The Phantom Zone: Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Free the Krypton Three!

Listening to the Superman: The Moviesoundtrack, the cue at the beginning where General Zod and his minions are sentenced triggered a question in my mind. It’s probably a window into my soul that it triggered this specific thought, but I think it’s a valid question.

Is the Phantom Zone, that spinning pane of glass that was a window to a nether realm terrible enough to make Zod beg for mercy from the beginning of this film to his accidental release in Superman II, “cruel and unusual punishment”?

Zod, Ursa, and Whatever The Hell His Name Is in The Phantom Zone
The worst part is that this is a two-way mirror and *they’re* only able to see Superman III and Superman IV replayed over and over. Free the Krypton Three!

It’s a question with which we as a society continually grapple, and which preoccupied us for as long as the prison at Guantanamo Bay was open. (I’m writing in the past tense, presuming at some point in the future it’s going to be closed, though it hasn’t yet. Ahem.)

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Granted, I’m no Superman Scholar. I’m sure some super nerd like me has also reasoned out a ton of things the way I’ve been known to do…from time to time.

But I remember really digging the scene with the condemnation of Zod, whether in its original, trimmed version for Superman II, or its full, Zod-soaked glory. It was a terrifying scene: these “seditious” people sentenced to (what appears to be) an eternity of isolation.

You have to think, for these three hardened criminals, what could be so terrible as to justify such a fearful reaction? They’re not being put to death. They’ve been given an appropriately creepy trial after a sting operation, and have been given a speedy due process without chance of appeal.

They’re not being tortured…or are they?

Standards of Torture

Standards of torture, over time, have changed. They always have and they always will.

I suppose you could consider torture to be something that is the first indication of embedded relativism in a culture. How well a populace lives changes its perceptions on what difficulty and injustice are. Basically, your definition of hardship informs your definition of pain.

What we might consider torture now in my home country is a far cry from its standards a century or so ago.

Who doesn’t love the old good cop-bad cop routine, after all? One interrogator wants to save you, but only can if you talk, and he’s all that stands in your way of a world of hurt. It used to be par for the course, I guess. But I imagine a lot of threatened pain spilled a lot of guilty words.

But now there are lines of thought that causing even psychological terror, with the mere implication of greater bodily harm (Bad Cop Talk), constitutes torture.

So if we go by that standard, the Phantom Zone is a horrible place of extreme mental anguish. What’s worse, is there’s no end to these means. Zod, Ursa and Non can scream all they want, at the time they’re sentenced there’s no chance of reprieve or parole.

No Chance for Appeal

Based on the films, there is precisely zero chance for return from the Phantom Zone. I don’t know if it’s a function of the Phantom Zone itself, or the fact that the planet’s leading scientist placed the criminals there with the full knowledge that the planet would be ending shortly.

Either way, if you culturally lack the nuts to put terrible criminals to death for any reason (too bad John Wayne Gacy didn’t rape and kill little boys on Krypton) I think you need to give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves. Will they? That’s the point of a parole board, right?

Does the Phantom Zone cycle around Krypton every so often, and they pull them out and give them a chance to appeal their case? One would think that aside from the screaming, they have plenty of time to think on their past actions.

It just seems like one of those circumstances where death might be a kindness. For all we know, after all, they’re trapped in a dimension that retards aging, thereby extending their turmoil.

It also doesn’t look like they got full food service in that place. I’ve got to presume there were no toilets either. Who was monitoring this place? Only Jor–El? I’d have to question any “Great Society” (as we are led to believe Krypton was) that invested all of its penal system into the supposed wisdom of a single individual. Where are the checks and balances?


In short, I know that this is a ridiculous topic in a sense. It’s just a movie.

But given the weight of evidence from the films, even if Zod and crew weren’t a bunch of ass hats going in to The Phantom Zone, I can totally understand why they were when they got out.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “The Phantom Zone: Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

  1. I think you’re right in part; worrying about bathrooms and food are ridiculous. It’s just an interesting movie prop, and the special effects involved were cool in the 70s. So, to discuss the substance, I’ll make the assumption that it’s a boring jail cell in space. If Ursa and Zod want a little privacy, tough noodles. Non gets to watch.

    The idea of an appeal is an interesting one. Because of the constraints of it being a movie, I always presumed that the legal process had been completed. Perhaps the “trial” was in fact the appeal (multiple judges, right?), and their pronouncements of “Guilty!” were another way of saying, “Affirmed.”

    Now making that assumption, the idea of an appeal is satisfied; however, a couple of things are still missing. Much like the death penalty, there’s no chance for an executive pardon, and more importantly, there’s no room for new evidence to result in a judge vacating the conviction. In other words, there are a couple of (relatively) rare opportunities that aren’t available to occupants of the Phantom Zone. This is true with the death penalty, but not with “life without the possibility of parole.” Those options are still available for criminals in jail for life.

    Conclusion: With respect to procedure, the Phantom Zone is the equivalent of the death penalty.

    Substantively, though, it’s the same as “life without the possibility of parole,” thought not quite as bad. Presumably, there’s much less a chance of getting shanked or raped by another inmate. Moreover, the confinement isn’t truly solitary, lessening the chances of insanity developing in exchange for security from shanks and male genitalia.

    Conclusion: With respect to substance, the Phantom Zone is the equivalent of “life without the possibility of parole.”

    Whether these are cruel punishment is up to the individual, though I have no problem with the death penalty substantively speaking. My concern is always with procedure (i.e., making sure you have the right guy for the right reason). Once we’re convinced about that, I say let ’em ride the lightning. YMMV.

    Final point: Notice that I left out “unusual” punishment. That doesn’t seem to be the subject of your note, so you’re doing what everyone else does and lumping them together. They’re not the same thing, and if they were, you still shouldn’t say both of them anyway; it’d be redundant. Unusual punishment refers to the idea that these three get the Phantom Zone, but other criminals committing the same crime under the same circumstances don’t. If you meant to discuss it, I respectfully point out that you forgot. 🙂


    1. I apologize for taking so long to reply. Your comment naturally was so well formed that I lacked the mental agility to respond with alacrity.

      The one thing I’ll come back to is:
      “Final point: Notice that I left out “unusual” punishment. ”

      But it IS unusual punishment. While I don’t have the entire speech of Jor-El memorized, my memory is that he notes that where he is sending them is not the typical place for punishment, but is reserved for “special” cases (anyone, please feel free to correct me on that).

      Further, they’re *still screaming* when the Phantom Zone is blown apart by the bomb Superman throws into space at the beginning of Superman II. At a minimum, they’ve been screaming in terror and agony since the destruction of Krypton which is, at a minimum, since Kal-El was in infancy. He’s at *least* in his twenties by the time…they…finally…get…to our solar system…as well.

      So unless they took a shifts screaming, they’ve been screaming for *decades*. This is, I think, indicative of something unusual occurring, no? 😀


      1. “This is, I think, indicative of something unusual occurring, no?”

        [At the risk of taking this minutia far more seriously than it deserves] No it is not unusual, legally-speaking, or at least that’s my assumption. Unusual doesn’t mean rarely-applied; it means rarely-applied for the same crime. That is, even if the death penalty isn’t cruel, it’s still unjust if, for example, only Fred gets executed, while everyone else gets life without the possibility of parole. Put another way, not only must punishment fit the crime, but it must be tied to the crime itself. The consequence of violating this rule of ‘consistency of punishment’ is that the party in power might execute only members of the other party. (Government corruption was always on the brains of the Founders.)

        Let’s get away from the death penalty for a better example. Let’s say lots of people are busted for speeding. Those of us that aren’t Baptist get a $50 fine; however, all the Baptists get a $100 fine. Is $100 unjust _per se_? No. It would seem to fit the crime, so it’s substantively appropriate. What’s unfair is that only Baptists have to pay it. The rest of us get off easily. See the difference? “Unusual punishment” is “inconsistent punishment.” It’s a failure of procedure, not substance.

        So, has anyone else ever been guilty of what the Kryptonian Three* did, with the same level of culpability (i.e., guilty mind), under the substantially same circumstances (i.e., no excuses or justifications)? If so but they didn’t get the Phantom Zone, then that would be unusual. IIRC, the crime of the Krypton Three was novel, so the jury is still out as to whether the punishment is unusual. If you have information otherwise from the script (okay) or comic books (couldn’t care less), then it might be unusual punishment. I haven’t researched Kryptonian statutes or followed their case law, so you could easily be right, but if so, it’s for the wrong reasons. 🙂

        * I just made that up.


        1. 1. OK, fine, you win this round with all your “Constitutions” and “Rules of Law”. 😀

          2. I planted the idea for “Kryptonian Three” in your subconscious in the caption for the picture from the original post. Share the royalties!


Comments are closed.