short-story adaptations of Star Trek episodes, and Blish, working from the original teleplay, spells the name of the antagonist in "Space Seed" as "Kahn". This is a villain so fearsome, notorious, and central to Star Trek mythology that prior to 1982 no one agreed how his name was spelled. (Also, possibly, whether he was Sikh or Jewish.)
But this is how awesome The Wrath Of Khan is: they went and turned this C-list guy into the Big Bad of original Star Trek. And this is basically what the producers of Superman II did... well, really, more-that-that, that's what Terrance Stamp did with General Zod. These weren't guys everybody knew and remembered: Khan was no Gary Mitchell and Zod was no Braniac, Khan was no Squire Of Gothos and Zod wasn't Bizarro. These guys were chumps, also-rans, "'ya-remember-who?" bush-league villains who were turned into the demons and monsters of their franchises by a couple of pretty good movies.
Which is where we get to part of the problem with Star Trek Into Darkness and maybe with Man Of Steel (though it's not out yet, who knows?). These aren't movies that are creating new villains or scenarios or even exploiting their respective franchises' legitimate worst-of-the-worst: these are films that are trying to trade in on the credit and goodwill of their most beloved predecessors. You liked Khan in Star Trek II, so surely you'll like him in this one. You remember when "Kneel Before Zod" became an Internet meme, well here's Zod. What's really unfortunate about this choice is that Khan is memorable because of a really strong script and Zod because of a really strong performance, and if you can't exceed those originals (it's not enough just to match them), there's not really any point in what you're doing aside from the whole bait-and-switch of using pop nostalgia to convince people they're about to see a better movie than the one you've made.
Yeah, I'm afraid Zod is Superman's Khan. In the worst way possible.