Caped, Muscular Alien: "Man of Steel" has soaring moments but could've lightened up a bit

Man of Steel (2013)
143 min., rated PG-13. 

Nothing exists in a vacuum, but superhero movies are always getting in-name-only prequels and reboots with a different, angsty angle on the same origin story. The entries in the "Superman" series seem to work for their own times and nostalgia purposes 1978's dated, if not superior, "Superman" and 1980's "Superman II" had a gee-whiz charm and puckish jokiness about them. We'll pretend 1983's campy "Superman III" and 1987's rock-stupid "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" never happened, though. Yes, even 2006's sincere, solidly entertaining (and sorely underrated) "Superman Returns" was indeed a welcome return for the Man of Steel but never kicked off a franchise with Brandon Routh. Ever since cutting-edge filmmaker Christopher Nolan radically reinvented the Batman mythos with serious-faced portent and darker meat, that seems to be the same template for "Man of Steel," a technically well-made but overly dreary adaptation of the DC Comics property and icon. From a story by co-producer Nolan & David S. Goyer, Goyer's script takes a more humorless, "realistic" approach about a tortured soul before he dons the red-and-blue cape, but with a cold, grey color palette, everything risks being leaden and self-serious. It doesn't really feel like a "Superman" movie, which is both good and bad, as it's trying something different but is too often steely to be fun. Suffice it to say, no one cutely says, "It's a bird…It's a plane!" Directed by Zack Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead," "300," "Watchmen," and "Sucker Punch"), "Man of Steel" is thoughtful for a while, until the joy fizzles out. 

The core of planet Krypton is collapsing, putting the Kryptonians in danger of extinction. Faced with a takeover by General Zod (Michael Shannon), scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), launch a spacecraft with newborn son Kal-El in tow (along with a genetic codex) to Earth to preserve their race. Crash-landing in Smallville, Kansas, the boy is adopted by the Kents, farming couple Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane), and named Clark. Growing up, he learns how very different he is from other kids. Though they encouraged him to hide his abilities, Clark was put on Earth to achieve his destiny and bring hope as a godlike figure. Now an adult, Clark (Henry Cavill) drifts from job to job, working on a fishing boat and at a bar, while secretly saving lives. When finding his Kryptonian ship under the Antarctic ice, he meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the Daily Planet, who rather quickly learns about Clark's otherworldly birth and powers while getting the scoop. Wait until Zod finds him. Can Clark save Metropolis and the whole world?

Instead of just rehashing the origin story beat by beat, "Man of Steel" makes a smart tweak in covering the sections in Krypton and Smallville within a non-linear structure. Also, the film begins before Clark becomes a dorky, bespectacled reporter, so we get to focus more on the character as Kal-El, who struggles with his immortal powers and mortal feelings. While screenwriter Goyer touches on some emotional complexity in what might be Snyder's meatiest piece of work, the storytelling initially feels choppy and then the last half grows exhaustingly repetitive. The wall-to-wall explosions and wanton, video game-like destruction become nearly identical scene by scene, suffering from an overall too-muchness. The CGI-assisted effects still allow you to believe a man can fly (here, he blasts off like a rocket), but the best special effect might be the square-jawed Cavill — and his pecs and abs of steel.

Right now, the strapping, handsome Cavill is suitably stoic and looks the part, along with having some inner rage and conflict. One might miss Christopher Reeve's charisma, which made it easier to identify with the mortal Clark/Superman, but hopefully by "Man of Steel IV," Cavill can grow into the role and apply more range. The casting of Adams to play Lois Lane wouldn't seem to fit, but she does her due diligence with what she's given, updating the role with pluck and more intelligence, unlike Margot Kidder's starry-eyed version and Kate Bosworth's vanilla portrayal. For instance, to Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni), she starts a sentence with, "If we're done measuring dicks…," and she's not the kind of gal who would be duped by Clark wearing glasses. It's no fault of Cavill and Adams' efforts, but their burgeoning relationship isn't too involving to exist as the heart of this All-American superhero's story. As the Kents, Costner and Lane land the most moving moments (even with the former's limited screen time), lending warmth and gravitas. Finally, without turning the villain into a bumbling buffoon, Shannon puts on his crazy eyes and chews the scenery to pieces, but no, his version of General Zod doesn't make anyone kneel. 

Slow to get going, "Man of Steel" spends too much uninteresting time on Krypton and too little in Smallville. Helped by Amir Mokri's weighty, evocative cinematography, the Smallville flashbacks have some quiet, poetic moments of introspection and an urgently staged sequence where a teenage Clark rescues a school bus out of a river. A tornado sequence is also quite stirring. When it comes time for the mind-numbing action, captured by Snyder's panning, zoom-happy camera, nearly every high-rise building in Metropolis gets demolished that it forms a disconnect from the viewer. Overall, the results are just fine, more underwhelming than spectacular, sometimes lacking the forward momentum it needs. It could lead to a super franchise, but aside from a few smiles and flashes of humor, "Man of Steel" never surrenders the long face.

Grade: C +