A prominent clip in the “Man of Steel” trailer tells us the “S” on Superman’s chest is really a Kryptonian symbol meaning “hope.” This is director Zach Snyder’s way of telling us he hopes this second attempt to return the Superman franchise to its Christopher Reeve glory days will be successful, unlike 2006’s “Superman Returns.”
It’s unlikely that this or any other reboot of the Superman franchise is going to erase memories of Christopher Reeve flying to John Williams’ soaring score, but “Man of Steel” is a step in the right direction, even if it is an effects-heavy product of its time. Where Christopher Reeve’s Superman was a brightly colored mix of Rockwellian nostalgia and comic book campiness, Henry Cavill’s "Man of Steel" is a gritty, post-9/11 anti-hero, preoccupied with examining the modern definition of a superhero. Which is to say that the red cape and the blue tights are intact (if muted), but the dark-haired, blue-eyed hero has more of a world-weary stare.
The setup is familiar: somewhere far, far away, an advanced planet called Krypton is on the verge of a global catastrophe. Gripped by political conflict due to the insurrectionist military leader General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), the planet is doomed, and the one man noble enough to take action is Jor-El (Russell Crowe). In desperation, he arranges to send his only son Kal-El—the first natural-born child on Krypton in centuries — to the foreign but accommodating planet Earth.
After this lengthy prologue, we first meet the Man of Steel as an adult. Not as a mild-mannered reporter in Metropolis, but rather as a mysterious outcast living a life of hard labor at sea. Flashbacks show him trying to reconcile his otherworldy powers with a grounded Midwestern upbringing, guided by the steady hand of his adopted parents (played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Instead of set about his duties as America’s favorite flying hero, Kal-El retreats into anonymity, fearing the consequences of human judgment.
But Superman’s personal struggle becomes public when General Zod and company arrive to make trouble. Angered over the destruction of his homeland, and still bitter about Jor-El’s refusal to join his cause, Zod wants to convert Earth into a brand-new Krypton with something called a World Engine, which has the unfortunate side-effect of wiping out whatever previous life form is unlucky enough to be standing in its way. And he needs his fellow Kryptonian to do it.
The events that follow bring Kal-El out of obscurity and into his official place as Superman, though they focus less on plot than on flying CGI fist fights and general destructive chaos. Cavill does a nice job of filling the red boots, both physically and as an actor. Amy Adams is a bit more in the loop as Lois Lane than in previous incarnations, and Shannon does a solid job as Zod, even if he’s not quite as lovable as the Terence Stamp original.
One of the most interesting aspects of the new film is its willingness to enhance, instead of de-emphasize, the previous series’ use of Christian imagery. While the Christopher Reeve films made a number of obvious allusions to Superman as a Christian metaphor, the new film does everything short of having Kal-El recite the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not the most subtle filmmaking, but many audiences will find the positive association refreshing.
And frankly, this is a film that can use all the bright points it can get. “Man of Steel” provides the summer of 2013 with a stoic counterpoint to the brash wittiness of Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron Man.” In spite of a few dry barbs, the new film offers little in the way of humor or lightheartedness.
It is often bleak and ponderous, more similar in tone to Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman trilogy (which makes sense, since Nolan produced “Man of Steel”). Nolan’s Batman films were preoccupied with grounding their hero in a mechanical reality, and though Superman is every bit the otherworldly superhero in “Man of Steel,” that realistic tone is preserved
“Man of Steel” is a very good superhero movie, but it’s not necessarily a fun superhero movie. And that may prove to be its biggest weakness among the summer tent poles.
“Man of Steel” is a mostly harmless PG-13, devoid of sexual content, light on profanity, but serving up a hefty portion of CGI-mayhem and action violence.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.