It’s symptomatic of the changes that writer David S. Goyer and director Zach Snyder have made to the traditional Superman mythology in “Man of Steel” that when Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent’s adoptive earth father, dies, it’s not from something as straightforward as the heart attack of the comics (or of Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” and the TV series “Smallville”). Instead—and this would count as a minor spoiler, I guess—he’s swept away in a tornado. That allows for a massive special-effects sequence, of the sort that Snyder loves. But bigger isn’t necessarily better, and oddly the result is less emotionally resonant than of old. This rather dour but aggressively whiz-bang take on Superman’s first appearance on earth is intriguing up to a point, but, unlike the twister that carries Pa Kent off, it won’t blow you away.
Note that it is a whole-scale retelling of Big Blue’s origin (and the blue is more prevalent here, with much of the red and yellow removed from his costume)—a reboot rather than the quasi-sequel to the pictures of the seventies and eighties that Bryan Singer’s sadly underrated 2006 “Superman Returns” was. It’s also stylistically very different from Singer’s elegant, graceful, reverential film. It’s far grittier and darker, as one might expect of a picture produced by Christopher Nolan, whose remaking of the Batman myth opted for angst over camp. And though it occasionally tips its hat to the earlier pictures (as in the treatment of a bully early on, which recalls the closing gag to “Superman II,” albeit on a predictably larger scale), it often goes its own way, with alterations to the “canonical” narrative that go beyond mere costume design. It also opts for bombast instead of Singer’s limpid, almost balletic approach; indeed, one of its most prominent qualities is the handheld camerawork of Amir Mokri that renders many of the images as jerky and murky as those you’ll encounter in a low-budget independent movie—but this one reportedly cost nearly $200 million and could certainly have afforded a few tripods. When that’s added to the fact that many of the action sequences, especially in the final half-hour of almost incessant super-fistfights, are shot to appear blurred and indistinct (deliberately, one trusts), it makes for an unsettling—some would argue unpleasant—visual experience. (These remarks are based on the 2D version. The studio wouldn’t allow critics to also check the 3D one for comparative purposes.)
Once you’re past the technical oddities (or infelicities), however, “Man of Steel” turns out to be basically a hybrid of the traditional origin scenario and the Kryptonian-villain plot of “Superman II” in lieu of one featuring the earthling Lex Luthor. That allows for the addition of a large dose of “World of the Wars”-style sci-fi to the mix, with the obvious goal of providing sufficient widespread devastation to satiate the desires of thirteen-year old boys brought up on wildly violent video games.
The first twenty minutes or so are devoted to the final days of Superman’s home planet, Krypton, here portrayed as a dank, imperialistic society that’s colonized other planets while exploiting its own resources so thoroughly that it’s now threatened with imminent destruction. (Kryptonian dystopia is also seen in the fact that children are genetically engineered in some sort of elaborate ultra-“womb” that produces infants predetermined to fit certain social roles.) The only humane, rational person around seems to be stoic, solemn scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe), whose son has uniquely been born naturally and who foresees the planet’s core exploding. When the governing board refuses to listen to him, he prepares a tiny spaceship to send little Kal-El, to earth, carrying—as we later learn—the future hope of Kryptonian society with him. Just as the time comes for launch, the planet’s military chief General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, in the course of which he kills Jor-El, but not before Kal-El is on his way. And the coup fails anyway, leaving him are his comrades to be sentenced to icy eternal imprisonment. But serendipitously the planetary cataclysm frees them while the rest of Krypton perishes.
Meanwhile Kal-El reaches his destination and, as we’re shown is a series of jagged flashbacks, learns from his salt-of-the-earth adoptive parents, Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) to conceal his special powers because the human race would never accept him. That leads the rechristened Clark Kent after Jonathan’s death (now played by handsome, well-muscled Henry Cavill, from “Immortals”) to become a nomad, working menial jobs in remote places only to move on after being compelled by his innate sense of duty to perform some life-saving feat that might unmask him to the world. It’s only after an ancient Kryptonian scout ship is unearthed beneath the polar ice that, in investigating the craft, he learns his real identity (and is given by his father’s scientific shade his Superman duds). There he also encounters intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), whom he rescues from the ship’s technology, only to have her track him down afterward. (Goyer and Snyder have no truck with the old comic-book business about her not knowing who Superman is when in his street clothes.)
Unfortunately that scout ship’s homing beacon has alerted Zod to Kal-El’s location, and soon he and his armada have invaded earth space, demanding the Kryptonian’s surrender to them—or else. That initiates the picture’s second half, in which Superman turns himself in to avoid the destruction of his adopted planet, earth authorities dither over whether to hand him over to Zod or not, and the general’s intention to annihilate the human population to make way for a new Kryptonian one leads Superman and the U.S. military to join forces to stop him. Much urban destruction ensues, wrought by a device that Zod unleashes over Metropolis with the unfortunate order “Release the World Bomb!” (or something of the sort)—which anybody who recalls “Clash of the Titans” and its risible “Release the Kraken!” will have trouble hearing without having to suppress a smirk.
To make a long last reel short, there follow many face-offs for Superman, one against femme warrior Faora (Antje Traue) and what appears to be a Gort-like Kryptonian robot, a second against a ship with metallic tentacles that try to strangle him, and a third against Zod himself, which are intercut with human heroics by an assortment of his new earth allies (including Christopher Meloni as an army corporal, Richard Schiff as a scientist and Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White, as well as Lois of course, who’s been instructed by Jor-El’s shade on how to help), some of which involve shooting the spacecraft that brought Kal-El to earth into that World Bomb like a torpedo. It all ends with a final choice by Superman that’s completely out of character with the Man of Steel’s traditional code, though younger viewers probably won’t mind (while older fans will be appalled), and Clark’s taking a job at the Daily Planet. Cue the prospective sequel.
Nolan and Snyder deserve credit for trying to rethink America’s most venerable superhero in order to make him more relevant to today’s audiences by portraying him as emotionally vulnerable and uncertain of himself—though, to be honest, “Smallville” followed the same trajectory without getting so Dark Knightish about it. And they’ve certainly given it their all in terms of production (even if some of their choices, like the handheld style, seem misguided) and casting (though in a picture like this, the effects become the stars). Cavill is a good-looking Clark/SM, though the plot requires him to remain a pretty dour fellow until the very last scene, when he’s finally allowed a smile. Adams, unfortunately, makes a fairly colorless Lois Lane, though she captures the character’s modern spunkiness well enough. Crowe and Shannon represent two extremes, with the former so rigidly controlled that he comes off as a well-coiffed mannequin and the latter so wildly over-the-top that the result is almost comical in the worst sense. Lane and Costner each get a few moments to shine, and Meloni, Schiff and Fishburne do what’s asked of them, but they’re all pretty standard-issue.
Perhaps Nolan, Snyder and Goyer’s instincts are correct, and “Man of Steel” will prove to be the Superman movie for our time, at least in terms of boxoffice success and franchise potential. But whether that’s true or not, it’s not a Superman for the ages.