General Zod and King Orm: Catalyzing the Hero

A comparative character study.

Villains are one of the great gifts of fiction. Antagonistic forces who incite conflict, the bread and butter of every story. Complex, magnetic characters we love to hate and hate to love. Villains and antagonists – for they aren’t exactly the same thing, more about that in a minute – are a key component of the story. A hero can only be as compelling as the villain they are up against. The greater the challenge, the more heroic the deeds. The harder the struggle, the more compelling the story. The more powerful the villain, the more realised and meritorious the hero.

The words “antagonist” and “villain” are often used interchangeably, although they define slightly different notions. The term “antagonist” refers to a character’s position within the narrative, to their function. The antagonist is characterised by simple opposition. They are an obstacle, they oppose the main character – the protagonist. The protagonist is the lead of the story, the character whom it is focused on. The antagonist stands in the protagonist’s way. However, the term doesn’t say anything about the character’s personality or motivation. It is a plot role, not a character type. The “antagonist” isn’t defined by their traits or intentions, unlike the villain. The term “villain” is much more nuanced as it refers to a type of character. “Villain” and “hero” go beyond the simple description of a character’s position in the story. The words have respectively a positive and negative connotation, which entails characterisation and traits. Thus, the villain is defined not only by their position in the story but also by their motivation, actions and if any – backstory. The villain is a harm-doer, responsible for loss and damage and ill-intentioned towards the hero. While the antagonist opposes the protagonist, their actions aren’t necessarily informed by malice. The villain has a deliberate negative effect on the hero and at large, other characters. Traditionally, the hero is the protagonist while the villain is assigned the antagonist’s position. Yet, this isn’t always the case.  A villain can be positioned as the protagonist of a story – or at least the focus of the story (for instance : the Corleone crime family in The Godfather – specifically Michael Corleone, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho,  Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ novels, Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, Anakin Skywalker – future Darth Vader – in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, The Grinch from Dr. Seuss’ book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Richard III in Shakespeare’s eponymous play).Readers and audiences have always been fascinated with villains and the versatility these characters offer – from Greek mythology to Shakespearian tragedies, from novels and comic books to films.

The villain is a character who can move within the narrative without being as constrained as the hero. They flow with the plot, are integral to the hero’s arc and serve the dual function of adversary and foil. They are a driving force who plays by different rules. When given the opportunity, the villain can shine as bright as the hero and their journey can be as captivating as the protagonist. There are many types of foes but they all have the same purpose: counter the hero and make them grow – in one way or another. The hero is naturally the character most prone to change. As the story’s main character, they have the richest arc. In the words of story consultant and author Michael Hauge, the hero undergoes gradual transformation: the character goes from comfortably living in their identity (in the realm of the known, where they feel safe but are unfulfilled) to being pushed to shed that identity and take steps towards finding their true essence (in the realm of the unknown, courageously pursue their goals and long that path, realise who they really are). Conflict forces the hero to confront their fears by overcoming external conflict (obstacles) and inner conflict (past experiences, fears, flaws, etc). To put it differently, the struggle to attain a visible goal is the outer journey, the character’s path to achieve their destiny and find their essence is the inner journey.

This very idea is, of course, present in Pr. Joseph Campbell’s the hero’s journey concept. The hero’s adventure is a long, sinuous road that transfigures the hero through a series of trials and tests. As said earlier, that transformation is provoked by the antagonistic force(s) of the story. Although that general principle can be applied to most stories, a villain who only serves as an opponent, devoid of unique drives and traits is just an uninteresting shell. The greatest villains are the ones who not only are powerful and effective at attacking the hero’s weaknesses but also pressure them into making difficult choices and grow. They are the ones who compete for the same goal as the hero, rather than being the greatest obstacle on the hero’s path to achieving the goal. Furthermore, the best villains are developed, complete characters who are the perfect antithesis of the hero. General Zod from Zack Snyder’s first-contact story Man of Steel (2013) and King Orm from James Wan’s underwater fantasy Aquaman (2018) are an excellent illustration of how a villain catalyses the hero and what makes a great nemesis. Building from these points, it is perhaps most interesting to examine these characters through the lens of three elements: backstory, motivations, and vanquishment.

“Love thine enemies because they are the instruments of your destiny.” − Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (1988)

Monomyth 2

I – The Art of Juxtaposition

General Zod and King Orm, superbly played by respectively Michael Shannon and Patrick Wilson, belong to what is called The Mirror (or The Equal) kind of villain. The Mirror type of foe is a villain who is deliberately designed to resemble the hero. They have a number of traits or powers similar to those of the central protagonist which in itself already justifies the link to the hero.  Such villains offer a unique perspective: rather than being a bland reflection of the hero, they hold a cracked mirror to the hero. They act as a critique. They propose their vision of the world, an alternative. While the hero and villain have multiple similarities and points of connection, the major difference resides in the use of those qualities. The characters are an antithesis to each other. Similitudes make for greater differences. Man of Steel and Aquaman are origin stories and thus, pay special attention to laying the foundation of their central characters, as every exposition should. Clark Kent and Arthur Curry’s origins and journeys are inextricably linked to those of their respective foes and this is set up right at the beginning of both films.

Man of Steel opens with the birth of Kal-El − Krypton’s last hope, future Clark Kent and Superman – and in the same breath introduces General Zod, establishing in a single sequence the premise of the entire story. Kal’s birth was a natural one, a miracle that defied Krypton’s secular practice of eugenics. The baby is the product of genuine love and healthy bloodline. His biological parents Jor-El and Lara saw in their child a chance, a chance for Krypton to escape its impending doom and be reborn within Kal’s survival. As explained by a holographic Jor-El later aboard a scoutship later on in the film, the child embodied the belief that free will and choice exist, an element long lost by Kryptonian society and unknownst to them, an idea Jonathan Kent will pass on to his adopted son too. Dreams and hopes are achievable and one can forge their own destiny rather than submit to rigid social constructs and roles. By his own admission, Jor-El, Lara, and Zod were the product of the failures of their world. Zod wasn’t born, he was bred and assigned a role in society. As a general and warrior, his sole purpose was to protect Krypton, no matter the cost. Zod was burdened from birth while Kal-El was sent away, alike to Moses, to one day make a choice and perhaps embrace that purpose. To bring some realism to the story and anchor the characters’ motivations, screenwriter David S. Goyer explains he chose to embrace Kryptonian “We try to flesh out Krypton and its different political factions, its fauna, its science.” (March 14, 2013 – ScreenRant).
Similarly, Aquaman opens with the meeting between Atlanna who fled her betrothal to King Orvax of Atlantis and Thomas Curry, a lighthouse keeper in Amnesty Bay, Maine. Half-human, half-Atlantean, Arthur Curry is the product of the love between two people who were never meant to be together. He’s the result of a true, fairytale-like love story. Named after the legendary King Arthur, as Atlanna’s eldest firstborn and by his mixed heritage, it was hoped that one day the boy would bridge two worlds together, uniting them as a living symbol of co-existence. A son of the Land destined to be the King of the Sea. Forced to return to Atlantis in order to protect Arthur and his father, Atlanna went through with her arranged marriage and had a second son, Orm. By contrast, Prince Orm was born of a loveless union. As a full-blooded Atlantean and the offspring of King Orvax Marius and Atlanna, Orm was raised to inherit the Crown.

“We wanted you to learn what it meant to be human first. So that one day, when the time was right, you could be the bridge between two peoples. Look. You can save her Kal, you can save all of them” – Jor-El

“But the makers of legend have seldom rested content to regard the world’s great heroes as mere human beings who broke past the horizons that limited their fellows and returned with such boons as any man with equal faith and courage might have found. On the contrary, the tendency has always been to endow the hero with extraordinary powers from the moment of birth, or even the moment of conception.” − Joseph Campbell, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, p.274 (Part II: The Cosmogonic Cycle, Chapter III: Transformations of the Hero, 2. Childhood of the Human Hero)

For these villains to operate as the dark-sided reflection of the heroes they oppose, they must share practical points of connection with them. Zod and Kal-El share the same Kryptonian abilities, although their respective degree of power fluctuates depending on the environment, atmosphere (and of course, sun radiation). Arthur and Orm both have the Atlantean physiology and the abilities that come with it. What initially separates the heroes from their foes is how these abilities have been cultivated. One of the central themes in both origin stories is nature and nurture. Are we born or do we become? On Earth, Kal-El now Clark Kent struggles with his powers from early childhood and they come to him gradually, bringing confusion and distress. His human adoptive parents Martha and Jonathan Kent, through their love and understanding, teach him to master his senses and to restrain himself, even in the face of adversity or unfairness. Those traits are later on commented upon by Faora-Ul during the battle of Smallville “You are weak, Son of El, unsure of yourself. The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage.” Clark is completely disconnected from Krypton but knows he’s not an ordinary boy. He is only vaguely aware of his origins. Arthur, on the other hand, received a more formal but limited training. Raised by his father and was secretly mentored by Nuidis Vulko, a close friend to Atlanna and chief counsellor to the Throne of Atlantis. Zod and Orm stand as their fully realised counterparts.

Where Clark and Arthur are inexperienced and isolated from society, Zod and Orm are skilled and display strong qualities and brashness. General Zod underwent harsh training and as a warrior, favours brute strength and violence. As a military leader, he is headstrong and goal-driven to the point where his disregards negotiation or external influence. He’s a timocratical leader. Zod is burdened by the purpose he was created for. Like an unstoppable force, he must fulfil that purpose, no matter the cost. Kryptonian society is hierarchical and that order in etched in Zod’s DNA. Very much like Jor-El, Zod is a ghost from the past, unable to detach himself from social constructs, even when Krypton implodes. He is the product of a profoundly flawed society whose ambition was its own demise. Orm grew up loved by his mother Atlanna but developed a fraught relationship with his father who fed him his hatred for the surface. Under Orvax’s rule, Atlantis embraced a policy of isolationism. As a child, Orm was taught that sea and land were two worlds, that co-existence was impossible and in addition to that, that his mother was a traitor who defiled herself with a surface dweller and as a result, mothered a bastard. Orvax’s toxic influence and beliefs shaped the mind of his son, laying the groundwork for Orm’s philosophy. The young prince spent his entire life training to be the best, sharpening his combat skills and absorbing Atlantean values in order to prepare him for kingship. Orm appears to more level-headed and poised, bottling up his anger. As a king, he is a skilled orator and a schemer. He is verbose and charismatic. The characters’ respective situations and relationship to their parentage are symbolised by their tridents during the Ring of Fire fight scene. The “Combat of the Kings” (in which two claimants to the throne duel to settle the dispute before the people) is preceded by a flashback of teen Arthur training with Vulko on the beach. In this brief scene, Vulko reveals that tridents (or quindents) are a traditional royal weapon and more importantly, that the quindent Arthur now wields was Atlanna’s. Cut to the present. Seconds before engaging in combat, Orm remarks his opponent’s weapon “You have our mothers trident… Powerful, but flawed like her. I wield my father’s. And it has never known defeat!”.

Tridents 2
DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

This line hammers the idea that blood is thicker than water. Orm is convinced that Arthur’s parentage is his greatest weakness and that his mother’s “sin” (“flaws”) shaped Arthur. You can’t run from who you are. From an Atlantean point of view, he’s half-blooded and therefore not worthy nor strong enough. Atlanna’s quindent has a smooth design with five round-edged prongs while Orvax’s trident has imposing, cruelly sharp edges and an overall more aggressive shape. The designs evoke their original owners and current wielders. This is no pointless detail. Superheroes and their stories can be read as modern myths and this is particularly true with super-powered characters like Aquaman, Superman or Wonder Woman who implicitly and explicitly draw a lot from Greek mythology. A common trope for comic book characters is having attributes, objects, and symbols that are associated with them, their powers and behaviour. Orm’s trident at this moment of the story is the winning weapon but it is Arthur who is the true Poseidon in the story and has yet to realise it. The blonde Aquaman from the comics becomes dark-haired and rebellious. Arthur inherited his father’s looks and inner gentleness while having his mother’s heart, love for freedom and abilities.

The brooding, stern and dark-haired Orm becomes blonde, blue-eyed, and charismatic; a look meant to recall the clean-cut handsomeness of the classic Aquaman. Orm inherited the features of his mother and perhaps the temperament of his father. This is an especially brilliant reversal worth pointing. With Snyder’s keen attention to detail and fondness for religious symbolism, the same can be observed in Man of Steel. Superman’s suit was re-imagined to contribute to the worldbuilding and emphasis put on Kryptonian culture. Like its predecessors, the suit remains blue and red but costume designer Michael Wilkinson played with texture and accents to give it that advanced alien technology feel. Until 1978, Superman’s logo was simply referred to as an “S”. Donner’s film established on that the logo is, in fact, the crest of the House of El. Snyder’s film pushed the backstory further. Clark is given the suit on the abandoned scoutship and Jor explains to him that the symbol stands for the word “hope” in Kryptonian.

DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

Thus the symbol is both heraldry and motto, embodying the philosophy of Clark’s biological parents and who the character is at his core. Batman stands for Justice, Wonder Woman for Love (or Peace) and Superman for Hope. Similar bodysuits are introduced at the beginning of the film, worn in darker shades by Zod, Jor and secondary or background characters. Superman’s coloured suit is meant to reflect hope and renewal. This contrast is particularly interesting when put into perspective with the nightmare sequence. In Clark’s vision, the General tells Clark that it is within his power to join them and save what is left of their people. Zod reveals his plan to terraform Earth and rebuild Krypton. Realising the implications, Clark says he cannot be a part of this. The sequence ends with Superman donning an entirely black suit in a field of skulls and bones which swallow him as if it were quicksand. In comic book lore, it is known that Superman’s black suit possesses qualities that allow the Kryptonian hero to heal faster. Brushing the practical use of the suit aside, that choice can be read as a symbol for death or simply a darker path Superman chose not to follow. Zod offered him to rebuild the past and Superman refused. The trope of the villain who comes from the same (or a very similar) background as the hero but happened to take a different – and often wrong – path reminds the audience that the protagonist could’ve ended up just like their nemesis.

It is also interesting to see how the characterisation of Zod and Orm is established in their introductory scene, which coincidentally is in both cases a political meeting. General Zod is first seen with his allies as he interrupts a meeting between Krypton’s ruling council and Jor-El amidst the planet’s looming fall. As a scientist, Jor warned the council that harvesting Krypton’s core to compensate for the exhaustion of energy reserves would precipitate the planet’s annihilation and with it, Kryptonian civilization. And so when Krypton’s fate becomes clear, he pleads the ruling authorities to give him the Codex so he can ensure the survival of their race. Jor-El’s speech is cut short by the general’s arrival. Zod proceeds to kill the guards and proclaims that the council has been dissolved on his authority and that its members will be put on trial, although as a military leader he has no political power to do so. His attempted coup d’état and disregard for debate “What I should have done years ago! These lawmakers with their endless debates have led Krypton to ruin!” illustrate how hellbent he is. Zod rejects the authority of the established political body as it stands in his way, interferes with his goal and views. Zod favours action and radical measures while Jor (and by extension Kal) is more temperate and reasonable. Jor is a realist but he’s also hopeful. Orm is introduced meeting with King Nereus of Xebel in the ruins of the Council of the Kings that once hosted meetings between the leaders of the seven kingdoms that originally formed Atlantis. Orm seeks Nereus’ pledge to his cause: war against the surface and restore Atlantis to its former greatness. Rather than explicit violence and threats to convince Nereus to join his alliance, Orm uses his oratory talents. When the Xebellian makes it clear he knows of his true intentions, the guileful Orm puts on a mask of stoicism and feigns indifference. The gathering is then interrupted by a submarine attack which ultimately convinces Nereus to side with Orm.

The substance of the sequence takes on an even greater meaning when it is revealed that in fact the assault was staged on Orm’s orders. Where Zod flaunts his military power and is quick to anger, Orm favours strategy and political leverage. Zod is only open to dialogue when he is in an obvious position of weakness as demonstrated when he begs Lara to listen to him − a moment that recalls Orm imploring Ricou, the Fisherman King. Despite being a general, Zod remains an insurgent with no political or judiciary power per Kryptonian hierarchy. Orm, on the other hand, is in position of quasi-absolute power; able to negotiate on equal footing. However, both prove to be quick to anger when they meet resistance and resort to violence: Zod murders Jor-El, King Orm slays Ricou.

II – The road to hell is paved with good intentions

“Great drama is not the product of two individuals butting heads; it is the product of the values and ideas of the individuals going into battle.”  With this quote from his book The Anatomy of Story, American screenwriting teacher John Truby defines the crux of conflict in story and therefore what holds our interest here: the relationship between hero and villain.
Any character in fiction hinges on desire. Desire, the pursuit of a goal (the “what?”). Desire is a driving force that spurs the character into action. That pursuit is founded on motivation (the “why?”). Desire and motivation to fulfil that desire are undetachable. It is evident that they are an essential component of every story and a character simply cannot be without them. However, the existence of motivation isn’t enough to make a character substantial. Just like heroes, villains need a voice, a goal, a philosophy, a motivation and so on to justify their course and be fully-fledged characters.
“Every villain is the hero of their own story” a popular saying and an interesting premise to work with. It’s a realistic perspective. Fictional characters are after all the reflection of our human lives and the choices we make; and all the complexity that comes with them. Taking a step back, telling a story is a choice of point of view. One man’s villain is another man’s hero. This concept, however, is more often than not only theoretical, seldom applied – especially in genres that are limited by the archetypes and tropes they often use. The idea that the villain is the hero of the other side is far more interesting when acted upon and woven into the story.

A vibrant illustration of that is to present the villain as sympathetic or at least to give them a hint of that sympathy and therefore a hint of justification. Not only does it make the prime antagonist more compelling, but it also makes the story more challenging. If the audience find themselves rooting for the villain for a time because of their backstory or justified motivation, the journey is all the more thrilling and characters more memorable. Origin stories, because they are the birth of the hero and the first chapter of their journey require an impactful villain. As noted earlier in this character study, Man of Steel and Aquaman follow the structure of the classic structure of the hero’s journey. The central character is carried through a series of events that nudge him towards his full potential. It’s first and foremost a path of self-discovery and revelation. The first foe and the hero have a special relationship. Why? Because that foe catalyses the hero’s potential. They bring the hero out of their shell. Clark Kent and Arthur Curry didn’t wait for Zod and Orm to exploit their powers and do good deeds, but these characters forced them to act on a greater scale and confront their own self. As a teenager, Clark saved kids in his school bus from drowning, despite the endangering of his secret, a secret his adoptive father will later die to protect. Arthur doesn’t refrain from saving lives either, doing what his mother believed he would. Arthur followed Superman’s steps (reminder: Aquaman takes place after Superman’s death and resurrection) and acts in plain sight. Unlike Clark, it is not to mankind that Arthur has to reveal himself but to the people of Atlantis.

Zod’s arrival on Earth is preceded by an ominous and threatening message, a common trope in alien-themed science fiction. The transmission prompts Clark to go to a local church in Smallville, for spiritual refuge and a moment of reflection. He opens up to the pastor and says he’s the one Zod is looking for and admits he is conflicted, knowing he may have chance to stop the general but is unsure whether he can trust the people of Earth. The scene is juxtaposed to a past conversation between teenage Clark and Jonathan who told him that one day he shall decide what kind of man he wants to become, and whatever he does, he’ll change the world. The camera then cuts back to the church and the pastor tells Clark he has to take a “leap of faith”, meaning Clark has to do do what he feels is right. He takes that step out of anonymity. This corresponds in the hero’s journey to the stage known as the Call for Adventure followed by the Refusal of the Call. The latter does not occur in Snyder’s film but in Wan’s Aquaman, Arthur’s initial reaction is to refuse to help. When Mera of Xebel finds Arthur on a late night by a pub to inform him of his half-brother’s intentions, he’s not inclined to talk. When she tries to persuade him to reclaim the throne as Queen Atlanna’s firstborn son and therefore legitimate heir, he denies that right. It takes King Orm’s first attack on the surface in the form of gigantic tidal waves across the globe – or more specifically, Thomas Curry narrowly escaping death − to stir up Arthur. Whether it’s in Man of Steel or Aquaman, the characters are competing for the same goal under different circumstances and more importantly, fuelled by different causes. As said earlier, a motivation that is founded on the villain’s belief that what they are doing is the right thing, a rational choice from their point of view pique the audience’s interest. It gives viewers a thread to follow and substance to the character, avoiding the sorry cliché of bad actions that are committed for the sake of labelling the main antagonist the villain (and because the plot requires it). To achieve that in super-hero films is to break the mold. Too often do we see villains who lack substance or whose impact on the hero doesn’t go beyond the film they are featured in. They do not contribute to forging the hero, instead, they serve as a plot device. General Zod and Orm have similar goals but the justifications for their actions are different albeit rooted in human emotions. More than that, it could be said that Zod’s motive is understandable while Orm’s is justified.

Doomed Krypton
DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

The matrix of Zod’s increasingly violent actions on Earth is his desire to give a second chance to his fallen homeworld, Krypton. After an unfruitful search for a new a planet to colonise, Zod takes the remnants of his people to Earth, guided by the signal Clark unknowingly triggered by using the key to restart the frozen scout ship. He intends to find the Codex, the artefact that contains the gene pool of every potential Kryptonian to be born (or rather “made”), and therefore the key to rebuilding an entire civilisation. In order to sustain the colony, the Kryptonians elect to terraform Earth, replicating the atmosphere and other proprieties of their planet, thus erasing mankind (and everything else). In other words: genocide. When he learns where the Codex is truly hidden, he orders the release of the World Engine – the formidable machine used for terraforming – and the process begins. As he pays a visit to the Antartica ship, vows to Jor that he will extract the Codex from his son’s corpse. Then, with the help of General Swanwick, his men and Lois, Clark manages to destroy the World Engine. Until that point, Zod is entirely disinterested in Clark as an individual. He sees him a foe that lies on his path to rebuilding Krypton, nothing more.

Zod is a hard, cold, grim man who wants to save the rest of his people. According to actor Michael Shannon, his character is quite single-minded “I honestly didn’t worry too much about how Zod was going to be perceived because I don’t really think Zod worries too much about how he is perceived. I don’t think Zod worries about much of anything except trying to save his planet and his people.” (June 14, 2013 − United Press International). On its own, it’s a noble and understandable goal. Even Superman, for a fleeting moment, hesitates before declaring that Krypton “had its chance”. Wanting to help or save the ones you love is a human reaction and one could almost feel sorry for the damned Kryptonians: “And I think the way I got him [Michael Shannon] in the movie was that I explained to him that General Zod was not crazy; in the end, he’s just trying to save his people. You know, it’s not completely maniacal.” – Zack Snyder (June 14, 2013 – National Public Radio). But Krypton’s fall was the consequence of its people’s ambition and the terrible nature of Zod’s actions make him unjustifiable and unredeemable for the audience. What we have here is the reversal of the traditional dynamic between hero and villain. The most common way to make the two meet is for the hero the pursue a goal and for the villain to obstruct the hero’s way. The best villains are usually the ones who create the goal, intentionally or not. In Man of  Steel, Clark discovers his origins before Zod’s arrival on Earth but it’s that arrival and immediate threat that turn the tide. Superman and Zod compete for the same thing: Earth and its people. One is an alien with no consideration for human life, the other was fostered by a modest couple of Earthlings who taught him human values and in return, he takes it upon himself to protect the people of his adoptive planet.

When Clark destroys the World Engine, Zod emerges from ashes and dust. With his only chance destroyed and no surviving followers, the general is left entirely alone, as damned and furious as ever. Thanks to Shannon’s impeccable delivery and ferocious energy, Zod’s rage explodes and we enter the film’s third act. From his perspective, Clark crushed his hopes and his purpose. Notice how Zod includes Clark in the conversation “We could’ve built a new Krypton in this squalor” to then exclude him to make him feel guilty  “But you chose the humans over us. I exist only to protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born.” Zod is a self-righteous character who is aware of the radicalism of his actions “And every action I take, no matter how violent or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people. And now, I have no people.” but he isn’t a consequentialist like for instance Watchmen’s Ozymandias. Ozymandias takes a decision based on the best potential outcome. He takes the option that will save the greatest number (although it is, of course, debatable how fair or just such a sacrifice is). Zod only cares about the handful of zealous Kryptonians who follow him. “I’m going to make them suffer, Kal. These humans you’ve adopted, I will take them all from you one by one.” Revenge. And suddenly it’s all personal.

Atlan before Atlantis sank
DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

From afar, King Orm’s aversion for air-breathers and intention to bring war to the shores of humanity is somewhat analogous to General Zod’s designs. But even then, Orm appears to be a different, multifaceted beast who psychologically is a richer character. The core of his hostility towards humans is dual. One side is deeply personal. Orm’s hatred has been nurtured for years after the loss of his mother. It’s there, contained and simmering behind his eyes, with menace dripping from the edge of every word. When that hatred is unleashed, it feels operatic thanks to Wilson’s Broadway background and commanding presence on screen. The film doesn’t delve much into the character’s childhood, but it gives just enough elements to draw the right conclusions.

Orm is alienated from Atlanna, caught between the love he always bore her, his childhood memories and his father’s grievous teachings. He grows up loathing the surface and displacing his anger on the half-brother he has never known instead of blaming his father’s cruelty. It’s fair to assume that in Atlantean society – which draws inspiration from the social structure of medieval Europe – bastard-born children are stigmatised. However, for Arthur, that stigma is even stronger. Not only was he born out of wedlock with only one parent of royal blood (baseborn) but he’s also the fruit of a union between an Atlantean and a surface-dweller. Thus, per Atlantean views, he’s the result of treason. Orm regards that with abhorrence “ashamed of my mother for defiling herself with a surface-dweller, ashamed of the fact that I had a half-breed brother whose heart I wanted to run my trident through”, but his mother’s death is also his greatest woe “You were the reason our mother was executed. And I’ve hated you for it ever since.” Orm’s backstory gives him cause to hate the surface. He has no qualms about attacking it and use every means he can, for the greater good of Atlantis. In that regard, he and Arthur are the same. Their biased views cloud their judgement. The loss of their mother is a common denominator and the tragic undertone of the story, but they experienced it from different ends. One filled with unfair contempt and bottled rage, the other with longing and vengeful desires. The dramatisation of family relationships is a theme that has been done so many times in fiction. Why? Because when done well, it gives the story intimacy, intricacy and the audience can relate. It is a universal theme. Nothing hurts more than discord, tragedy and blood ties. Another recurring theme in the film is that of mercy and how mercifulness intersects with revenge (or for that matter, forgetfulness). The half-brothers hold a grudge against each other’s world and by extension each other. When Mera tries to get Arthur’s help at the beginning of the film, he replies “My birthright? It died with my mother. But I promise you this: if Orm attacks, I’ll treat him exactly the same way your people treated her… with no mercy.” An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Arthur and Orm follow the law of talion.

And that reasoning is at the heart of Orm’s primary purpose. He is dishonest and blinded by his exacerbated hate, but just like Arthur, there is a human side to him. The side that aches, the side that loves and above all, the side that makes a choice with good intentions. Arthur is the hero, the underdog the audience is meant to root for, and yet, and yet… More than Zod, Orm is a villain who can be viewed sympathetically. Because his cause appears to be legitimate, the audience is persuaded to take his side – or at least tempted to. Similarly to Krypton, Atlantis fell because of the ambition of its people. In the ancient days, the technologically advanced Atlanteans sought unlimited energy under King Atlan’s rule, at a time where all the seven kingdoms formed one realm. During a test, a massive boom of energy destroyed the empire and Atlantis sank. Unlike Krypton that was completely annihilated, Atlantis survived and its people adapted to underwater life. For all its blessings, the Great Fall also had dire consequences: Atlantis splintered into seven kingdoms, some of its people evolving (Atlanteans, Xebellians, Fishermen) while others regressed (Brine, Trench) or withered and died (Deserters, Missing Kingdom). King Orm wants to restore Atlantis to its former grandeur “We have been hiding long enough. The time has come for Atlantis to rise again.” and not just as one united empire.  In retaliation for the harm suffered at the hands of humans for centuries – marine pollution, whaling and shark finning (and other forms of poaching), destruction of natural habitat, sunk warships etc – Orm seeks to bring war to the surface. Orm is a compelling villain because he’s not Manichean, and he has a point. Today, with the very real threat of climate change and its disastrous consequences, Orm’s cause rings true. We are indeed responsible for these things and that aspect of the film is anchored in real-world issues. “I loved how he was a real foil to Arthur, and his initial reasons for going after the surface world seemed completely validated. After all, we are terrible to the oceans and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t agree with that. So I knew that people would get it. Even if they didn’t like him, they would understand him.” – Patrick Wilson about Orm’s motivation (December 21, 2018 – Los Angeles Times). Orm so passionately believes in his cause and all he’s ever fought for that the audience find themselves thinking that we indeed deserve it.

“L’enfer c’est les autres” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis clos (translation : “Hell is other people” from Sartre’s play No Exit)

Furthermore, the script solidifies that by revealing how mendacious the young king can be and still lean into the righteousness of his warmongering. Orm’s introduction serves to establish his goal. It is immediately revealed after the submarine attack that it was staged and meant to press Nereus into joining the alliance. At this point, the viewer is supposed to hesitate and call out that deception, but Orm’s cause is reaffirmed in his Throne Room meeting with Arthur: the connection the viewer forges with Orm is derived from his tragic backstory and his misguided good intentions. It’s interesting to contrast that with Zod’s actions. The Kryptonian’s desire to rebuild his civilisation comes from a place of loss and it’s understandable, but his actions are so violent and the target – mankind – isn’t responsible for Krypton’s doom. Mankind isn’t responsible either for the Great Fall, but we are responsible for how we treat the oceans. This is where the line between the understandable and the justifiable is drawn.

III − Victoria aut mors (victory or death)

To conclude this comparative character study, let’s focus on how the villains are defeated and how the hero cements his essence (or destiny). In section II, we talked about the divide between villain and hero on the basis of motivation, how the central conflict is, in fact, an opposition between the philosophy and ethics that move each character rather than a physical brawl. This idea is of central importance and plays a crucial role in the ending of both films.

DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

Clark and Arthur find their true selves in a cave. In Man of Steel, this corresponds to the Crossing of the First Threshold in the hero’s journey even though it occurs before the beginning of the quest. Clark connects with his origins and his father Jor-El serves as the guiding figure of the mentor. His self-discovery journey begins with his first flight, a beautiful scene full of emotion and wonder. It opens a door for Clark, but it’s with Zod’s arrival that the spark becomes fire. In Aquaman, that moment comes much later, by the end of the film. In the fashion of Remus and Romulus (which is also referenced in the film), Arthur and Orm vie for the throne, one considering himself the true king, the other reluctantly but pressing his claim because he has no other choice. To earn the love and respect of the people of Atlantis, Arthur embarks on a journey to retrieve the excaliburesque Trident of Atlan. It’s the ultimate boon, the sword that Arthur has to seize, the reward. He enters a cave located on an island in the Hidden Sea and confronts the Trident’s guardian, the legendary Karathen (when Clark entered the Scout Ship, he was attacked by a robot – the ship was guarded too). There, he turns what everyone (except Vulko and later Mera) considered a weakness a strength.

The creature jeers him “I have seen the greatest champions try and fail, but never have I sensed one as unworthy as you. You dare come here with your tainted mongrel blood to claim Atlantis’ greatest treasure? So be it, half-breed”. Arthur attempts to fight her, using his fists to solve his problems, as he has always done and fails. It’s by communicating and expressing his own feelings of unworthiness that Arthur is granted access to the Trident. He then wrenches it free: the relic’s power and Arthur are one. Arthur Curry is Atlan come again. The two moments from the films can be interpreted a reversal of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (note that in Man of Steel, there is a scene where young Clark Kent is reading The Republic while being bullied by kids). They’ve spent all their lives living knowing what they were and living in that identity but not knowing who they were. The departure from the known world and delving into the cave to find their identity and returning complete and open is a ritual. They shatter their initial self and embrace who they really. That doesn’t mean that they have to completely leave behind their past life and the people they have known. It simply means that they achieve a balance between their inner self and the world around them, that they bridge two people. It is like opening the third eye. Zod and Orm aren’t strictly speaking defeated because their opponents were physically stronger. The journeys of Superman and Aquaman are spiritual ones about forging your own destiny and mastering your inner self.

Superman and Zod 2-01
DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

As said in section I, the hero and the villains are mirrors of each other and at the beginning of his journey, the villain is the one who possesses the mastery. When Clark faces Zod for the first time, it is aboard the general’s ship, in a foreign environment Clark struggles to adapt to, making him weaker than the other Kryptonians. In Smallville, the same thing befalls Zod who isn’t used to the Earth’s atmosphere, rendering him weaker than Clark. The physical confrontations between the two are a constant tug of war, a test of strength and constant adaptation. As we reach the third act, it is clear that General Zod has the upper. Military trained, sure of himself and enraged, Zod proves to be stronger and gives Superman difficulties to keep up. The battle is uneven and the casualties numerous. Man of Steel’s ending is still to this day a heated topic of debate, which makes it all the more interesting to analyse. Their brawl through metropolis ends at a train station where Zod literally corners Clark into making a choice. They wrestle each other and Clark barely manages to restrain Zod. As he is locked on chokehold, Zod unleashes his heat vision near a family “If you love these people so much, you can mourn for them.”  As the beams draw closer to the innocent civilians, Clark begs him to stop. He refuses, leaving Clark with only two options: let the family die or kill him. Clark snaps Zod’s neck and collapses to his knees, screaming and grieving the loss of the last member of his race. This scene is so powerful and revelatory because it seemingly turns everything the film established on its head. Zod stayed true to his words “There’s only one way this ends, Kal. Either you die, or I do.” He is unable to free himself from his rage and purpose, he doesn’t bend or surrender. Villains, especially are narratively more rigid and not as prone as the hero to go through changes. Their course is often a straight path but there are exceptions. When the villain is semi-justified and upholds the sympathy of the viewer, they become potentially redeemable.

The resolution of the conflict is revelatory. It appears that Zod gives Clark two choices when in reality, from Clark’s perspective, it’s a dead-end. He cannot let an innocent family day, it’s not possible, it’s not his philosophy, it’s not Superman’s way. Clark was told by Jor-El that he was meant to embody free will and choice. To him, in that situation, there was only one difficult but viable alternative. So to us the audience, it appears like he had two choices but from his perspective, it was the same as having no choice. The other option could not exist in his mind and what he did as a painful necessity. It requires a strong will and in that instant, Clark definitely chooses humanity. He becomes mankind’s champion and accepts once again the burden that comes with such choice (a burden Snyder will explore in the following film, the direct sequel that is Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice).

DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

In Aquaman, Arthur undergoes similar trials. After Orm goads him into combat, Vulko warns his protégé that as skilled as he is on land, water is not as much his element as it is Orm’s who has trained all his life in Atlantis. The two face off in the Ring of Fire. In a rain of thrusts, twists, grappling and heavy blows, Orm overpowers him. If it wasn’t for Mera’s intervention, Arthur would have been slain by his half-brother. Arthur’s strength and brashness aren’t enough to defeat him in single combat and as said earlier, it’s not sufficient either to take the Trident. What turns the tide of events is Arthur embracing his identity as a source of strength and understanding. At the end of the third act, the kingly Arthur takes Orm on his own grounds: the duel at the surface, on the back of a gigantic ship. Humbled, stronger and in possession of the mighty trident, Arthur subdues Orm and forces him to his knees, demanding him to yield and give up the throne. As Arthur points his weapon to Orm’s Adam apple, Orm tells him to finish it, honouring the Atlantean code of combat and war “Mercy is not our way”. Arthur spares him, saying he does not follow these principles because he does not belong in Atlantis “I’m not one of you.”  By sparing Orm’s life, Arthur goes against his initial desire for revenge (law of talion). He shows mercy and forgiveness, a trait he shares with Atlanna who a couple of minutes later reconciles her warring sons (mothers are portrayed as guiding figures and protectors in the DCEU).

Man of Steel and Aquaman with their mirror villains and a narrative structure that derives from Campbell’s monomyth catalyse the heroes and give them the key to transformation and fulfilment. By the end of their first journey, the heroes have found their place. Man of Steel is a quest for identity and self-discovery. Glasses on the tip of his nose, Clark Kent joins the Daily Planet as a reporter and Superman is born. Many challenges lie ahead of him still but he is established as the cultural icon we all know. More than an envoy of American values, Superman is the universe’s beacon of hope, protector of Earth and its people. He has chosen his side. Aquaman is an ode to love and acceptance. Arthur Curry stands as the man who united two worlds and the king who is worthy of both. Where Superman recognises his adoptive planet as his world, Aquaman positions himself as a son of land and sea, belonging to neither but both. Aquaman is the chosen one and Superman the one who chose.