Early in Man of Steel, we watch as a school bus carrying a teenage Clark Kent and his classmates veers out of control and plunges off a bridge into a river. As the bus sinks below the surface, its trapped and terrified occupants frantically seize what appear to be their last gasps of air. Lucky for them young Clark is aboard! He lifts the bus back up from the depths and saves the day.
But word gets around that something out of the ordinary has taken place—the parent of one of the rescued kids declares it “an act of Providence”—leading Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) to lecture his adoptive son on the need to be more discreet with his superpowers. “What was I supposed to do, let them die?” Clark asks. His dad replies, “Maybe.”
Wait—what? Maybe Clark should have let a busload of kids drown rather than risk revealing his powers? Forgive me, but I thought this had been meant as a rhetorical question.
Welcome to the Dark Knight-ification of Superman. Yes, the film is directed by Zack Snyder, but it is heavy (in all senses of the word) with the imprint of co-writer and co-producer Christopher Nolan, who’s followed his decade with the caped crusader by taking on the task of rebooting DC Comics’ other superstar superhero. The tone is somber, the palette is grayish, and you can scarcely swing a cape without it getting snagged on some moral dilemma.
Man of Steel is an audacious undertaking, a stylistic and thematic mash-up of Avatar, The Matrix, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day, The Thing, Thor, and (especially) Bryan Singer’s X-Men films. What is open to question—and I confess to finding myself uncharacteristically ambivalent on the subject—is whether the resulting heavyweight summer blockbuster is very much fun.
The story begins on Krypton, a planet of floating robotic valets and winged mounts that would make a Nazgul sick with envy. There’s just one catch: Due to the government’s poor management of natural resources (it has taken the “drill, baby, drill” mantra to improbable extremes) the planet is about to explode. Krypton’s military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon) responds to this news by fomenting rebellion; its top scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) opts for putting his infant son, Kal-El, in a tiny spaceship and blasting him to Earth. (In a neat inversion, what makes this savior-to-be special is that Krypton grows most of its children artificially and Kal-El, by contrast, was the product of the planet’s first “natural” birth in centuries—i.e., his is a uniquely non-immaculate conception.)
From there, we flash forward to Earth about 30 years later, where a handsome drifter (Henry Cavill), equal parts pectoral muscle and facial hair, is making his way across Canada, hopscotching from truckstops to military installations. And no, before you ask, this isn’t Wolverine, whose reboot doesn’t arrive until next month. Rather he’s Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent (no one’s thought to call him the S-word yet), and he’s looking for answers about his origins that he can’t find in the copious flashbacks to his childhood in Kansas. Eventually, he finds them in an old Kryptonian spaceship that can project a hologram of his dead father. But intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) also finds him, and he pleads with her to let him stay un-found.
The question of whether or not Clark should reveal himself to humankind is soon rendered moot, however, by the arrival of another spaceship, bearing his dad’s old nemesis General Zod. The general, who evidently watched The Dark Knight during his long journey to Earth, immediately takes a page out of the Joker’s book and demands that Kal-El surrender himself or he’ll start killing Earthlings.
Inevitably, Zod and his followers announce their Evil Plan for the Human Race, and it falls to the newly christened Superman to foil it. This entails a great deal of fighting: punches are thrown, and cars too; flight and heat vision get their requisite workouts; and Zod’s starship levels half the skyscrapers in—Manhattan? Metropolis? Either way, it’s played by a combination of Chicago and Vancouver.
As the man of steel, Cavill (best known from Showtime’s The Tudors) displays a magnetic presence and topographic physique in the star-making role that had narrowly eluded him in the past. (He was the runner-up to play Bond in Casino Royale but was deemed too young; Twilight author Stephenie Meyer called him “my perfect Edward,” but by the time the novel was optioned he was deemed too old.) As Lois Lane, Adams shows so much pluck that it’s a wonder she isn’t conscripted for duty on a poultry farm. And the rest of the cast (which also features Ayelet Zurer and Diane Lane as Clark’s biological and adoptive mothers, respectively, and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White) fulfill their obligations with aplomb. I do wish, though, that Shannon (as Zod) had been asked to dial back his patented brand of wide-eyed crazy at least intermittently.
There’s plenty to like in Snyder’s hectic, rowdy film, from the cast to the fluid action sequences to the expansive reimagining of the Superman mythos. But by the time we reach the bludgeoning excesses of the last half-hour—which are more than a tad reminiscent of the finale of The Avengers—it’s hard to shake the sense that this was an opportunity at least partially missed. The grim tones favored by Nolan (and Snyder) may be a natural fit for the nocturnal exploits of Batman, but when it comes to a flying man in blue and red spandex, a little jocularity can go a long way. And while there are a few light moments sprinkled throughout the proceedings—a nice exchange with Lois about the meaning of the “S” on Superman’s uniform; a witty (if preposterous) closing gag at the Daily Planet that recalls Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2 observation that it’s Clark Kent who is the assumed identity, the “costume”—such whimsies are few and far between.
Man of Steel is, by pretty much any measure, a better film than Bryan Singer’s 2006 reboot, Superman Returns: better cast, better action, better script. But Singer attempted, with uneven success, to offer a different vernacular for the superhero movie, an innocent alternative to the solemnity of Nolan’s Batman and his own X-Men. For all its strengths, Man of Steel—and, in particular, the extended fisticuffs of its final third—left me nostalgic for the idea of a superhero who never has to throw a punch.