Every generation gets the Superman it wants and probably deserves, from the two-dimensional crime fighter of the original comics to the stolid Dudley Do-Right of ’50s TV to the charmingly straight-arrow hero of 1978’s “Superman,” his sincerity coming to the rescue of a cynical era.
With the new “Man of Steel,” we have a Superman (Henry Cavill) for a time of war and impending apocalypse, a figure uncertain of his purpose yet pulled on by a higher calling. His mission? The salvation of the human race that he’s a part of by divine deliverance and yet so fundamentally unlike. Even before we get to the scene in the church, a stained-glass image of Christ hovering unfocused in the background, you’d be forgiven for calling this superhero Jesus-man.
So the sweet romance and bumbling Clarkisms of the Christopher Reeve movies? Sorry, no. Director Zack Snyder — the blockbuster brat who gave us “300” and “Watchmen” — delivers a muscular yet sorrowful summer epic that carries the weight of its fraught times, at least until it gives in to the urge to just smash things in the last half hour. Do we need a new Superman? “Man of Steel” argues that we need somebody who’s less neurotic than Spider-Man and not as psychotic as the Dark Knight. The “S” on the big guy’s chest, it turns out, is Kryptonese for Hope. I hear Shepard Fairey’s already getting the poster prepped.
The film’s opening act takes place on a dying Krypton that’s several degrees more impressive than the one in the 1978 film. For one thing, Russell Crowe gives an actual performance as Jor-El instead of cashing the check and waddling off, Brando-style. Digital effects make a difference as well, creating a civilization of decadent visual splendor. As the evil General Zod, Michael Shannon has acting skills equal to Terence Stamp but much crazier eyes.
“Man of Steel,” though, goes its own way as soon as baby Kal-El crash-lands on Earth, cutting immediately to the grown Clark Kent’s wanderings in the desert. He turns up on a burning oil rig to save a few lives, works in a biker bar in the Pacific Northwest, and arrives in the Arctic Circle as the US Army investigates a mysterious craft buried under a glacier.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Daily Planet, is on the scene as well, and “Man of Steel” plays havoc with the established canon by throwing these two together with all due haste and no time for romance. Even if editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) back in Metropolis doesn’t believe her story, she’s intrepid enough to trace her mystery man back to Kansas and Ma Kent (Diane Lane, providing weary, stoic grace notes that put flesh on the comic book bones).
The script by David S. Goyer, from a story by Christopher Nolan, imports the dramatic agonies, portentous dialogue, and complex plot structure of the pair’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. It’s not always a comfortable fit. “Man of Steel” is continually flashing back to Clark’s childhood, as adoptive father Pa Kent (an excellent Kevin Costner) coaches the boy into a gradual acceptance of his duty toward the human race and the hard task of not fighting back. To this father-and-son dynamic, the script adds the Holy Ghost of Jor-El, who’s apparently around in software form and who pitches in with advice and random door-opening as necessary.
Snyder knows how to put on a show, and “Man of Steel” has a massive scope that’s hard to resist. (The film can be seen in 3-D prints, although the version I saw was plain old 2-D. It looked fine.) Hans Zimmer’s score adds more subtle emotional shades than you’d expect from a big studio ramalama. But what’s missing from this Superman saga is a sense of lightness, of pop joy. This is a story about a guy who can fly, for pity’s sake — about the absurd freedoms, as well as the responsibilities, that powers such as super-strength and heat-vision bring with them.
That’s partly why the British actor Henry Cavill gives a strong, likable, occasionally moving performance in the title role, but doesn’t quite come out a movie star. I missed the dorky modesty of Christopher Reeve’s Superman — the squareness that really marked the character as an alien. Cavill’s Superman is an interestingly conflicted hunk, but he doesn’t resonate beyond the borders of the screen.
In the end, he doesn’t have a chance to. For the final act of “Man of Steel,” Snyder drops the Christ imagery (although there is that shot of Superman floating arms outstretched in space) and brings out the heavy artillery. General Zod cries “Release the World Engine!” and “Bring the Phantom Drive online!” and Metropolis is reduced to rubble in a sequence that goes on forever and pounds the audience into submission. How many more times do we need to see cities destroyed in fetishistic digital detail, the sensurround sound and fury obliterating drama and even sense for the sake of a “big finish”? Is this our lot in the post-9/11 entertainment landscape? What would Pa Kent say?
I imagine he’d have something to say about the literal twist ending to the showdown between Superman and General Zod, a scene that runs counter to everything this particular hero has represented over the better part of a century. A revisionist Man of Steel may not be what we want — if our very first superhero isn’t consistent, who is? — but it may be what we get. The sequel machinery is already in place, with a final scene that reveals this movie to be one
giant backstory and a discreetly alarming shot of a truck bearing a “LexCorp” logo. The next film in the series may depict Superman as humanity’s savior or just another basket case in Spandex. Let us pray.