We can’t love Superman unless there’s something wrong with him.
If he’s psychologically sound and physically unassailable, there’s no tension: He defends the right, subdues the wrong and goes out for milk and cookies. That’s why writers over 75 years have invented red and green kryptonite, why they keep putting his parents or girlfriends (or all of Earth) in jeopardy.
David Goyer, who wrote the script for “Man of Steel” from a story he concocted with Christopher Nolan, found a new way to make us care: The title character is disturbed by everything in his adopted home.
As he grows up, lights and sounds so assault his super-sight and super-hearing that he hides in a dark closet, as an autistic child might. He can never answer a bully with a punch. His Earth dad (Kevin Costner) tells him he’s destined for great things – maybe the salvation of our planet – while urging him never to reveal his abilities until he’s fully grown. (Mr. Kent upbraids the boy for saving a bus full of schoolkids that was sinking in a lake. “Should I have let them die?” asks Clark. “Maybe,” his dad answers.) No wonder the boy grows up to be a near-silent, ever-wandering loner!
When the movie sticks with this storyline, or with the science-fiction elements of his trip to Earth and his purpose here, it’s a compelling new look at one of the most famous origin stories in comics.
Of course, director Zack Snyder can’t watch actors moving their lips for too long, unless they’re grunting after a punch to the face. So he spends about a third of his running time and 95 percent of a huge budget knocking down buildings, blasting planes out of the air, smashing warriors through walls and detonating tanker trucks. Those segments seem endless, but we eventually get back to dialogue.
The menace comes from General Zod of Krypton, a zealot determined to rebuild his destroyed planet. (Michael Shannon shows both of his acting chops, quiet psycho and bellowing psycho.) After 33 years, Zod realizes that Kryptonian elder Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sent Krypton’s DNA codes to Earth with his son, Kal-El, who was adopted by the Kent family in Kansas. Zod comes to Earth to get those codes, then decides our planet would be a good place for his small band of now-invulnerable soldiers to start a new Krypton.
Snyder has been fortunate in both his Superman and his Lois Lane, who still works (hurray!) at her newspaper, the Daily Planet.
Henry Cavill (“The Tudors”) plays the hero as a man of few words and deep passions; he has a sly, seldom-seen sense of humor and an intense stare that has left his brow permanently furrowed. Amy Adams makes a smart, intrepid Lois – you can believe she might have won a Pulitzer – who cares deeply about the man she hardly knows yet. (That’s for the sequels.)
Goyer leans on a storyline from the DC comics, in which Krypton genetically designs children for fates chosen before their births; Kal-El is the first naturally produced kid in centuries, so he has a special appreciation of free will.
Jor-El, who has far more importance in this version, becomes a real dad, not a symbol. Both of the boy’s fathers and his Earth mother (Diane Lane) shape his personality, though the seeds of their teachings take a long time to ripen.
The 3-D effects work well – in fact, they’re so realistic that the endless hurtling debris grows tedious – except in early scenes on Krypton, which smell slightly of the green screen. But what really matters is Superman’s strength of character, not his strength of eye and arm, and that carries the day.
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