The first time we get a good look at Superman in Man of Steel, he’s a bearded dude (Henry Cavill) in a rain slicker working on a commercial fishing vessel, doing his best to hide his identity until a group of oil rig workers stranded by an explosion forces him to act. The second time we see him, he’s a scared 9-year-old boy (Cooper Timberline) who can’t turn off his X-ray vision or his ultrasensitive hearing. The makers of this movie have expended much effort trying to retell the tale, and while they haven’t succeeded in making Superman interesting, they have succeeded in making this familiar story seem rough, strange, and new. That is a significant accomplishment.
The movie begins with an overlong prologue on the doomed planet Krypton, where chief scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) saves his infant son Kal-El by sending him in a space capsule toward Earth. The invigorating first hour or so switches back and forth between the adult Clark Kent drifting through small towns and saving lives before moving on, intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) pursuing his trail, and the boy Clark growing up in Kansas, where his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) advises him to keep his true nature hidden until the world is ready to see it.
The nonsequential storytelling by director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer (with a storywriting assist from producer Christopher Nolan) helps keep us off balance. The trouble is, the approach does a poor job of introducing these characters — yes, we already know who they are, but an origin story needs to give us more than this movie does. The British actor Cavill (Immortals, TV’s The Tudors) can’t find any odd corners in Superman, and Adams is similarly left high and dry. What do we know about Lois Lane at the end of this? She’s dogged, brave, and smart, and she even leaks a story to a Julian Assange-like website operator (Chad Krowchuk) after Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) squelches her early reports about Superman. These are admirable but not enough to make her a complex person. It’s a terrible waste of a funny, resourceful, authentically great actress. (Though I am glad that, in this version, Lois learns early on that Clark Kent is Superman. That gets us around the “How does she not recognize that he’s just Superman with glasses?” problem.)
The lack of personality here has repercussions for the action sequences, most of which are prompted by an imperialist Kryptonian refugee named Zod (Michael Shannon) who tries to colonize Earth and forces Superman into public view. Though Superman battles a team of Kryptonian supersoldiers as strong as himself, he remains too powerful and difficult to imperil, much less kill. For all the violence done to him, he might as well be a video-game hero. Similarly, nuclear-scale destruction and carnage are visited upon the city of Metropolis near the end, and Snyder manages it all cohesively, but because he hasn’t established what ordinary life is like in Clark’s adopted hometown, the climax holds no terror.
Still, this movie is able to raise some provocative questions about the material. The theme — advanced by both of Kal-El’s father figures — that Superman is put on Earth to be an example of goodness for humanity has more juice than it should here, possibly because Costner (of all people) gives such a touching performance as a decent man trying his best to instill his values in a boy with such powers. This could help the series deal with the implications of Superman’s existence. Introduce a flying alien demigod into the world, and people would surely pray to him or try to destroy him or try to make money off him. As far as this movie goes, I wish it had done more than just include lots of shots of people looking reverentially up in the sky, but it does open up some promising avenues for the series going forward.
At the very least, this movie is yards better than 2005’s Superman Returns. In fact, I prefer it to a slick but unimaginative reboot like The Amazing Spider-Man. There’s still room for improvement, though. Let’s see it done in the sequel.
Man of Steel
Starring Henry Cavill and Amy Adams. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David S. Goyer. Rated PG-13.