The coup, when it comes, is ridiculously easy. Like, not even easy for people with superpowers, but just actually easy. It feels like a high school field trip could take control of the United States, if they had a little time to prepare.
I mean, the defenders were clearly aware that trouble was coming; I don’t think they usually have the world’s smallest gun emplacement right outside the Oval Office. They knew that there were three hyper-powered disco dancers traveling east from Idaho, making a beeline for the White House with a couple stops to wreck tourist attractions along the way, so these gentlemen went and got some sandbags and crouched behind them.
I suppose I can understand why they weren’t able to build a more impressive firing position; sandbags aren’t easy to come by, at a moment’s notice. If somebody told me I had to go get a bunch of sandbags in a hurry, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. On the other hand, I’m not the United States military.
But these chumps aren’t either, as far as I can see; a lot of the security detail representing America’s last line of defense appear to be lightly armed, cowardly mall cops. They’ve got tiny little handguns, like the ones that you can get at Party City for eight dollars, if you live in Texas.
One of these guys even tries to come at Ursa with a truncheon. The people defending Dino’s Restaurant in East Houston were better armed than that.
There’s no armor, no snipers, no command and control. There are seven high-ranked military experts right on the other side of the door, but out here, the strategy is to point and shoot.
They don’t even get that injured. There’s no blood. Mostly they just get tossed around, and some of them run away. The most threatening moment is when Non chucks part of a marble column at a guy, and he shoots the chandelier, which falls on him. Mostly I think they’re just going to have a bad back in the morning.
So, I don’t know, maybe these guys don’t mind being taken over that much. They certainly don’t object when Zod struts in and proclaims himself monarch. You can kill me, they don’t say, but the people of Earth will never bow to you. We will resist, they don’t continue, for the sake of our children and the future of our planet. We will fight you until our dying breath, they don’t conclude. This might be the first administration entirely staffed by beta cucks.
So this is all very silly, and not really impressive as an action scene. These three are taking over the United States as defined by the occupation of a single room, with no real sense that anything exists outside this set. We don’t see Americans reacting to this development. We don’t see anyone trying to put up a real fight. The big dramatic surprise in the scene is that somebody else pretends to be the President, briefly.
And yet this is an undeniably famous scene that everyone knows, and never forgets. “Kneel before Zod” is an instantly recognizable catchphrase. Somehow, a soft-spoken man with an English accent, a pasty complexion and pink eye shadow manages to take over the United States with one raised eyebrow, and we believe it.
Part of the explanation for that is the sound design. During the battle sequence, there’s no score, just the sound of frantic gunfire, pillars collapsing, glass breaking and soldiers screaming. Non makes a couple of grunts, but mostly the three attackers are silent, unstoppable forces.
Then the door explodes, and the Kryptonians walk through the portal to the accompaniment of a few descending notes on the brass, and a frantic cry from the cymbal. Then the score adapts the music from the Krypton trial sequence at the start of the first movie: austere and cold, with slow, emphatic smashes of the piano and irregular martial paradiddles on the percussion that suggest that it’s wartime, and this is the leader of the enemy’s army. When the guy pretending to be President stands up, the score adds some high-pitched synthesizer notes, and then it transitions into the music from the scene with the Science Council rejecting Jor-El’s warnings.
It’s terrific. Go and listen to it. The score does so much work in this scene.
Meanwhile, the generals and aides are entirely still. They stand at attention, and stare silently at their captors. As I suggested above, it’s an undignified surrender after not really trying that hard, but the stillness also marks this scene as important and dangerous.
With the humans not giving a lot of reaction, the audience unconsciously leans forward a bit, anxious to hear the invaders’ questions and demands.
And then there’s Zod’s dialogue, which is remarkable. He asks one yes/no question, makes a mean joke, and then issues instructions.
Zod: You are the one they call President?
Not actually the President: I am.
Zod: I see you are practiced in worshipping things that fly. Good. Rise before Zod. Now, kneel before Zod.
And the guy just goes and does it, quietly and without fuss, because he was the recipient of a devastatingly arched eyebrow.
It’s the simplicity of the scene that makes it work: the lack of action and hurry, the quiet acceptance of a terrible destiny.
Zod doesn’t launch into a villain monologue about his feelings, or his plans. He doesn’t explain why he wants a demonstration of obedience, or what he’s going to do once he gets it. He expresses the entirety of the confrontation in three words: Kneel before Zod. It’s a simple instruction, with unspoken consequences.
And this round of the ancient struggle between style and logic ends with a knockout blow that will reverberate across time. This is how superhero movies work. Style wins.
Here’s a cute little trivia note: two of the stuntmen who appeared in the battle for East Houston also show up at the White House, on the other side of the country. Jim Dowdall, who was thrown from the Jeep and fired the bazooka at Non, appears here as the security guard that Ursa throws over her shoulder. Doug Robinson, who staggered away from the flipped-over Jeep in East Houston, is the guy who Zod pulls through the window in this scene.
— Danny Horn