“A Super-Serious Take on the Man of Steel”

“Man of Steel”
Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Directed by Zack Snyder

After giving Batman a much-needed makeover for the big screen that also returned the character to the darker tone of his comic book origins, it seemed only natural – or more likely, inevitable – that Warner Bros. Studios would turn to Christopher Nolan to polish the crown jewel of the DC Comics universe, who just so happens to be the most famous superhero of them all: Superman. But despite being released just in time for the Last Son of Krypton’s diamond 75th anniversary, “Man of Steel” proves that what may have given strength to one film series may have the effect of Kryptonite on another.

Not that Nolan serves in the same capacity here that he did on the “Dark Knight” trilogy (where he directed all three movies); he only co-produced “Man of Steel” and co-wrote the story with David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins,” “Blade”). Taking over the directing chores is Zack Snyder, whose success with the genre ranges from the awesome “300” (2007) to the underrated “Watchmen” (2009) to the abysmal “Sucker Punch” (2011). But it still feels more like a Nolan film than a Snyder one, thanks to a super-serious tone that turns out to be far too serious for its own good.

Therein lies the paradox between Batman and Superman. Batman is not a superhero with special powers. He’s a vigilante with deep psychological issues, so Nolan’s more realistic approach to the character served him well. By contrast, Superman is an alien who can fly, shoot heat beams from his eyes and is practically indestructible. So where the somber tone was a good fit for “The Dark Knight,” it robs “Man of Steel” from being the rousing, awe-inspiring and exciting good time that it should be.

After 75 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t even slightly familiar with the origin of Superman, who was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back in 1938 for the first issue of “Action Comics.” With his home planet of Krypton facing imminent destruction, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his newborn son Kal-El across the heavens to Earth, where he will gain incredible powers. But while he is being raised by his adopted Midwestern parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), Clark (Henry Cavill), as he is renamed, struggles with the burden of his purpose while facing off with another survivor from his old ‘hood, General Zod (Michael Shannon).

If Nolan’s presence invites comparisons between “Man of Steel” and “The Dark Knight,” then the character invites comparisons to the one that started it all: 1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” directed by Richard Donner. Here was a film that had it all, which is why it still stands as the gold standard for movies based on comic book characters. It was fun, exciting and magical. It had heart, humor and romance. It had an awesome villain (Lex Luthor, played with scene-chewing vitality by Gene Hackman). It had not one, but two fully dynamic performances by Christopher Reeve (as the heroic Superman and as his sweet, bumbling alter-ego Clark Kent). And lastly, who can forget that incredible score composed by John Williams?

Taken purely on its own terms, “Man of Steel” is fine. But for a movie about a man who can fly, anything less than superb qualifies as a disappointment. The cinematography is too dark, the tone is too heavy-handed, and Hans Zimmer’s score is too similar to “The Dark Knight” while lacking a standout “theme” for Superman. In addition, after 2006’s “Superman Returns” was widely criticized for not having enough action, “Man of Steel” overcompensates with CGI-heavy action scenes that go on too long, become redundant and look too much like those depicted in “Thor,” “The Matrix” and “The Avengers.”

And then there’s Henry Cavill, an actor who certainly looks the part while dressed up in his snazzy red-and-blue tights, but he plays Clark Kent in the same brooding manner in which he plays Superman. Michael Shannon fares better as the villainous General Zod, but even he pales in comparison to Terence Stamp’s unforgettable performance as Zod in 1981’s “Superman II.” Amy Adams feels somewhat miscast as Lois Lane and doesn’t have enough chemistry with Cavill, but leave it to Russell Crowe to steal the movie with his fully dynamic and passionate performance as Jor-El.

The filmmakers may have gone out of their way to distance themselves from “Superman Returns,” a love letter to the earlier Reeve movies that wore its heart a little too much on its sleeve. But by doing so, they’ve taken all the fun out of it. Where the tagline for the first “Superman” movie was “you’ll believe a man can fly,” the tagline for “Man of Steel” should be “you’ll believe a man can mope.” It’s just too heavy, and for a character that can leap tall buildings in a single bound, “Man of Steel” doesn’t leap far enough, proving that what worked for one film series doesn’t always work for another.

-Scott Mantz