Friday, June 28, 2013

"Our Zod" and "our Khan"

I've long associated Superman II and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in my head, but never before had so many reasons to do so as I do these days.

Not only did they both come out around the same time (1981 and 1982, respectively), they were both installments in series that would run for years and years and reboot in multiple incarnations. They were also both second movies that I loved, following on the heels of original movies that underwhelmed me. In fact, I'm sure I've seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture only once, and I've seen Superman: The Movie twice at most, though possibly only once.

Both movies also gave birth to what, to this day, I consider to be two of the greatest villains in cinema history. Their names should come as no surprise to you, since I've included them in the title of this post and furnished you with pictures of them above.


Zod (then played by Terence Stamp) and Khan (then played by Ricardo Montalban) have dug themselves into our collective moviegoing psyche to such an extent that they were both rebooted in movies from the summer of 2013 (one in an actual second movie, the other in a second reboot of the series in the last ten years). It's not a secret in Man of Steel; it's sort of a secret in Star Trek Into Darkness, hence the spoiler warning. In fact, these characters' reappearance in these franchises (neither having appeared since their original movies) was such a selling point that the characters' presence alone got people in my generation excited about seeing these movies.

The thing is, they're not "our Zod" or "our Khan."

I thought that was particular felicitous phrasing from a friend over the weekend. I hadn't seen Man of Steel yet (I accomplished that feat Tuesday night), but people were talking about it a little at someone's birthday drinks -- not very positively, as it turns out. They knew not to get into spoiler territory with me present, but I also didn't want my presence to shut down the conversation completely, so I gave my one friend the chance to throw me a bone on something that I thought would be easy: "Is Michael Shannon at least good?" I figured there was only one possible answer to this question.

"Yes, but he's not our Zod," my friend said.

It turns out I both agreed and disagreed with my friend. Michael Shannon wasn't our Zod, it's true. But he also wasn't that good. Maybe my friend didn't think he was so good either, but wanted to give me something I could use to bring a sense of optimism to my impending screening.

However, Shannon was enough like our Zod, appearance and otherwise, to at least be recognizable as Zod. I can't really say the same for Benedict Cumberbatch as (LAST SPOILER ALERT) Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. Cumberbatch is a far more interesting presence than Shannon, more cunning and diabolical, but he's really not that much like Ricardo Montalban. I suppose giving a character in 2013 bronzed muscles and a mane of shoulder-length white hair isn't really practical, but did Cumberbatch have to be so different from that template? Why even call him Khan in the first place?

As I try to make an objective case for those movies from the early 1980s being superior efforts to the movies from the summer of 2013, I must also realize that there's nothing objective about it. I try to imagine myself as a teenager today coming to these movies, and what I would think of them. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a real oddity in a lot of ways, as the hero (Captain Kirk) and the villain (Khan) are never actually in the same place at the same time. Not once. As a teenager today, I'd probably be flummoxed by long parts of the movie in which "nothing happens." Superman II is as much of an oddity in different ways. It does contain moments of the kind of darkness Zack Snyder is going for in Man of Steel -- don't forget Christopher Reeve dramatically yelling "Father!!!" in the shattered Fortress of Solitude -- but it's also got a ton of moments of levity, more than any modern teen is accustomed to seeing in their superhero movies. Whole characters (Lex Luthor, Non) are basically comic relief -- and that's just among the "villains."

So yeah, of course I'm going to prefer "our Zod" and "our Khan" over "their Zod" and "their Khan." They may see it as the reverse. If they're smart, they'll overcome the problem of being born in the late 1990s and find the true genius in the original incarnations of those roles, and in the inimitable performances of Stamp and Montalban, each subtle in their own ways, each chewing the scenery in their own ways as well.

More than anything, though, I see the resurrection of these characters as a validation of two movies from my youth that I have cherished for years, standing up for them even when others in my generation were snubbing them upon discovered "Great films" with a capital G.

Oh, I don't take the fact that they're being offered to the next generation of pop culture junkies as proof, per se, that Star Trek II and Superman II were great. You might say I should draw the opposite conclusion, that if Zod and Khan are being offered to the masses again, it's a sign that they are safe enough for general consumption.

But I don't choose to see it that way. I always thought I was a little weird that I could quote whole sections of Khan's whispered threats to Kirk. I always thought it was a little goofy when I put on my best Terence Stamp voice and operatically performed the line "Why do you say these things to me, when you know I will kill you for it?" Now I feel more prophetic than marginalized.

And I guess I do pity today's kids a bit, because they're not getting movies that are both awesome and sort of ridiculous at the same time. You can't love Zod and Khan without realizing that you are, on some level, getting off on a completely hammy performance. But these hammy performances didn't make the movie suffer, as they might today. Somehow they elevated the movie and made it more grandiose. That's what's been lost today: the ability to look at a big performance unironically. Zod and Khan filled the screen, sometimes with near Shakespearean levels of gravitas that couldn't help but verge on the camp. But that's what made them great.

It's not just that movies tried to be funny back then but they don't try to be funny today. Strangely, you have a flip-flop in the tones of these movies from the movies that revived these characters this summer. Star Trek II is a dour film, containing almost no humor outside of an occasional playful exchange between Bones and Kirk. Star Trek Into Darkness tries to be funnier than that -- not a lot funnier, but somewhat funnier, as the whole character of Scotty (Simon Pegg) exists for comic purposes. Superman II, on the other hand, is practically a comedy for whole patches of the running time, while Man of Steel barely cracks a smile once -- and when it does so, it's inappropriately out of sync with what's going on in the story.

This does make me wonder what today's young people grab onto when they're looking for "their Zod" or "their Khan" -- not those actual characters, but the modern equivalents they will one day cherish. Is it Loki from The Avengers? Is it Bane or the Joker? Is it the character Michael Sheen plays in the Twilight movies? I hear he's frigging hilarious.

What seems likeliest is that they don't have a Khan or a Zod -- and that's the saddest part. Everyone deserves a Khan or a Zod ... even if they have the audacity to have been born in the late 1990s.

1 comment:

Travis McClain said...

I would be remiss not to make note that Khan originated in the original Star Trek episode, "Space Seed", where he was also played by Montalban. That was the Khan that Cumberbatch was portraying; not the white-haired psycho obsessed with killing James T. Kirk from The Wrath of Khan. I know this sounds like Trekker semantics, but it really is important for making sure that you compare and contrast - and judge - Cumberbatch against the proper Montalban performance.

Zod, of course, first appeared in Adventure Comics #283, dated April 1961. He's a little different, though, since he's appeared so sparingly on the screen. (Trek connection: In the 1988 Ruby Spears Superman cartoon, Zod was voiced by Rene Auberjonois, who played Odo on Deep Space Nine.)

As for your actual thematic point, I don't feel as possessive of Khan or Zod as you do. I think part of that is because I know there was a Khan and a Zod before I came along, or before The Wrath of Khan and Superman II. And part of it is, growing up a comic book reader, I'm not fazed by multiple incarnations of characters and continuities, etc.