There’s nary a mention of kryptonite, the Fortress of Solitude is only an existential locale, and Clark Kent never earns so much as a single Daily Planet byline in “Man of Steel,” director Zack Snyder, writer David S. Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan’s strenuously revisionist Superman origin story, which might more accurately have been titled “Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Spacemen,” given the amount of screen time devoted to exiled Kryptonians body-slamming each other into all manner of natural and manmade structures. Clearly designed to do for DC Comics’ other most venerable property what Nolan and Goyer’s “Batman Begins” did for the Caped Crusader, this heavily hyped, brilliantly marketed tentpole attraction seems destined to soar with worldwide audiences this summer, even if the humorless tone and relentlessly noisy (visually and sonically) aesthetics leave much to be desired — chiefly, a “Steel” sequel directed with less of an iron fist.
Where the red-booted one’s last bigscreen appearance, Bryan Singer’s 2006 “Superman Returns,” was conceived as a mash note to Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 “Superman,” Snyder, Goyer and Nolan (who also shares a story credit) labor to distance “Man of Steel” from those precursors, starting with a Krypton that looks less like an ice castle in the sky than a grayer, grimier version of “Avatar’s” Pandora (by way of “Alien”). There, the noble scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) plots to spirit his newborn son, Kal-El, away from the dying planet — a plan that coincides with a military coup staged by the rogue Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon, sporting a most unflattering bowl cut). That sequence sets the tone for much of what follows in “Man of Steel,” with Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score rattling both speakers and eardrums, the actors dwarfed by layer upon layer of crumbling buildings and warring spacecraft.
After Zod and his accomplices are caught, they’re frozen solid and banished to a black-hole Siberia, just before Krypton itself goes kaboom. “Man of Steel” then breaks from a linear timeline to jump ahead some 33 years, where we find the adult Clark (Henry Cavill) working as a grunt on a commercial fishing trawler, not yet having revealed his superego to the world, but occasionally dabbling in large-scale heroics nonetheless. When a nearby oil rig is engulfed in a fiery blaze, he barges in to rescue the crew, then just as quickly disappears before anyone can ask too many questions. As in “Batman Begins” (which opened with a wayward Bruce Wayne wandering the earth like “Kung Fu’s” Caine), these are supposed to be Clark/Kal’s years in the wilderness, grappling with daddy issues and an amorphous sense of self as he bounces from place to place and one odd job to the next.
Pic also adopts a similar flashback structure in which present events trigger memories of Clark’s past, as the adopted son of Illinois farm folk Jonathan (a touching Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, as a loner/outcast bullied by schoolmates, and as a superhero-to-be coming to terms with his alien heritage and powerful gifts. But even here, Snyder seems averse to staging a single scene in which there isn’t something catastrophic happening, whether it’s a schoolbus accident that plunges Clark and his classmates into a raging ravine, or the entire Kent family finding itself stranded on a highway in the path of an oncoming twister.
Things finally snap into sharper focus for Clark when he follows news reports of a strange “anomalous object” to a NORAD outpost somewhere in the Arctic and, via a little Kryptonian hocus-pocus, communes with the holographic consciousness of his birth father (who narrates a brief animated history of the rise and fall of Krypton, drawn in striking, Soviet propaganda-art style). It’s there, at just around the 50-minute mark, that Clark first dons the trademark “S” suit, and also where he first encounters Lois Lane (Amy Adams), this time a Pulitzer Prize-winning hard-news reporter who uses her journalistic acumen to quickly deduce Supes’ secret identity. But rather than moving logically on to Metropolis, “Man of Steel” somewhat curiously dovetails back to Smallville, where Clark’s reunion with dear old mum is interrupted by the arrival of Zod. Newly freed from his interstellar limbo, he threatens to make haste with all of humanity unless Clark/Kal surrenders both himself and a coveted “Codex” that can be used to rebuild Krypton … on Earth.
So far, so gloomy, with little of the genuine wonderment the very name “Superman” calls to mind. Blessed with the most classically chiseled jawline of any actor who’s yet donned the red cape, Cavill is also the most dour and brooding, lacking even the sardonic self-amusement of Christian Bale in Bruce Wayne mode — and he appears to have been directed to be exactly this way. Like its lead, Snyder’s entire movie seems afraid to crack a smile.
The ambition to make a grittier kind of Superman pic is certainly admirable, but much of what Snyder and Goyer set out to fix wasn’t really broken in the first place. By having Lois discover Clark’s true identity so early on, “Man of Steel” relinquishes the halting romantic chemistry between the two characters that brightened previous versions of the tale. And the narrow focus on Clark, Lois and Zod gives the movie an oddly circumscribed feel. Nowhere to be found is the rich gallery of colorful supporting players that populated the Donner film, Nolan’s “Batman” pics and Snyder’s own “Watchmen” (one of the richest and most satisfying of all comicbook adaptations). Gone, too, are any of those lighter moments, fondly remembered from Supermen past, in which our hero — in or out of disguise — used his powers for decidedly non-super feats and, by doing so, grew closer to his fellow man. One longs to see this Superman change a flat or rescue a kitten from a tree or take Lois for a flight around the block.
Instead, we get two climactic rumbles — one on the streets of Smallville, one (finally) in downtown Metropolis — that test one’s patience for blurs of movement smashing through buildings with little if any respect for the laws of physics. Indeed, if “Man of Steel” doesn’t much look like previous “Superman” movies, it does closely resemble such other recent sci-fi/fantasy pics like “Thor,” “The Avengers” and “Transformers” and their symphonies of disorienting CGI destruction. At points, the action scenes even recall the hallucinogenic dream sequences from Snyder’s own crazily ambitious mental-hospital musical, “Sucker Punch,” except everyone here is supposed to be wide awake.
Pic is undeniably impressive, in the sense that little if any expense has been spared in bringing Snyder’s vision to the screen, though this is a case where less would almost surely have been more. Much of the craft work exudes the same general feeling of overkill, from the frantic handheld shooting and desaturated colors of lenser Amir Mokri to the unceasing Wagnerian bombast of Zimmer’s score.