Being Superman isn’t as simple as it once was. Seventy-five years ago, when the Kryptonian caped-crusader first appeared on the cover of Action Comics #1, hoisting a car over his head, he not only stood for truth, justice, and the American way, he also had a virtual monopoly on the men-in-tights genre. Lately, though, that field has gotten awfully crowded. The local multiplex is lousy with celluloid crime fighters. So what turf is left for good old Clark Kent? That’s the nagging question that director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel tries — and ultimately fails — to answer.
Snyder, whose best films are 2004’s adrenalized Dawn of the Dead remake and 2007’s hyperstylized Spartan saga 300, has teamed up with producer Christopher Nolan to give us a cooler, more conflicted Superman. But their Dark Knight-style makeover never quite comes together. Sure, Superman is still faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive (and thanks to the impossibly handsome Henry Cavill, an easy-on-the-eyes slice of spandex-clad beefcake to boot). But he’s been transformed into the latest in a long line of soul-searching super-brooders, trapped between his devastated birth planet of Krypton and his adopted new home on Earth. He’s just another haunted outsider grappling with issues.
At the risk of damning Cavill with faint praise, the 30-year-old Brit makes a better Man of Steel than the milquetoast Brandon Routh did in 2006’s Superman Returns. But he isn’t exactly Mr. Charisma either. And I suspect that Superman aficionados will be disappointed by just how joyless most of Snyder’s reboot is. During a prologue that goes on way too long setting the bloated tone for the film, Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) squares off against General Zod (Michael Shannon) on Krypton. The planet is on the verge of destruction, and Jor-El ships his newborn son off to Earth to save him, prompting the maniacal Zod to roar about his plans for revenge. With its shock-and-awe barrage of sci-fi fire and brimstone, the opening-act salvo should dazzle and transport us. Instead, it just gets weighed down by CGI overkill and thickets of exposition about a Kryptonian codex.
Things pick up a bit down on Earth, where little Kal-El has crash-landed in Kansas and been raised by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). They’ve rechristened him Clark, a boy who’s taught to keep his special gifts under wraps — especially after he saves a busful of classmates and draws the wrong kind of attention. Cavill plays the grown-up Clark as a sort of existential loner who drifts from town to town, leaving a series of good deeds in his mysterious wake…until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) figures out his game. The 21st-century Lois isn’t the gullible gal Friday she was in the old comics or the Christopher Reeve Superman films, where she was played by Margot Kidder. Now she’s a hard-nosed, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. That’s progress, I guess. But there’s a distinct lack of heat between Adams and Cavill, and their stabs at sub-sitcom humor fall flat.
Meanwhile, Shannon’s Zod huffs and puffs, demanding that the puny earthlings hand over Superman, which leads to endless brawls between the two where neither seems able to get hurt. I understand that fight scenes like these have become de rigueur centerpieces in comic-book popcorn extravaganzas, but here they go on forever and have a numbing sameness. They’re simply excuses to smash the scenery to bits while Hans Zimmer works up a sweat beating the drums of war on the soundtrack. The only moments of real spectacle come when Superman learns to fly. He rockets through the air like a comet, and it’s thrilling. There aren’t enough of these gee-whiz moments of wonder in Man of Steel. Never has a race to save the fate of humankind seemed so tedious. C