For years, Warner Bros. has been trying to figure out how to make Superman—that unapologetically square, virtually indestructible throwback hero—relevant for the 21st century. With Man of Steel, it seems they realized how to do it: Turn him into Spider-Man.
In plenty of key ways, of course, this is still the familiar Superman origin story in reboot form. We see the decision by Kryptonian scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) to send his infant son Kal-El to Earth from their doomed world, the baby’s discovery and adoption by the Kents of Kansas (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and the boy’s growth to manhood (Henry Cavill) to discover his origins, a purpose for his unique abilities and an aesthetically distinctive blue body suit.
Yet, director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman films) set out quite deliberately to humanize the lantern-jawed nonhuman. And they do that by molding and shaping Clark Kent’s story to look more like that of Peter Parker: the character-shaping homilies of his father figure; a tragedy that informs his destiny; even the scenes of the hero learning how to use and control his newfound powers. It’s earnest and often effective watching the big guy wrestle with his outsider identity—and also sometimes feels just a bit off.
Man of Steel is better when it gets to straight-ahead adventure, though it takes some navigating through an awkward flashback structure to get to Superman’s conflict with the exiled Kryptonian supremacist General Zod (Michael Shannon, terrifically intense, as usual). Snyder cranks up the apocalyptic donnybrook, sending the combatants blasting through skyscrapers and punching one another into exploding tanker trucks, but all that down-to-earth character stuff does help make it more potent. If Superman can adjust to life on Earth, I suppose he can adjust to the atmosphere of the Marvel Universe.
MAN OF STEEL
Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon