How to make a better Superman movie is the Sphinx’s riddle of superhero cinema. There’s nostalgia for Richard Donner’s soaring but cumbersome 1978 original and Richard Lester’s able but somewhat nutty sequel. Some critics have come around to a fondness for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, although I tell can’t wrap my arms around a movie about Superman returning after a five-year sabbatical to battle Lex Luthor—again—and Kryptonite—again (oh yeah, he has a kid).
So, the news that Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) would produce a reboot of the Superman saga directed by Zack Snyder (300; Watchmen) was enough to catapult legions of Super-fanatics into delirium. The result, Man of Steel, isn’t the reimagined overhaul many anticipated. The origin myth remains intact, with some incremental but significant tweaking, chiefly an increased emphasis on the Krypton backstory. And anyone looking for Christopher Reeve’s smile or John Williams’ memorable score will come away empty-handed (although Hans Zimmer’s thundering soundtrack will reverberate in your head for days).
This isn’t your (grand)father’s man of steel; this one has only the slightest of smirks littering a fable that takes its reinvention deadly serious. And I’m fine with that.
Before he becomes Superman, immigrant-from- Krypton Kal-El (Henry Cavill) must discover himself and the reason he’s an all-powerful stranger in a strange world. The film only specifically references the lofty Superman moniker once, but the religious symbolism is unabashed. Kal-El is the son of two fathers. One is by birth, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who jettisons his son from a dying planet to one where he knows his son will live as a god but hopefully serve as a savior. Jor-El’s consciousness joins Kal-El to Earth, an omnipotent presence guiding his son’s maturation, and anyone willing to believe.
The other earthly patriarch is Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), a Kansas farmer without children of his own with wife Martha (Diane Lane), who shelters his adopted son and urges him to conceal his powers from a suspicious and fearful world, even at Jonathan’s own expense. It’s a reality Kal-El grapples with as kid Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, Kan., where he swallows his powers in the face of bullies and stifles any public display of those super-abilities, even if, according to Pa Kent, people die.
Kal-El’s hand is forced when Earth is threatened by General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his formerly imprisoned henchmen, fallen angels from Krypton now hunting Kal-El across the galaxy to recover some key to Zod’s plan for Kryptonian Eugenics. Zod is brutal but not purposeless; his motives are that of a zealot pushing back against Krypton’s inclusive, expansionist policies with isolation and visions of ethnic purity. At one point, Kal-El must decide whether to sacrifice himself in order to save mankind (a visit to his local church to ponder the decision, with a stained glass rendering of Jesus hovering over his shoulder, hammers home the allegory for the utterly uninformed). Kal-El heals the sick, namely Lois Lane (Amy Adams), wisely reconfigured here as an actual intrepid reporter who uncovers Kal-El’s true nature. There’s even a transfiguration.
Snyder fashions a visually stunning film deeply steeped into the Superman mythology. Before we get the Truth, Justice and the American Way Superman, we first get an unsure deity who—let’s face it—is obliged to protect the planet from the very danger he unwittingly lures here. The titanic clash is inevitable, even if its execution is unwieldy and bombastic. The latter half of Man of Steel is a special effects whirlwind, with Snyder’s CGI and Zimmer’s accompaniment seemingly trying to outdo each other.
It’s also a script whose flaws are pronounced and distracting upon analysis, as is often the case with writer David S. Goyer. For example, I’m still trying to figure out a good reason Zod would not only choose to terraform Earth into an atmospheric replica of Krypton to colonize instead of, say, Mars or some other desolate, vacant planet, and why in the world he would do so at the expense of losing his newfound superpowers.
But while these faults would cripple any normal movie, Man of Steel survives because it explores the man behind the Superman and addresses the psychology of a demigod. Indeed, the film’s principal fault isn’t its lack of “fun,” but that it doesn’t dig deep enough into the temptations tugging at an Almighty. Kal-El is no goody-two-shoes and is occasionally prone to fits of arrogance, but never at the expense of those he’s pledged to protect. It’s the world that’s imperfect, not its extraterrestrial savior. The Last Temptation of Superman isn’t the movie audiences get, but it’s the one they need.