The opening minutes of Man of Steel depict a very expensive world. Krypton, the ill-fated planet that even people who actively avoid pop culture recognize as Superman’s birth place, comes alive in the prologue of Zack Snyder’s fancy update with some of the most brilliant special effects this side of “Avatar”
A single virtual camera pan showing the entire Krypton’s golden vistas unravels an intricately defined fantasy land full of remarkable details: braying alien livestock, towering structures and airborne spacecraft instantly define a Krypton unlike anything achieved in 80 years of comics, movies, TV and videogames, but the story can’t keep up. Instead of bringing a blockbuster film of the Man of Steel, Snyder has turned the Superman narrative into yet another modern day box office hit.
Impressive in parts, scattered and blandly familiar in others, Man of Steel tries to rejuvenate its protagonist with a whole lot of big ideas stuffed into a dense assemblage that varies between stunning visual and complicated non-linear plot elements, some better than the rest. However, in contrast to the Richard Donner films that practically invented the guidebook to superhero movies, Man of Steel is practically a reinvention of the Superman mythos. The earlier installments in the series enlivened the character with genre touches like comedy and romance that — as with Joss Whedon’s eye-catching “The Avengers” 2012 — balanced off the demand for superb spectacle. Even Bryan Singer’s unfairly maligned 2006 take, which bored audiences who obviously wanted a more explosive good time, nobly placed the colorful nature of Superman’s plight ahead of the action.
Man of Steel takes a more self-serious approach, constructing a sullen tale involving Superman’s emerging commitment that (perhaps due to producer Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” influenced hand) almost never cracks a smile. Superman’s intriguing persona has even been drained from the very title. Here, the dreary atmosphere underscores unremitting commitment to a brooding storyline that creates the illusion of meaning behind the abundant CGI. Unlike its previous entries, it would be impossible to picture Man of Steel without the grand production values, which begin to take hold after the undoubtedly compelling first hour and ultimately subsume other, more promising ingredients hinted at during that time. At first, Man of Steel attempts an outstanding fusion of pricey imagery and narrative finesse. By the end, Henry Cavill’s mastery performance in the lead role is the only element of restraint left onscreen.
While certainly the most dazzling Superman movie to hit the big screen, the 143-minute Man of Steel is also one of the longest, and it only justifies that heft because it leaves room to keep the effects coming. David Goyer’s screening sets a high stakes showdown between Superman and the malicious General Zod (Michael Shannon on autopilot, his creepiness got reduced to a half-interested glower), another surviving Kryptonian whose escape from prison following the planet’s destruction leads him to attempt and crush Earth in the hopes of making room for a new Krypton.
In the early sequences, Zod is unveiled to have murdered Superman’s dad, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), in the days leading up to Krypton’s demise. But it’s not clear if Superman ever learns this from the digital remnants of his father who trains him in his arctic headquarters some 33 years later. When Zod appears, he’s just a villain that Superman must stop against all odds.
That’s a reasonable conundrum for this type of overly familiar fare, but the movie arrives there after establishing an especially intricate scene in which the naturally fearless reporter Lois Lane (a wonderfully assertive Amy Adams) learns Superman’s secret and decides to sit on the story while he finds out his origin. Superman’s own upbringing down south at the hands of amiable foster parents (a bland Kevin Costner and underutilized Diane Lane) unfolds in several flashbacks that elaborate on the challenges the young Clark Kent faces in keeping his powers to himself. Man of Steel movie attempts the clever trick of telling both these stories at once with an overlapping structure that would make the creators of “Lost” swoon, but it’s still an excessively dreary affair that lacks any sense of Superman’s personality. Instead, he’s just another fancy effect from Snyder’s bag of tricks. It’s easy to get swept up in the rollercoaster of buildup, but the climax is just a yawn.
But, oh, that bag of tricks. “I can’t print this,” Louis’ trenchant editor (Laurence Fishburne) says after receiving her first draft of her unpublished Superman scoop. “You could have hallucinated half of it.” When Man of Steel comes to a close, viewers can relate. And once they return down to Earth, probably warmer memories of the Supermen no longer seemed viable will come rushing back. In Man of Steel Superman never suffers from exposure to fragments of Kryptonite. His only weakness — and the film’s, after promising earlier bits drop off to make room for the excessive conclusion — is depth.