The Superman franchise gets a muscular reboot in Zach Synder’s “Man of Steel” although it’s unclear how much of this movie’s success can be attributed to another filmmaker, “Batman” regenerator Christopher Nolan.
Nolan is aboard here as producer and co-writer of the film’s story, and the film certainly embraces the strategy that made his “Batman” trilogy so thrilling: The makers of “Man of Steel” treat this comic-book hero with absolute seriousness.
They also, without too much perversion to the canon of the decades-old superhero, re-imagine the character and American society into which he must fit to give the film greater realism (if one can talk about realism in the context of comic book movies at all).
In other words, how would America, a country we are just now learning that’s willing to spy on every phone conversation and email of its citizens in the name of the “war on terror,” react to the knowledge that an alien being walks — or flies — in its midst?
With suspicion and fear, just as Gotham City saw in Batman’s battle against the forces of evil a touch of vigilantism. So there is no awe or wonder from the populace or the U.S. government over Superman but rather skepticism.
In fact, Clark Kent spends his early child and adulthood hiding his super strength. Indeed his human father demands that he does so, knowing that his son is an alien life form.
Sadly, much of enjoyable storytelling that builds the movie’s good will over the first two acts gets sacrificed in an unnecessary, ham-fisted, over-the-top battle between Superman and his Kryptonian nemesis General Zod that destroys most of Smallville and Metropolis.
The movie begins with a bang though. The planet Krypton is on the eve of collapse. Its military colonialists, like the Romans, have extended their empire so far that its own infrastructure and the planet itself are doomed.
Envisioning a planet in its death throes, the filmmakers sketch a vivid portrait of a fantastical world spinning out of control as chaos and revolt take ahold. It’s an amazing feat of design, digital effects and imagination that pulls you into the movie with a grip of steel.
General Zod (the always glaring Michael Shannon) leads a rebellion against the tottering ruling council that Jor-El (a reserved Russell Crowe) attempts to block. Aware that the Krypton race is on the verge of extinction, Jor-El and wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) fire their newborn son, Kal-El — “the first natural born baby in centuries” — into space toward Earth.
Then comes the next stroke of genius by Nolan and his “Batman” co-writer David S. Goyer. The movie jumps to Kal or rather Clark Kent’s manhood on Earth. The film’s lead actor, Henry Cavill, is bearded and scruffy, working odd jobs around the country. At a Christ-like 33 years of age, Clark tries to stay off the grid as far as his powers are concerned even as he searches for his illusive identity.
He and his parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner in remarkably solid, affecting performances), have long puzzled over Clark’s extraterritorial origin. In flashbacks and memory jogs that continue throughout the movie, you see that the father has urged his adopted son to suppress his supernatural gifts from their small-town Kansas neighbors.
So Clark as a young man searches for his origins, which takes him to the Canadian Arctic and a mysterious spacecraft locked in ice. It’s here he first meets intrepid news hen Lois Lane (a feisty Amy Adams).
So you can see how the writers tinker with the oft-told origin story — parents who counsel their son to hide his gifts and a Lois Lane in on the big secret, not blithely unaware of Clark’s special gifts.
This continues throughout the film — Jor-El’s re-appearance as a “consciousness” after his mortal body has been destroyed and his ability relate the story of Krypton and its society to his son — and the audience — through a nifty black-and-white art deco-ish recreation of the planet’s history and its genetically engineered social structure.
Wonderful actors populate the story as well: Laurence Fishburne as the Daily Planet editor, Christopher Meloni as an army colonel unsure whether Superman is friend or foe, Richard Schiff as a military scientist to explain all the film’s scientific mumbo-jumbo and Antje Traue as Zod’s single-minded second-in-command, Faora-Ul.
This carefully preserved tone of serious drama and exciting action crumbles in the final act, however. While it may be expecting too much for filmmakers to maintain sensitivity over 9/11 a dozen years after those horrors, the sight of Manhattan buildings exploding and toppling on a terrified populace is nothing more than a CGI replay of the city’s destruction in “The Avengers.”
It may even be worse since that film always felt like a bad comic-book movie while “Man of Steel” obviously is striving for something much more sophisticated. Then too you can’t help wondering if Snyder’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink finale won’t scuttle the franchise.
How can the next film top this? After Superman has won the War of the Worlds, how will simple human villainy present any challenge? Or must all threats come from outer space?
Well, that’s cause for concern in another two to three years. Right now we have a superb “Man of Steel,” that takes the legend seriously without camp or blatant fan-boy appeal, superbly acted by a terrific cast and especially Cavill who is excellent as a sometimes moody and troubled super hero.
D.p. Amir Mokri has worked hand in glove with designer Alex McDowell and all the visual effects artists to create worlds, cities, towns and warfare that breathes new life into what most of us thought of as a tired franchise.
Opens: June 14, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Legendary Pictures presents a Syncopy Production
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Russell Crowe
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriter: David S. Goyer
Story by: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan
Based on the comic books by: Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
Producers: Charles Roven, Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Deborah Snyder
Executive producers: Thomas Tull, Lloyd Phillips, Jon Peters
Director of photography: Amir Mokri
Production designer: Alex McDowell
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: James Acheson
Editor: David Brenner
PG-13 rating, 143 minutes