It’s never boring to see a new take on an old story, even when the results go off the rails. Director Zack Snyder, writer David S. Goyer and cowriter-producer Christopher Nolan appear to have approached their revamping of the DC Comics hero with genuine excitement. This is a Superman movie with no bespectacled Clark Kent or inexplicably deceived Lois Lane, no Lex Luthor and no Kryptonite, and watching how the filmmakers replace those stock elements is absorbing.
Here’s the catch: Man of Steel is also a solemn, overblown Superman flick with scant humor or good cheer and an addiction to the modern blockbuster habit of turning entire computer-generated cities to rubble. It’s exactly the “gritty reimagining” you’d expect from the director of 300 with input from the writer and director of The Dark Knight Rises. As rife with nonsense as with grand dramatic gestures, it does achieve, at its best, an operatic trippiness.
The nonsense starts in the prologue on Krypton, apparently the most bone-headed planet in the universe. (And an eye-catching one: Its wacky design evokes Avatar, Futurist art and H.R. Giger.) Scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) declares the planet literally about to explode, but the Kryptonians, experienced space travelers, are content to watch the world burn. They bestir themselves only to banish rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon) to the off-planet Phantom Zone, kindly ensuring he’ll survive the apocalypse while they won’t.
The other survivor, of course, is Jor-El’s infant son, whom he expedites to a yellow-sunned planet where the boy will grow up to be super in every way. But being an übermensch comes with burdens.
The filmmakers initially present their hero (Henry Cavill) as an angsty young man wandering northern climes and working dirty jobs. In flashbacks to Clark Kent’s Kansas childhood with loving adoptive parents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner), we see how his extra-human senses cursed as well as blessed him, and how he was trained to hide his abilities.
There’s much portentous talk about the responsibilities and dangers of being better than everybody else, as if the filmmakers were trying to confront the critical allegations of “fascist subtext” that dog superhero movies. When an escaped Zod finds Earth, he encourages Clark to join him in genocidal havoc. But plucky humans such as investigative journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) inspire him to serve instead as our protector.
For all this careful preparation, it feels like a crucial piece is missing from our hero’s character arc — a deleted scene or two that might show us how sullen Clark became committed Superman. (The cheeseball church scene where he poses beside an image of J.C. ain’t cutting it.) As a result, Cavill’s performance feels muted, and the tale’s emotional resonance is all too soon buried in the usual orgies of destruction. (Remember when people said we’d never again pay to watch skyscrapers turn to powder? Man of Steel has dozens of those, plus a heartland town going up in flames.)
Lane and Adams deliver likable performances, but the most entertaining turn comes from Shannon, an indie favorite (Bug, Take Shelter) making his blockbuster debut. He’s in full-on crazy mode throughout, which certainly doesn’t make the faux-Shakespearean dialogue of the Kryptonians any less ridiculous.
Full-on crazy suits Snyder’s style, which is all about the iconography of rippling muscles and fights to the death; it’s the down-to-earth elements of the Superman mythos that get short shrift here. The filmmakers have set a strong mood, but they haven’t established a character compelling enough to make us clamor for more.
Not that it matters, as super-grosses mean super-sequels. Let’s hope Lex Luthor can find some blocks of Metropolis left to destroy.