WASHINGTON – Faster than a speeding bullet. Able to leap buildings in a single bound. And now, changing costumes in an age without phone booths.
Whether you grew up with Jim Croce – “Don’t tug on Superman’s cape” – or Three Doors Down – “If I go crazy then will you still call me Superman?” – The Man of Steel is a giant piece of our collective pop culture.
For this reason, “Man of Steel” has become one of the most anticipated releases of the summer. Adding to the hype is the addition of “Dark Knight” writer/director Christopher Nolan, who produces and gets a story credit, and “Dark Knight” co- writer David S. Goyer, who pens the script.
Still, film remains a director’s medium, and “Man of Steel” rises and falls with director Zack Snyder (“300,” “The Watchmen”). He was tapped to reboot the franchise after the lackluster “Superman Returns” (2006), directed by Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects,” “X-Men”).
“That movie made $400 million! I don’t know what constitutes under-performing these days,” Singer said to Empire magazine after his 2009 sequel was scrapped.
Warner Bros. President Jeff Robinov shared his reasons with The Wall Street Journal, saying, “‘Superman’ didn’t quite work as a film in the way that we wanted it to. It didn’t position the character the way he needed to be positioned.”
Time for a do-over as we return to an origins story in “Man of Steel.”
We open on the planet Krypton, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) saves his son Kal-El from the destruction of General Zod (Michael Shannon). Kal is blasted into space with a device known as the Codex, which contains the DNA of all Kryptonians, and crash lands on Planet Earth.
He’s raised in Kansas as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), named after foster parents Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). They help him cope with his superhuman powers in a human world. But Clark’s secret abilities can’t remain secret forever, thanks to the investigative reporting of Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and the looming alien invasion of Zod, who wants to wipe out all mankind and transform Earth into a new and improved Krypton.
While Christopher Reeve will always be the most iconic Superman, Henry Cavill (TV’s “The Tudors”) does an admirable job filling his red boots, despite the irony that he’s a British actor fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.”
Cavill carries the action with a certain charm, and his sculpted physique will no doubt appeal to the ladies. “I think he’s kind of hot,” a female soldier says. Poor Brandon Routh (“Superman Returns”). He won’t get to enjoy the spoils of this superhero franchise.
The supporting cast is filled with Oscar-caliber talent. Kevin Costner (“Dances with Wolves”) echoes his “Field of Dreams” role as a midwest farmer on the brink of the supernatural. Diane Lane (“Unfaithful”) does her best Mrs. Gump, welcoming her talented boy home with a hug and the best line of the movie: “Nice suit, son.”
Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”) has the chops to play a villain other than Lex Luthor. Laurence Fishburne (“Boyz n the Hood”) is a fine Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet. And Amy Adams (“The Master”) is a smarter, tougher Lois than the gullible Margot Kidder, and just as beautiful.
Unfortunately, Adams is given much less to work with than Kidder. The script does very little to develop her romantic relationship with Clark, opting to save his “secret newsroom identity” until future sequels. This is a shame, as the Lois & Clark love story is the most important part of Superman’s assimilation.
Just as Lewis and Clark were meant to explore, Lois and Clark are meant to be explored. Their romantic rooftop scene was the highlight of Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” (1978), as Lois pumps information out of Superman in an interview, while Superman uses his X-ray vision for sexual innuendo before sweeping her off her feet (literally) for a romantic embrace among the stars.
We get none of this in “Man of Steel,” which builds to a climatic kiss it hasn’t earned.
Director Snyder and screenwriter Goyer are preoccupied exploring Clark’s daddy issues. Who’s Clark’s real father? The heavenly one who created him (Russell Crowe)? Or the mortal one who raised him (Kevin Costner)? It’s a fascinating question that invites an obvious Christ allegory.
Superman, the son of an other-worldly father, lands in a rural area, stores his vessel in a stable, is raised part-human by human parents and wows people with his miracles. The Kents are Joseph and Mary, Jor-El is God, Zod is King Herod, Lois Lane is Mary Magdalene and the Codex is the Holy Grail.
Like Stuart Rosenberg did with Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), Snyder deliberately explores this Biblical allegory, showing Clark in a church with a stained-glass Jesus in the background (what academics would call “mise-en-scene”) and having Superman extend his arms like a crucifix in space before diving back toward earth.
Snyder deserves directing credit for this, along with the suspense of Zod’s farmhouse warning (a la “Close Encounters”) and the flashbacks of Clark’s childhood, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of his heightened senses (a la “The Sixth Sense”).
Snyder also creates some thrilling action sequences. The arctic scene where Superman learns to fly – fists thrust forward in dazzling special effects over Hans Zimmer music – is one of those magical popcorn movie moments.
The battle between Zod’s alien forces and the U.S. military features some effective shots, like an alien flying directly toward the windshield of a fighter jet, only for Superman to swoop in at the last second.
Most of all, Snyder gives us a series of football-style form tackles that cover five football fields, crashing through every building in their wake. This is the adult version of what we did as kids, slamming one action figure into another, then running across the entire room to crash them into a pile of Lincoln Logs and send our Erector Sets flying.
The over-the-top action is fine. It’s a superhero movie! Even Christopher Reeve reversed the spinning of the earth to go back in time. The extravagance of the action isn’t the problem in “Man of Steel,” it’s that there is simply too much of it.
Take the opening, for example. The first two crucial story beats are the opening destruction of Krypton and Clark’s first childhood display of his super powers. These are crucial to his character, and thus make fine action sequences. Yet, for some reason, Snyder and Goyer try to jam another action scene in between — that of an adult Clark saving a group of deep-sea fisherman from an explosion at sea.
This unnecessary scene takes us out of the story. After the big Krypton opening, we as an audience need a breather, like Clark growing up in Smallville. Then, we can move to him lifting his school bus out of the water. Great movies offer peaks and valleys. This one jumps from peak-to-peak.
No doubt, the insertion of countless action is a response to criticism of “not enough action” in “Superman Returns,” but “Man of Steel” overcompensates. The movie clocks in at two and a half hours, most of which is non-stop action, and the result is exhausting, especially in a hot movie theater.
Snyder could have trimmed the final 45 minutes, losing some of the “Independence Day” ripoffs and overt product placement for Nokia, IHOP, Sears and 7/11. He also should have cut some of the CGI battles and inserted more scenes between Lois and Clark. The simmering sexual tension would burn hotter than any flaming building in all of Metropolis.
Snyder tries to toe the line between shiny Marvel action (“The Avengers”) and DC darkness (“The Dark Knight”) and winds up creating something less than both. In the 2013 Battle of Iron vs. Steel, “Man of Steel” loses to “Iron Man 3,” but it’s a fitting release for Father’s Day weekend. As Mario Puzo wrote for Brando’s Jor-El in 1978: “The son becomes the father, and the father the son.”
Is it worth plopping down $19 for 3D IMAX? In terms of quality, I’d say no, but it’s the type of movie that’s meant to be seen on the big screen, so pick your poison and choose your Kryptonite carefully.
★ ★ 1/2
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @AboveTheJFray, read his blog at The Film Spectrum or listen every Friday morning on WTOP Radio 103.5 FM.