Man of Steel packs quite a wallop. A few too many wallops, as it turns out.
But that doesn’t seriously sully this latest Superman movie, which is delivered with a less-cartoony tone than one might expect from director Zack Snyder. This is a familiar tale told well, with effective time shifts, enough angst to feel modern and plenty of eye candy (but not so much as to be blinding).
It is essentially a retelling of the 1978 Superman movie, the origins story that comic fans learn early on. But unlike the recent The Amazing Spider-man, which retold Spidey’s rise only a decade after it was first spun, it’s been 35 years since Superman’s beginnings have played out on screen.
Needless to say, this doesn’t feel rushed. Especially since special effects and computer animation have grown so outlandishly in those years. Marlon Brando, as Supe’s father, Jor-El, didn’t get to zoom about Krypton on a giant dragon in 1978; in 2013 Russell Crowe, as Jor-El, does.
For those who don’t know the story, Superman is born Kal-El, on the planet Krypton, just before it is due to self-destruct. That self-destruction is given an environmentalist tilt here, but as always Jor-El has arranged for his son to fly to far-off earth in a small space ship, knowing the boy will have superpowers there due to differing suns (or something).
Imprisoned in a black hole of sorts for all-around nastiness just before Krypton blows up is General Zod (Michael Shannon, every bit as good as he should be) and his minions. Why they aren’t forced to stick-around for the blow-up party is anybody’s guess.
Kal-El does indeed land on earth, where he’s found and raised by the goodhearted Kents (Diane Lane, Kevin Costner) and given the name Clark.
Clark/Superman (played by the amiable and chiselled Henry Cavill) is raised carefully and lovingly, his secret powers kept appropriately secret except, whoops, when they slip out on occasion.
He’s sort of the ultimate loner, America’s most hidden immigrant, and so he goes wandering about for a while, even growing a super-beard.
But of course Zod and friends somehow break out of their prison and come a’hunting for Kal-El. So Clark Kent is forced to face his density, sorry, destiny, and protect humankind.
Certain elements are missing here. Jimmy Olsen is nowhere to be found (thankfully) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), editor of the Daily Planet, is mostly just an unneeded distraction. Lois Lane (Amy Adams), however, discovers Clark’s secret early and is in on most of the action.
Man of Steel has some super-brooding, but nothing approaching the laid-on anguish of the recent Batman movies; Superman has concerns but he’s basically an upbeat guy.
And the movie’s super-stunts, of which there are many, have something of a real-world grittiness to their unworldliness. The film does not seem to have been painted.
But Snyder does go overboard at the end, as Supe and Zod do seemingly endless battle, punching one another through buildings and such. At first it’s thrilling, then it just gets exhausting.
Oh, well — nothing succeeds like excess when it comes to summer movies. What’s surprising about Man of Steel is that it holds that excess in until the end. Up to that point, it’s a modern myth retold in computer-age visual terms. It may not be super, but it’s pretty good.