BY VAN ROBERTS
“Man of Steel” (**** OUT OF ****) ranks as the best Superman movie about the Last Son of Krypton. After the lackluster box office response to the flawed but entertaining “Superman Returns” back in 2006, Warner Brothers and D.C. Comics must have retreated into their own collective Fortress of Solitude to contemplate the future of the Man of Tomorrow. Clearly, since he received story credit, writer & producer Christopher Nolan played a part in shaping this Superman reboot. As the genius behind the hugely profitable Christian Bale “Dark Knight” trilogy, Nolan qualified as the ideal choice to guide the thinking behind the reboot. If you’ve seen Nolan’s “Batman” movies, you’ll spot his influence on “Man of Steel.” First, like Nolan’s “Batman” epics, “Man of Steel” deplores comic relief and holds humor to a minimum. Comparatively, “Man of Steel” is nothing like the glib “Iron Man 3.” Second, Clark Kent ventures out into the world incognito like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne did in “Batman Begins.” Clark holds down several jobs before he dons his distinctive apparel and then plays everything straight. “Smallville” fans will appreciate this rite of passage, especially the scene at the truck stop. “Watchman” director Zack Snyder and “Blade” scenarist David S. Goyer rely on Nolan-like flashbacks to break up the monotony of the action. Clocking in at 143 minutes, “Man of Steel” maintains a sense of spontaneity that enlivens its formulaic plot. Third, this Superman movie boasts no more connection with the previous Superman outings than Nolan’s “Batman” movies had with the earlier “Batman” franchise. Fourth, just as Nolan changed the way that the Caped Crusader appeared, Superman doesn’t dress up like he does in the comics. For example, Superman doesn’t wear drawers outside his outfit, and he cavorts around in the equivalent of dye- blue thermal underwear. Nevertheless, Superman hangs onto his cape. These alterations make “Man of Steel” a better movie than if would have been had Warner Brothers adhered to the “Superman Returns” chronology.
Genre movies, such as westerns, crime thrillers, and horror chillers, rely on surefire narrative formulas, and “Superman” movies are no different. Not only do good genre movies strive to top each other, but they also modify themselves so they can maintain their universal appeal. Superman appeared first in 1938 in Action Comics. Since his debut, the Man of Tomorrow has evolved. Other media outlets have adapted him and conjured up new ideas about the character. For example, the radio show introduced kryptonite in 1943 as the substance that imperiled Superman. “Man of Steel” adopts a traditional but at the same time a revisionist approach to its subject matter. Like “Superman” (1978), “Man of Steel” opens with Superman’s origins as the son of Jor-El on the dying planet of Krypton. Unlike “Superman” (1978), “Man of Steel” expands considerably the Krypton sequence. Snyder and Goyer establish the enmity between Jor-El and the treacherous Krypton military commander General Zod (Michael Shannon of “Mud”) who hates him with a passion. Oscar-winning Russell Crowe of “Gladiator” portrays Superman’s father Jor-El in a performance of commendable restraint. He engages Zod in armed combat from the back of an exotic animal. Cleverly, the filmmakers have devised an imaginative way to retain Jor-El’s presence beyond the opening battle on Krypton. The Krypton battle scenes amount to a mini-epic with homages to both “Star Wars” and “John Carter.” “Man of Steel” provides three times more spectacle here before it plunges our hero into his “Smallville” years. Clark struggles with great difficulty to conceal his identity while his proud foster parents Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner of “Wyatt Earp”) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane of “Hollywoodland”) stand by him. The scene where he prevents a school bus from sinking into a river after it topples from a bridge is memorable. Jonathan Kent’s death—he doesn’t succumb to a heart attack as he did in “Superman” (1948), the “Superman on Earth” episode from the 1952 “Superman” television series, or “Superman” (1978)—differs, but Snyder and Goyer make it a poignant statement about him.
Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams of “Enchanted”) becomes interested in the exploits of a nomadic troubleshooter after he saves her life. He comes to her rescue while she is in the Arctic investigating an enigmatic spaceship in the ice. Eventually, Lois tracks him down to Smallville and begs him to let her write about him. Clark wants nobody to know about him. Lois’ editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne of “The Matrix”) refuses to print her story about a stranger from another world. Ironically, while no human can convince Clark Kent to divulge his secret identify as Superman, General Zod forces him to come out into the open. Compliantly, Superman surrenders himself to the authorities of Earth and allows them to clap hand-cuffs on him!
“Man of Steel” synthesizes the first two Christopher Reeve movies by imprisoning the dastardly General Zod in a Phantom Zone and then allowing him to escape. Zod and his minions show up out of the blue and insist Earth give up Kal-El. At this point, we Earthlings don’t know who to trust. When it comes down to a clash, Zod and Kal-El both constitute targets of opportunity for our military. The Army fires millions of rounds in Zod’s minions without seriously inconveniencing them. British actor Henry Cavill is the sixth to play an adult Superman. You may have seen him in “Immortals,” “Tristan + Isolde,” and “Cold Light of Day.” Ironically, he auditioned for the Clark Kent role in “Superman Returns.” Cavill looks every inch like Superman, with his muscular physique ripped and chiseled like Michelangelo’s David. Happily, he doesn’t impersonate Christopher Reeve like Brandon Routh. The closest Superman actor that Cavill comes to imitating is George Reeves from the 1952 television series. Cavill has his head screwed on properly, and his Superman is no coy poster boy. Of course, if you’re yearning for something more like “Superman” (1978) or “Superman Returns” (2006), you’re going to hate the “Man of Steel.”