Debate Club: The top 5 Superman movie villains

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Apr 4, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

Today, we kick off our month-long contribution to Superman Month with a look at the best cinematic Superman villains. Strangely, there haven't been very many; in fact, you can make an argument that if DC can ever get its big-screen Man of Steel franchise on track, there's a treasure trove of unused villainy for them to work from. The ones we've had so far run from the ridiculous to the menacing… but, frankly, they have mostly been ridiculous.

Ross Webster

When you consider all the Superman bad guys who remain unused, it is totally insane that, for Superman III, they just made up a generic evil rich guy. Webster, played by a reliably slimy Robert Vaughn, has no real motivation other than making as much money as possible, so much so that he tries to destroy the country of Colombia to take over the coffee industry. (Okay.) He then blackmails Gus (Richard Pryor, infamously) to be his genius computer programmer, making him billions and billions, starting storms with weather satellites and, ultimately, making kryptonite to kill Superman.

Webster is a pretty dumb character, and eventually DC would take all his monstrous CEO qualities and just give them to Lex Luthor. Unsurprisingly, Ross Webster never showed up in any other DC canon.

Nuclear Man

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is a total train wreck, but in a better movie the introduction of Nuclear Man would have been pretty amazing. Think about it: Lex Luthor steals some of Superman's DNA, concocts a genetic bouillabaisse and then tricks the Man of Steel into hurling it into the sun, which speeds up the growth process so that this test-tube villain can return to Earth as an adult male. (Don't ask us to explain the science; we're not that smart.)

Nuclear Man was the first big-screen role for Mark Pillow, who doesn't have any professional credits since the 1993 TV series Alaska Kid. Gene Hackman did the character's voice, but it was Pillow who provided the furrowed brow and menacing physique. (The long fingernails, presumably, were a product of the makeup and props department.)

Batman

How could Batman and Superman, two of America's greatest superheroes, ever come to blows? Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tried to answer that question, and while the movie was an overblown fiasco, the Caped Crusader is uniquely suited to be the Man of Steel's nemesis. Whereas Superman (played by Henry Cavill) is a strident, square-jawed, decent guy, Batman (played by Ben Affleck as a huskier, older man) is a cynical, smug billionaire who lost his idealism long ago.

The film creates a conflict out of the fact that Superman accidentally killed some of Bruce Wayne's employees, but the characters' beef goes deeper than that. It's a clash of personalities and world views, and because it's Batman opposing Superman, there's an added poignancy to their battle. Who would want to choose sides between those two comic book titans?

General Zod

Michael Shannon gave Zack Snyder the General Zod that Snyder deserved in Man of Steel: plodding, hyper-intense, familiar, utterly disposable. (Only Snyder could make Michael Shannon boring.) So we're talking of course about Terence Stamp's indelible Zod from Superman II. What a villain! Clad in that leather suit, he is both sleek and able, no, eager to destroy everything in his path just because it offends his sensibilities. Stamp's genius was recognizing that Zod didn't want to conquer the world because he was power-mad; he wanted to do it because these people were so beneath him that he'd almost be doing them a favor.

Zod is as strong as Superman but thinks the exact opposite about humans as him, which makes him the (near-) perfect Superman foe. And shout-out here to Ursa and Non, Zod's loyal cohorts, who seem to be having just as much fun kicking Earth's ass as he does.

Lex Luthor

We're ignoring Superman IV (which is awful) and Superman Returns (in which Kevin Spacey merely does a Gene Hackman impression). The once and future Lex will always be Hackman, who'd won an Oscar for The French Connection and was one of the most respected actors of his generation. But in Superman and Superman II, he just sits back and has a blast, playing Lex Luthor as the cockiest comic book foe on the block. Other superheroes have menacing, terrifying villains: Lex is basically just a smug twit who likes toying with his prey, fully confident that he can outsmart the Man of Steel. Cracking wise and chewing the scenery, Hackman never wanted you to forget how fun it is to be bad. Who cares if Lex was obviously wearing a toupee?

 

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.