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 snazzy update with some of the finest special effects this side of “Avatar.” A single virtual camera pan across Krypton’s golden vistas reveals an intricately defined fantasy land filled with 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 making a blockbuster Superman movie, Snyder has turned the Superman narrative into yet another modern day blockbuster.
Impressive in parts, scattered and blandly familiar in others, “Man of Steel” attempts to rejuvenate its hero with a whole lot of big ideas stuffed into a dense assemblage that alternates between visual wizardry and complicated non-linear plot ingredients, some better than others. 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 entries in the franchise enlivened the character with genre elements like comedy and romance that — as with Joss Whedon’s delightful “The Avengers” last year — balanced off the demand for extreme 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 inviting persona has even been drained from the title. Here, the dreary atmosphere underscores unremitting commitment to a brooding storyline that creates the illusion of meaning behind the abundant CGI. Unlike its predecessors, it would be impossible to imagine “Man of Steel” without the excessive production values, which start to take hold after the unquestionably compelling first hour and eventually 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 subdued performance in the lead role is the sole 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 screenplay establishes a high stakes showdown between Superman and the menacing General Zod (Michael Shannon on autopilot, his creepiness downgraded to a half-interested scowl), another surviving Kryptonian whose emergence from prison following the planet’s destruction leads him to try and destroy Earth in the hopes of making room for a new Krypton.
In the early scenes, Zod is revealed 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 shows up, he’s just a bad guy that Superman must stop against impossible odds.
That’s a reasonable conundrum for this type of overly familiar fare, but the movie arrives there after establishing an especially intricate scenario in which the naturally intrepid reporter Lois Lane (a decently assertive Amy Adams) discovers Superman’s secret and decides to sit on the story while he figures 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. The 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 come back down to Earth, perhaps warmer memories of the Supermen no longer considered viable will come rushing back. In “Man of Steel,” Superman never suffers from exposure to fragments of Kryptonite. His single weakness — and the movie’s, after promising earlier bits drop off to make room for the extravagant conclusion — is depth.
Criticwire grade: C+