Somber Superman

Zack Snyder delivers, even if ''Man of Steel'' is moodier than most

Zack Snyder, visionary director. The title gets plastered across ads for every movie he makes, but lately, it’s more the butt of a joke than a compliment. After a run of recent failures — Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole — Snyder seemed doomed to be remembered as an utterly flawed, utterly ambitious filmmaker.

Perhaps by accident, though, “visionary” captures precisely why his movies are so frustrating. He concocts unrealistic narratives. He’s married to spectacular effects. He can’t fight the urge to turn everything into an epic. He’s one of the most talented visual storytellers working today, but his eyes are bigger than his camera. Until now.

Man of Steel: Henry Cavill

Man of Steel: Henry Cavill

I’m not sure if Man of Steel marks Snyder’s long-awaited maturity more than it suggests the unyielding strength of Christopher Nolan’s concept, but either way it does not disappoint. This is not the best Superman movie — that honor belongs to Richard Donner’s inimitable Superman: The Movie — nor, obviously, is it the worst one. (Ahem, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.) Instead, it stands out for its thoughtfulness. This is a meditation about identity and self-determination as much as it’s a superhero blockbuster. The spectacle will knock your eyeballs into the back of your head, but the moments in between the violence are ultimately what will stick with you. It’s Superman through and through, even if it’s more melancholy than we’re used to seeing.

The best moments in Man of Steel share a common element. It’s neither strength, nor speed, nor heat vision — it’s how Superman is framed by the ordinary people who surround him. When a young Clark Kent saves a busload of students in Smallville, I gawked in awe along with his classmates on screen. Superman is incredible. He has to be. Snyder approaches his story with all the reverence a legend deserves.

David Goyer’s script, while clunky at times, plays a neat trick with the superhero origin. Man of Steel opens on the alien planet Krypton with an overstuffed explanation about why Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sent his newborn son to Earth. From there, it leaps ahead three decades to find Clark, née Kal-El (Henry Cavill, seemingly sculpted out of granite and chest hair), keeping his head down as he searches for answers about his past. He eventually finds them in a long-forgotten Kryptonian spaceship buried under thousands of years of Arctic ice — which inadvertently attracts his father’s old nemesis, General Zod (a cooled-down Michael Shannon). Zod, ever the militaristic autocrat, plans to wipe away humanity and rebuild Krypton on Earth.

Pretty basic, no? Things get inventive as Goyer sprinkles flashbacks into the story, jumping between Clark’s internal childhood struggles and his present-day fight with Zod. We’re privy to his life’s most pivotal moments — when his powers first develop, when he learns he’s an alien, when his adoptive father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) dies — and in doing so, we’re reminded how he is a son of two worlds. He is Clark and he is Kal-El, but he is not yet Superman. Man of Steel is about reconciling those two identities.

MAN OF STEEL
starstarstarstar
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe
Rated PG-13
143 minutes
Opens Friday
Area theaters

Cavill plays conflicted introspection well. He looks every bit a superhero, too, as long as you don’t expect a hero to be a warm guy. Cavill is far from Christopher Reeve’s cheerful Superman, and perhaps a more appropriate fit for our times. He is not an anti-hero — Superman will never, ever be that — but he reflects our culture as much as he protects its fictional doppelganger. And so, while he’s not acting out of character, he’s different. He’s gloomier.

Man of Steel aches for more depth and charm, as Snyder’s work typically does, and I suspect that’s a consequence of its somber tone. This movie, to its credit, is nowhere near as oppressive as Nolan’s celebrated Batman series — misery is a far more delicate process here. So, why does it abandon the implications of that tone when Clark finally suits up to fight Zod? In its battle scenes, Man of Steel succumbs to an apathy for innocent lives that’s seemingly endemic in Hollywood today. We see no sympathy for the tens of thousands of people killed in the wake of this Kryptonian clash, all while being expected to believe that Superman is a hero. Snyder is too preoccupied with the spectacle he’s created to consider the scale of death involved. Jor-El tells his son, “You can save them all,” and yet I saw a massacre.

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