Brace yourself, “Superman” fans. “Man of Steel” has virtually nothing in common with the Superman you’ve known and adored throughout most of your lives. But that may be cause for celebration for some, especially those who’ve always thought those blue tights were anything but super.
Zack Snyder’s refreshing take on the origins of the red-caped crime-fighter is a bold, confident excursion that gets seriously bogged down in its final third, as the Spandexed superhero throws down with a couple of indestructible adversaries from his home planet of Krypton and effectively lays waste to pretty much all of downtown Smallville, Kan., and Metropolis in the process.
What’s best about Snyder’s vision is how it takes what is essentially basic knowledge about the Man of Steel and gives it an exciting spin. No, Clark Kent did not first lay eyes on Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in the Daily Planet newsroom after taking a gig as a low-level reporter. They met as he was cauterizing her wounds using the laser beams that shoot from his eyes.
No, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner, full of dignity and grace) didn’t keel over from heart failure immediately after lecturing Clark about the importance of hiding his “gifts.” He’s done-in rescuing the family dog from a tornado.
No, Jor-El (Russell Crowe, brooding and authoritative) didn’t live long enough to suffer the same fate as his fellow Kryptonians. He was murdered by General Zod before the counsel could banish Zod to the Phantom Zone.
If you think I’m spoiling the movie for you, these are minor details Snyder tinkers with. With virtually none of the campiness that Richards Donner and Lester brought to the original Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies, “Man of Steel” is closer in spirit and tone to Snyder’s own “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch,” which were visually arresting but lacked serious emotion.
“Man of Steel” does have a little heart, most in the guise of the fierce adoration Clark has for his adoptive mother, Martha (Diane Lane). In previous incarnations, the heart came from the bond between Clark and Lois, but “Man of Steel” doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring that angle because this is first and foremost a digital effects type of blockbuster, so that will just have to wait for the sequel.
For the most part, “Man of Steel” effectively conveys the burden of what it’s like to go from Average Joe farm boy to caped-up planetary defender overnight. After accidentally setting off a beacon while learning of his heritage in the Kent’s barn, General Zod (Michael Shannon, an inspired choice) and his ruthless team of baddies turn up with human annihilation on the brain. So, it’s up to Clark (Henry Cavill, from “Immortals“) to don the blue suit and fight back, which in turn leads to that aforementioned final 45 minutes of mindless destruction.
Since “Man of Steel” was first conceived by producer Christopher Nolan, fresh from revamping the “Batman” franchise into its own camp-free entity, it should come as no surprise that Nolan and Snyder were hoping to put the same screws to the Superman saga. They succeed, but the grim facade actually worked better for “The Dark Knight,” because Batman has always been a darker sort of character. In retrospect, Superman has always been more playful, but Snyder isn’t interested in that, so the movie ends up being more grim than they probably intended it to be.
It’s still a heckuva lot more entertaining than the misguided “Superman Returns,” which, too, tried to revamp the saga seven years ago to no avail. My wish for the sequel — which, to no one’s surprise, has already been green-lit — is they do away with the rigid mopiness and have a little more fun. If “Man of Steel’s” final scene is any indication of where the sequel’s headed, you can go to sleep happy knowing “Steel” is only the beginning.
★★½ out of ★★★★
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and mayhem, as well as a few bad words.
Director: Zack Snyder. Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams.
Read all of Jesse Hoheisel’s reviews at AFistfulofPopcorn.com.