Disappointing Man of Steel brings a heavy hand to the Superman legend

by Mark Burger

The latest big-screen incarnation of the DC Comics superhero Superman, Man of Steel (**), is a misguided effort to be both revisionist yet reverent to the character’s roots. Man of Steel isn’t wanting for spectacle, scope or special effects, but it lacks a sense of wonderment and genuine fun. The affection’s missing, perhaps trampled by the surrounding bombast, of which there is plenty.

It’s impossible not to compare the new film to the 1978 original directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve. True, that was 35 years ago, but the late Reeve undoubtedly made the most indelible imprint playing the Man of Steel and his alter-ego, Clark Kent. Director Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) was not without its flaws, but was a noble attempt to recapture the magic… and it felt like a Superman movie.

This one doesn’t right from the outset, even as it recounts the circumstances which sent Krypton’s favorite son to Earth and the subsequent destruction of Krypton — which are right out of the comic book. Here, however, the Superman origins appear as much steeped in inspiration from. Tolkien, Lucas and the Matrix films. It’s bigger, louder and more elaborately designed, but it’s not necessarily better.

The screenplay, by David S. Goyer from a story by Goyer and executive producer Christopher Nolan, undermines its own momentum by shifting back and forth in time. Henry Cavill plays Superman, wrestling with his obligatory identity crisis, while Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner clock in as his screen fathers, Kryptonian scientist Jor-El and mid-Western farmer Jonathan Kent, respectively. The Christ motif, long a controversial component of the Superman legend, comes off badly here, in unsubtle terms.

Director Zack Snyder further compromises the momentum by shifting back and forth in time, from the present to Superman’s childhood on Earth as Clark Kent. Henry Cavill looks the part as Superman, but it’s impossible to say how successful he is as Clark Kent, since he spends almost no time on screen in that guise interacting with other characters. Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry play Clark as a youngster, attempting to fill in the dramatic gaps.

Superman’s wrestling with his dual identity lends itself less readily to serious psychological exploration than other superheroes. The Donner film treated it with humor but without condescension, allowing Christopher Reeve to display both facets of the character and multiple facets of the actor. This darker approach also worked in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the Iron Man movies, but Superman was the first superhero. He’s supposed to be true-blue, all-American goodness.

In addition, Superman’s romance with Lois Lane is handled more as a perfunctory obligation than a natural progression. Amy Adams is customarily plucky as the tenacious newshound, although Laurence Fishburne offers a subdued reading of Daily Planet editor Perry White. Costner and Crowe (who materializes from time to time) treat their roles as Superman’s fathers with appropriate earnestness, and Diane Lane tries to add a little warmth as Ma Kent.

There is some enjoyment to be had in Michael Shannon’s snarling, energetic portrayal of the Kryptonian criminal General Zod, whose attack on Earth goads Superman into action, there’s the underlying feeling that Shannon and the other actors could be doing something more worthwhile. They do more for Man of Steel than the film does for them — but it’s not enough.