There are so many superhero movies out there now that it’s sometimes hard to recall how sparse superhero movies used to be – and how inevitably disappointing most of them turned out. Even Superman – The Movie (1978) seemed off register at the time.
The film represented a Superman at least 10 years out of date – Clark Kent working for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane trying to uncover his identity and Lex Luthor as the main villain. Not just Luthor, but a humorous Luthor seemingly influenced by the Batman TV show. In the comics, Superman had moved forward. The Daily Planet was now owned by the Galaxy Broadcasting System whose duplicitous CEO, Morgan Edge conscripted Clark and Lois into reporting for his TV news shows. Scripts had become more ingenious.
Even when Superman – The Movie and its sequel Superman II related old-established lore such as the Phantom Zone villains, they seemed to do it in an odd mixed-up way. In the comic books, Kryptonian criminals were condemned to the Phantom Zone by a ray projector . Once inside the misty realm, the criminals became ghost-like and insubstantial, needing no food or mortal comforts. In the movies, the Phantom Zone was a whirling mirror that swooped down out of the skies and somehow absorbed the villains. It didn’t seem to make much sense. However, having recently got hold of a collection of Tales from the Phantom Zone – I’ve finally understood where the movie makers were coming from.
Superman – The Movie opens with General Zod (Terence Stamp), Non (Jack O’Halloran) and Ursa (Sarah Douglas) being condemned to the Phantom Zone at a trial in which their prosecutor Jor-El (Marlon Brando) has the casting vote. Superman II shows the Phantom Zone being shattered by an exploding bomb (or a missile in the Richard Donner cut). The Kryptonian villains realise that Earth’s yellow sun gives them super powers and quickly proceed to take over the Earth. Again, none of this seemed to make sense because in the comics the Phantom Zone wasn’t a physical prison that could be broken open.

The Phantom Zone first appeared in a Superboy story written in 1960 by Robert Bernstein. A sealed container falls to Earth and Superboy decodes the warning, signed by his own father Jor-El that they contain Krypton’s deadliest weapons. Despite the warning, Superboy opens the casket and finds a “thought helmet” which instructs him on the use of the Phantom Zone projector.

Superboy is accidentally projected into the Phantom Zone when a pesky lizard touches the ‘on’ button and spends the rest of the story as a living ghost until he figures a way to reverse the process. Superboy doesn’t encounter the rest of the Phantom Zone villains although the helmet does introduce the character of General Zod who is condemned to the Phantom Zone for trying to use an army of clones to take over Krypton.
However, the main inspiration for the Phantom Zone villains of the 1970’s movie, comes from a 1963 Superboy strip scripted by veteran science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton. The Untold Story of the Phantom Zone .
The story opens on Krypton with a crazed scientist called Gra-Mo trying to seize control of the planet using the robot police. His rival Jor-El foils the coup by using a magnetised weather satellite to capture the robot police. Because the Phantom Zone projector has been damaged by the magnetism, Gra-Mo and his associates are placed in suspended animation and exiled in a rocket ship.
Decades later, the prison ship has drifted towards Earth and a glancing blow from a meteor sends it crashing onto the planet’s surface. This is effectively the inspiration for the “Phantom Zone” being smashed open in the movies.
Gra-Mo tells his colleagues that they’re on Earth. “We monitored this world a thousand times from Krypton with our space telescopes and radios. Why we can even speak the English language.” This contrasts with Superman II where Zod and Ursa think they are on the planet “Houston” and know nothing of Earth (although they too speak very good English).
Gra-Mo also anticipates the deductions General Zod makes in Superman II “According to our scientists, if Kryptonians went to a world energised by a yellow sun, instead of our red sun, they’d have super powers!”

In the comic, Superboy arrives and is duped by the super villains. Ironically, when Gra-Mo tells Superboy he was an old friend of Jor-El’s, the Boy of Steel believes him because he knows “all Krypton’s villains are in the Phantom Zone”. When Gra-Mo invents a telepathic helmet to contact the Phantom Zone prisoners, they advise him how to attack Superboy. Eventually Superboy realises the Kryptonians are villains but is powerless to stop them as they embark on a campaign of vandalism similar to that of Zod and his cohorts.
In Superman II Lex Luthor leads Zod and his comrades to the Fortress of Solitude where they confront Superman. In the comic book story, Gra-Mo outwits every move Superboy makes. When he sends a lump of Kryptonite towards them, Gra-Mo jeers that the Phantom Zone villains have told him how to create a serum which gives him temporary immunity to Kryptonite.

In the movie, Superman is also in an impossible position. When Zod tells Non they will kill Luthor, Superman seizes his chance, whispering to Luthor that they must trick Zod into entering a chamber which will rob him of his super powers. Luthor immediately tells Zod what Superman is planning, and they force the Man of Steel to enter the chamber. What they don’t realise is that Superman has reversed the polarity (or whatever) and every Kryptonian outside the chamber is robbed of their super powers. Superman knocks the villains off the ice terraces of the Fortress of Solitude and as the fall towards the snow they fade away!
Back in the comic-book, Superboy has hidden the Phantom Zone projector inside Gra-Mo’s prison ship. The Phantom Zone villains, desperate to escape, tell Gra-Mo what Superboy has done. But when they enter the ship, they find out that the Phantom Zone projector is a cardboard model. Superboy seals up the ship and covers it in paint which blocks the rays of Earth’s yellow sun.
Robbed of their powers, Gra-Mo and his comrades are helpless as Superboy fires the Phantom Zone projector, which sends them into the misty realm inhabited by the other Kryptonian villains.

Superman II is a more entertaining film than Superman – The Movie but the plot flaws hanging over from the first movie were always annoying. Reading the comic book stories that formed the background for Zod, Ursa and Non, makes the apparent illogicality easier to accept.

I hadn’t realised, until I started researching this article, that there is now a controversy about whether Superman and Lois killed Zod and Ursa and that some viewers insist Zod died at the end of Superman II. I have to admit is never occurred to me that Superman had killed Zod. That strange fade before Zod hits the ice or snow or whatever it is at the bottom of the Fortress of Solitude suggests they didn’t want to show that. But again, having seen the comic book story which inspired that sequence, it’s pretty clear that Superman (or Superboy) would have sent them back to the Phantom Zone.
The ‘Richard Donner Cut’ DVD (2006) includes deleted scenes from the end of the movie which show a ‘US Arctic Patrol’ taking Zod, Non and Ursa into custody. This is all in long-shot because it’s the background to Gene Hackman’s final scene but the implication seems pretty clear.
If Richard Donner had returned to shoot the remaining scenes for Superman II it’s probable that he would have shot some close-ups of the Kryptonian villains to make it clear. But Donner was replaced by Richard Lester and the ending was re-written. Perhaps Lester thought the villains ‘fading away’ into the snow was the sort of thing that happened in comic books. After all, we’d just seen Superman deploy the incomprehensible tactic of throwing the ‘S’ symbol from his chest at Non.