Here are a few adjectives that do not apply to the new Superman movie: Beguiling. Frisky. Nuanced. Quiet. Even the title, Man of Steel, sounds too flighty for this film. Man of Lead, or Man of Plutonium, maybe.
Director Zack Snyder, who gave us the excitable digital excesses of 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch, keeps the catastrophes coming with the regularity of pies on an assembly line. But this is also a new, more serious Superman, thanks to the guiding hand of producer/co-writer Christopher Nolan, whose trilogy of movies featuring the other major DC Comics hero, Batman, concluded last year.
Nolan has laboured to bring gravity to the dude in the blue tights (the jaunty red shorts have been retired) with a script that repeatedly reminds us that Superman has a lot in common with Jesus, except, of course, for the Lord of Peace part. The movie climaxes in a trio of almost unbelievably long and violent battles where the screen fills with rubble, the Hans Zimmer score throbs and rows of skyscrapers topple like dominoes.
It all gets exhaustingly bombastic although, sequence by sequence, Man of Steel is something worth seeing. Shot in a palette of chalky greys, blacks and browns, it has a kind of Old Masters gloomy lustre. The machinery and weapons in the Krypton world mix speculative robotics with shapes that resemble crustaceans. Action scenes atypically trade grandeur for close-up intensity, with lots of hand-held camera work. When Superman flies, we are either close enough to touch his face, or are watching him from a distance, blurring over the horizon like a red-and-blue cruise missile.
The film begins with pain, of course, on Krypton, where Superman's mom, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), is heaving in birth pangs to bring the little hero into the world. The planet is on the verge of exploding and the baby, Kal-El, is shipped to Earth, where scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) declares in plummy English tones that Kal-El will become an "ideal" for mankind. Not if evil General Zod (Michael Shannon in a Caesar-meets-Frankenstein's-monster hair-do) has anything to do with it, though after the first few massive explosions, he is temporarily subdued.
Years later, we meet the grown Kal-El as a strapping bearded lobster fisherman (Henry Cavill) when a fresh disaster on an oil rig occurs. At the end of the encounter, the shirtless buff young man collapses into the sea, arms stretched wide like You Know Whom.
His mind drifts back to his childhood, being raised in rural Kansas by the comely middle-aged Kent couple, Ma (Diane Lane) and Pa (Kevin Costner). Was life idyllic? Of course not. The young Clark Kent runs from a classroom, suffering from some condition akin to autism where visual and auditory information overwhelms him. Then there's the school-bus crash, the bullying and the monstrous tornado. Oh, why must he suffer? "You're the answer to the question of whether we're alone in the universe," Pa Kent tells young Clark.
And back we go to Clark, at the religiously auspicious age of 33, wandering the world and, mostly, hiding his ability to perform miracles with his superpowers. Early on, he has an encounter with ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) while she is in the Arctic investigating a mysterious vehicle under the ice. This version of Lois Lane is on to Superman's secret from the get-go, and no fedora-and-specs disguise is going to fool her.
During the same trip, Clark also meets, Hamlet-style, a hologram of his dead father. Jor-El provides Clark with a visually cool, silvery Soviet-style diorama of Krypton's history, before presenting him with his boots, cape and leotard with the big S (a Krypton symbol of hope). Given the elaborate set-up, the outfit seems even sillier than in less self-important versions of the story.
As it happens, this is precisely the right time in the plot to suit up. General Zod, recently liberated from his prison (and sporting a hipster goatee, though otherwise unchanged in 33 years), has parked a space ship in the Earth's lunar orbit and, by seizing the airwaves in low-definition graphics, demands that earthlings surrender the Krypton citizen in their midst or face annihilation. Zod is after a certain "codex" that arrived with Kal/Clark that contains the key to rebuilding the Krypton species. (Jor-El, the hologram, won't stay silent, and returns again to remind us a few more times that Kal-El's destiny is to "save" mankind.)
All this, in essence, is an hour-long preamble before the main action of the film, which involves Superman making a choice between Krypton nature or earthly nurture. The flashback structure employed by David S. Goyer (with Nolan as a co-writer) is a fairly effective way to move us forward in the over-told Superman story. Where the script grates is in the dialogue, which is either serviceable as exposition or in that faux archaic style beloved by bad science fiction. Shannon's Zod is particularly liable to dropping pompous warnings between murder attempts ("I will harvest the codex from your son's corpse and rebuild Krypton atop his bones!").
"Atop?" Over the top is is more like it, especially in the final scenes of CGI mayhem that grow progressively more outlandish with separate battles with Zod, a fashion punk/ninja sidekick (Antje Traue) and, finally, giant "world-builder" machines, too similar to the monsters in Transformers, that descend to give the planet a painful make-over.
The casting is strong throughout, with Costner and Lane as particularly sympathetic figures.
As Superman (the name is barely used in the film), Cavill, with his square jaw and sensitive features, is fine as an emotionally conflicted demigod, although his character, for a guy pushing his mid-30s, still feels callow. He shows more tenderness with his mother than he does in his barely flickering romance with Lois Lane.
Adams's Lois, as a seasoned, no-B.S. reporter, is a great improvement over the usual gullible, starry-eyed versions of the character. The romance, no doubt, will develop in sequels – or at least Lois can whip Clark into a less wounded, vulnerable version of Superman.
Perhaps that's too hopeful. Superman, like most of our postmillennial comic book heroes (Thor, Avengers, Batman), is not a character any more. He's a brand to be marketed in 3-D cinemas around the globe, to provide an entry point for audiences to watch endless simulated spectacles of mass urban disasters, with an indefinite number of sequels to come. Kryptonite, the substance that renders Superman powerless, is never mentioned in Man of Steel: The filmmakers may have confused it with a sense of humour.