Superman has been a fixture in movies and TV every decade since he showed up in 1938. The new “Man of Steel” works hard to reclaim ground the iconic comic creation has lost to other heroes.
The serious-minded result has many super-cool moments. But when it gets clunky, it’s super-meh.
Basically a remake of the action bits from 1980’s “Superman II,” “Steel” pushes the sci-fi elements. The alien invasion-heavy result is like “Independence Day” in a cape, though at least its hero doesn’t get Green Lantern-ized. Director Zack Snyder (“300”) keeps it reverent up to a point. A lengthy setup details Krypton’s destruction, as scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) tells the planet’s rulers that abuse of natural resources has doomed them. Military enforcer General Zod (Michael Shannon) seems to be an ally, but Zod wants revolution.
Jor-El’s infant son, Kal-El, is sent to Earth, as Zod and his gang are sent to prison in the Phantom Zone. Krypton blows up; then we see adult Kal-El’s (Henry Cavill) struggles with identity. Flashbacks tell how the kindly Kansas Kents (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane) found him, named him Clark and told the haunted boy he can choose between good or evil. Convoluted events introduce reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and a Krypton ship that crashed on Earth 20,000 years ago. In it, Kal learns his origins and accidentally alerts a now-free Zod that Earth is good real estate. The angry general aims to build a new Krypton here, and the alien Lane dubs “Superman” must stop him.
Some familiar moments can’t help but echo 1978’s “Superman: The Movie.” This is, however, not a wry homage, as the misbegotten “Superman Returns” was in 2006. But Snyder struggles to set up huge moments that don’t take off. Massive scenes of destruction in Clark’s hometown of Smallville and in Metropolis (A New York stand-in is again hit by 9/11 imagery) are missing memorable execution. You’re not left with “That was great!” but “What were the metal tentacles fighting Superman?”
The subdued look is refreshing, though, and the casting is perfect. Cavill walks a tricky line, winding up with the right amount of earnestness. Like Christian Bale’s Batman, Cavill’s Britishness (you can’t tell behind a fake American accent) gives him an Otherness. And like Christopher Reeve, Cavill wears the suit, not vice-versa.
The always-great Shannon uses his ability to underplay ferocity to such intense effect, Zod is intimidating without lifting a finger. Adams is Alpha Female as girl reporter, and finally injects sexiness into the first lady of herodom. Costner’s easy Americana is shorthand for Pa Kent’s decency (it makes sense that a modern-day Clark would be raised by the hippie farmer of “Field of Dreams”). And Crowe adds a He-Man quality to his God role. It doesn’t make his pronouncements any less silly — or explain why he can’t build an escape pod built for three but it amps up Jor-El’s presence.
Despite some true-blue juice, “Man of Steel” has flaws it can’t overcome. That it doesn’t clear them all in a single bound may say more about how our world has changed than the naivete Superman’s universe requires to survive.