It has been a black eye to Hollywood that throughout this, the unending and increasingly repetitive age of the superhero blockbuster, the comics’ most iconic son has eluded its grasp like a bird or, if you will, a plane.
New hopes of box-office riches and franchise serials rests on Zac Snyder’s 3-D “Man of Steel,” the latest attempt to put Superman back into flight. But Snyder’s joyless film, laden as if composed of the stuff of its hero’s metallic nickname, has nothing soaring about it.
Flying men in capes is grave business in Snyder’s solemn Superman. “Man of Steel,” an origin tale of the DC Comics hero, goes more than two hours before the slightest joke or smirk.
This is not your Superman of red tights, phone booth changes, or fortresses of solitude, but one of Christ imagery, Krypton politics and spaceships. Who would want to have fun at the movies anyway, when you could instead be taught a lesson about identity from a guy who can shoot laser beams out of his eyes?
“Man of Steel” opens with the pains of childbirth, as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) and husband Jor-El (Russell Crowe) see the birth of Kal-El, the first naturally born child in years on Krypton. The planet — a giant bronze ball of pewter, as far as I can tell — is in apocalyptic tumult (the disaster film has gone intergalactic), and General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts to take over power, fighting in bulky costumes with Jor-El.
His coup is thwarted (though not before killing Jor-El, who continues on in the film in an Obi-Wan-like presence), and he and his followers are locked away, frozen until Krypton’s implosion frees them. Baby Kal-El has been rocketed away with Krypton’s precious Codex, an energy-radiating skull.
Kal-El rockets to Earth, setting up not a Midwest reprieve to the lengthy Krypton fallout, but a flash-forward to more explosions. Our next glimpse of Kal-El is as a young adult Clark Kent (the beefy Brit Henry Cavill) aboard a fishing vessel on stormy seas, where he — shirtless and aflame — saves the crew of a burning oil rig.
At this point, your Codex may be spinning. Working from a script by “Blade” scribe David S. Goyer and a story by Goyer and “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan, Snyder has clearly sought to avoid some of the expected plotlines and rhythms of the familiar Superman tale. There’s a constant urge to push the story to greater scale — a desperate propulsion that will surely excite some fans but tire others. The film hops back and forth from Clark’s grown-up life and his Smallville, Kansas, upbringing with Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). Costner, back among the corn stalks, makes the strongest impression of the cast as a severe father urging Kent to hide his gifts.
We’re meanwhile introduced to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), fresh off a stint embedded with the military for the Daily Planet. Adams, as she usually does, helps animate the film, as she plunges into a bulldog investigating of Clark and spars with her editor (Laurence Fishburne).
Snyder brings to the film a sure hand for overly dramatic compositions that take after comic strip panels. He has a clearly sincere reverence for the source material (originally created in 1938 by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster). He’s a filmmaker who, even with his last film, the abysmal “Sucker Punch,” seems to precisely make the movie he intended.
Eager fans will likely thrall to the film’s many overlong action set pieces, as Superman battles with Zod and his minions. There’s little creativity to the fight sequences, though, which plow across countless building facades.
But Snyder doesn’t have the material or the inclination to make “Man of Steel” as thought-provoking as Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Superman wrestles with his allegiance to humans or his home planet, but the quandaries of a superpowered man betwixt worlds doesn’t have any real resonance. The gravity that cloaks “Man of Steel” is merely an en vogue costume.
While Snyder has succeeded in turning out a Superman that isn’t silly (not a small feat) and will likely lay enough of a bedrock for further sequels, it’s a missed opportunity — particularly with a bright cast of Shannon, Adams and Lane — for a more fun-loving spirit.
Cavill’s performance is less memorable for his introspective brooding than for his six-pack (a fetish for Snyder, the director of “300”).
He’s handsome and capable, but one can’t help missing Christopher Reeve’s twinkle. At least he smiled.
The awkward acrobatics to modernize “Man of Steel” are most evident with its explanation of Superman’s shield. The “S” doesn’t stand for Superman, but is a Krypton glyph (an element first introduced in the original 1978 film) now defined as representing “hope.” But if “S” doesn’t stand for “Superman,” “Man of Steel” is the one with the identity issues.
“Man of Steel,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language. Running time: 144 minutes. Two stars out of four.