This Superman settles scores. And takes his shirt off.
This “Man of Steel” flies up, up and away, with his teeth bared and his fists clenched.
This Lois Lane knows his story, straight off. There’s little mystery about him.
If every generation gets the Superman it deserves, “Man of Steel” suggests we’ve earned one utterly without wit or charm, a grim, muscle-bound 33-year-old struggling to reconcile the past he is just learning about, trying to fit in with a military that may or may not consider him a threat but that needs his help when his fellow Kryptonians come to call.
“Man of Steel” is a radical re-interpretation of the Superman myth, no sin in itself. The Zack (“300” / “Sucker Punch”) Snyder version, scripted by David S. Goyer (story by Christopher Nolan), dwells much longer on Krypton and re-arranges the story, hurling us into the adult Kal-El’s Wolverine-like loner life as an American adult, showing us his formative childhood with his adoptive parents the Kents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) only in flashbacks.
It gives his Kryptonian nemesis, General Zod, a mission — however misguided. And a point of view. So Michael Shannon, who plays him, isn’t all that scary.
Without the wit, winks, flirtation and old-fashioned sentiment of the “Truth, justice and the American way” take on the character, all Henry Cavill (“Immortals”) has to do is mix it up in a lot of “Transformers” inspired brawls with armored-plated aliens and occasionally agonize over it all.
Yes, most of the far sillier “Transformers” movies were more fun. From its production design — ugly, black, insectoid spaceships — to its instantly forgettable Hans Zimmer musical score, this movie goes out of its way to remove itself from the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies. And it is the poorer for it.
Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer play the parents who pack their baby up and ship him off their doomed planet. The sad resignation of the Marlon Brando version of father Jor-El is lost because General Zod stages a coup, mid-planetary meltdown, giving this overlong prologue shoot-outs and armored brawls. And Crowe’s Jor-El never quite goes away.
We spend far too little time with the story’s heart, the ways the baby is embodied with good old-fashioned heartland virtues. Costner and Lane have the film’s best scenes.
“Decide the kind of man you want to be,” Clark Kent’s dad tells him, urging him to keep his ID secret, to use his powers sparingly, with care. The grown-up Clark wanders the bars and crab fishing fleets, committing the occasional supernatural act of compassion and the occasional supernatural fit of pique. Amy Adams is an over-achieving Lois Lane, totally clued in on the evidence of an alien among us by the military. Laurence Fishburne is a dull Daily Planet editor Perry White.
Take away the antecedents (no Jimmy Olsen, boy photographer), strip the character’s Americanness (to make it easier to sell overseas) and it’s still a competent movie — state of the art explosions, implosions and what-not.
But take away the whimsy and the fun, and one has to wonder why Snyder, Goyer, Nolan and Warner Bros. bothered.