I’m pretty sure that being Superman isn’t as simple as it once was. Not only does he stand for truth, justice, and the American way, he also has a virtual monopoly on the men-in-tights genre. Didn’t director Bryan Singer already pay due diligence in 2006’s Superman Returns with Brandon Routh? The box office can’t be the only reason to revive a franchise.
“We needed to juice him up,” admits director Zack Snyder. I’ll say. With Batman getting all the bad-boy love, Supes needed to roughen his do-gooder image into something towards a cooler, more conflicted image. And here he is in Man of Steel, directed by Snyder, with story input from producer Christopher Nolan, the sinister genius behind the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan knows from moody. Snyder knows from fireworks. Nolan knows from holding back. Snyder, uh, doesn’t. Together, they could have spawned a movie at war with itself, which admittedly this one often is. Against those odds, Man of Steel soars high on its own schizoid ambition. Lacking the old-school humor and charm of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman and Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance, Man of Steel pretty much starts from scratch.
At the risk of damning Henry Cavill with faint praise, the British actor wisely takes on the role as if it’s never been played before. Fellow Brits like Christian Bale (Batman) and Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man) took the same approach. Cavill can do hunky in his sleep (Immortals or The Tudors). It’s the banked fires he brings to Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, that make his performance such a potent surprise. Cavill, square-jawed with a hip sense of alienation, doesn’t let the suit act for him. Hell, he doesn’t put it on till halfway into the movie. This Clark is a haunted loner grappling with issues, an alien from the planet Krypton, raised on the Kansas farm of the Kents – Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane, finding depth where there isn’t any).
How’d he get there? As told in DC Comics, Krypton is nearing extinction due to not having enough natural resources to suffice the planet. The scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his infant son, Kal-El, off to Earth. Enter the Kents, his adoptive parents, then Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon, nostrils flaring), the Krypton fascist who follows Kal-El to take over the planet. Blah. Blah. Blah. What else is new?
In approach, lots. Snyder follows no linear pattern. Baby Kal in the rocket is followed by a smash cut to Clark, age 33, as a sort of existential loner who drifts from town to town. Flashbacks fill in the rest. Papa Kent – Costner’s heartfelt portrayal lifts the film – tells Clark to hide his special gifts under wraps. Out of fear of becoming popular, Clark never smiles or makes friends. He’s made for bigger things. Before the gloom can settle, Snyder overkills with Hans Zimmer sound and FX fury as Supes rescues humans from fire, flood and twister.
When Clark finally puts on the suit, its colors are muted, like he is. Maybe that’s why Snyder has him punching everything in sight, with one exception: In the Arctic, to find the codex holding the key to (what else?) global domination, the Man of Steel falls for Daily Planet’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Lois Lane (a tough, terrific Amy Adams). You don’t hire four-time Oscar nominee Adams to play Lois if you want a compliant bimbo who can’t see the superman behind Clark’s glasses. But there’s a distinct lack of heat between Adams and Cavill, and their stabs at sub-sitcom humor fall flat. Even when Snyder pulls out every computer-generated trick in a climax that won’t quit while it’s ahead, there are moments where Cavill and Adams give the movie a beating heart. It needs it. Caught in the slipstream between action and angst, Man of Steel is a bumpy ride for sure. But there’s no way to stay blind to its wonders.