Maybe I’m spoiled. After the lively, creative “Avengers,” “Captain America,” “Iron Man,” “X-Men” and “Dark Knight” films, “Man of Steel” feels like a second-rate take on a first-tier superhero. As a “first contact” science-fiction drama about an alien adapting to life among humans, it’s OK. As a Superman movie, it never takes flight.
Director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer deliver an earnest (oh, so earnest) effort to reinvent the Big Blue Boy Scout, whose apple-pie moral purity makes him tough to dramatize. It’s a largely misguided struggle, fixing nonexistent problems and creating new flaws in the process. As the years roll on, the mischievous Richard Donner Superman films look better all the time.
Following the gothic Nolan template, “Man of Steel” turns young Clark Kent into an angst-riddled hero-in-waiting, and makes the adult Clark a Wolverine-like Canadian lone wolf. The pop-art colors of his costume have been dulled to shades that Bruce Wayne would find acceptable. Crucially, in the heat of the climactic battle they have Superman do the one thing he would never do. It’s one thing to shrug off needless layers of comic-book mythology, but you shouldn’t betray the character’s core.
The opening chapter on barren Krypton is imaginative and visually powerful. It’s a world of dinosaur-like livestock, giant dragonfly steeds, spaceships modeled on tripod citrus juicers, and talkative, floating silver personal assistants that re-form their faceplates like giant Pin Art screens.
Russell Crowe is authoritative as wise Jor-El, who commits heresy with his plan to export his infant son to a distant green planet where he will be “like a god.” Goyer’s script pounds this religious motif like a tambourine while Snyder films his hero in a procession of crucifixion poses.
Amid the planetary collapse, Jor’s old comrade Gen. Zod (a fully committed Michael Shannon) stages a coup. Why he would seize a ruined world is not an issue we are encouraged to ponder. Nor is his fate when Jor foils the plot. Zod and company are banished to the Forbidden Zone, thus preserving them while Krypton faces extinction. I’d leave the rebels behind on Krypton and send everyone else to the Zone. Whatever. Different planets, different rules.
The film’s Earthly look is a mix of Norman Rockwell Americana and Terrence Malick poetic naturalism, washed with chilly gray light and deep shadow. The color temperature is so wintry it’s tough to understand how the ever-present Kansas corn survives.
The actors playing sad young Clark are excellent, capturing the panic that overwhelms him before he masters his powers. Images of his grade-school classmates viewed through X-ray vision are genuinely creepy.
Luckily he has sturdy adoptive parents. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane radiate heartland wholesomeness as the Smallville couple who take in the undocumented alien and shape his sense of right and wrong. Their scenes are suffused with honest, unforced emotion as they deal with their son’s unanswerable questions and unimaginable potential.
Jor-El, who does not entirely disappear when Krypton disintegrates, counsels Kal-El on his mission, to help fallen mankind rediscover its humanity and defeat the freed, vengeful Zod. “You can save them all,” says Jor, who is a little fixated on his son’s success. “The Drama of the Gifted Child” indeed.
As the adult Clark, Henry Cavill balances a difficult role on his broad shoulders. He’s physically perfect for the role, a barrel-chested, bright-eyed, strong-jawed specimen of almost extraterrestrial perfection. What he is not, is fun. By my count he smiles twice in 2½ hours. Forget heat vision, Cavill’s grin could melt an icecap. Why not let him lighten up a little? The nascent romance between the newcomer and the completely confident and empowered Lois Lane (Amy Adams) feels forced. When they kiss, it’s not because personal magnetism has drawn them together. It’s because there’s only five minutes left until the movie ends.
The requisite lengthy but unimaginative Kal vs. Zod brawl adds little to the existing catalog of superhero mayhem porn. It reduces Metropolis to a junk heap. “Man of Steel” doesn’t do quite as much damage to the 75-year-old hero, but next time out I hope his lighter spirits are allowed to soar.