When 1978’s Superman shows us the main character’s home world of Krypton, it looks like a giant igloo built out of frozen Lincoln logs: white, cold, and sterile. The version of this same planet in Zack Synder’s Man of Steel is fiery, rugged, and filled with Baroque structures as well as giant flying creatures that look like a cross between dragons and insects. The people who ride these creatures are nearly supermen already, riding on the giant insects and jumping great distances. We’re prepared to believe that one of these people could come to Earth and become a superhero.
But once we get to Earth, some of the fun is gone. The earlier Superman films, starring Christopher Reeve, giddily paroded the comic-book genre from the moment that Clark Kent grew up and put on red-and-blue tights. Both Superman and Superman II were hilarious films, as well as good-natured, fast-paced adventure.
Man of Steel is Superman given the Christopher Nolan treatment. Nolan, co-writer and executive producer, presents a storyline reminiscent of his Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. It’s a story for adults. I’m not sure Superman needed this treatment as much as Batman did. There’s something silly about a man who puts on a suit and a mask, fires up the Batmobile, and thinks this is all it takes to become a super vigilante crime fighter. Nolan took this preposterous idea and made it plausible; that's what made Batman Begins and the subsequent films so good. But with Superman, once you accept he’s an alien who looks like us but is thousands or even millions of times stronger, it follows it would be easy for him to round up bad guys. Not as much to explain there.
Except that there is one thing to explain, something that in all the years of following this most iconic of characters I never really thought about: Superman is a resident alien in every sense of the term. There’s a nice closing of the circle: Superman, developed by two Jewish boys from Ohio, Shuster and Siegel, originally worked on behalf of “the American Way,” beating up Nazis and aiding Allied troops in World War II. But now Superman is the ultimate mensch, a man suspicious that despite America’s high-sounding words welcoming those who are different, he might not be wanted. Superman, in a way, is Jewish. (For that matter, so was Jesus, which ties into the whole god-man-who-comes-to-Earth theme.)
As JFK pointed out, except for Native Americans we are “a nation of Immigrants.” In Man of Steel, Superman is the ultimate immigrant. He’s gifted with powers that enable him to save people, but he’s afraid that if he uses them, he’ll be found out to be an outsider, a freak, a figure to be feared.
That is, until a Really Bad Dude appears from Supe’s home planet and threatens to wipe out all life on Earth. Now Supe has no choice but to put on the cape and do some serious butt-kicking, causing sonic booms as he breaks the sound barrier, demolishing spacecraft, and throwing villains through buildings. And that’s just for starters. In this take on Superman, there's serious collateral damage.
Henry Cavill, who played King Henry’s best friend in The Tudors, is no Christopher Reeve, but then, no one else is, either. Gone is the campy fun of watching Reeve’s wimpy Clark Kent turn into confident, unstoppable Superman—Reeve’s trademark approach to the role. But Cavill is easily the best Superman since Reeve, similar in how he brings a physical grace and confidence (both actors, reportedly, had to spend months in the gym bulking up). Still, written on his face are doubts he’ll ever be accepted.
And he’s right: If you think about it, Americans in particular would be suspicious of a cosmic meddler, invulnerable and therefore outside the law, bringing his own sense of right and wrong. Far from being a pusher of the American Way, this is a Superman willing to demolish spy satellites and say to the U.S. military: Now, what are you going to do about it?
The supporting cast is excellent. Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane ever. Her cheerful-but-intelligent spunk makes her perfect, and it helps that this Lois is written as neither bossy nor (as is usually the case) a professional victim, always in need of rescuing. Bringing deep empathy are Russell Crowe, Dianne Lane, and Kevin Costner, who play Supe’s real father, and Ma and Pa Kent, respectively. Costner’s Jonathan Kent, in particular, admonishes his adopted son never to reveal his powers to other Earth people, for fear that will make him a freak. It’s a rule that must be broken, of course, when General Zod, a baddie from Supe’s home world, shows up.
But as good as Michael Shannon is as Zod, one still misses Terence Stamp’s mustache-twiddling turn as Zod in the 1980s. Stamp created one of the greatest—or at least most fun—villains in screen history. Shannon's Zod is more serious and believable: he’s a soldier who will do anything to protect his people, and everything he does has a cold, compelling logic. But where's the fun?
Still, Nolan’s take on the Superman story is an intriguing one, and under Zack Synder’s direction, it's visually exciting. It suffers mainly from going on too long, knocking over too many buildings, and withholding any laughs until the last few scenes — at which point it is genuinely funny. Before then it gets deadly serious: in chilling re-enactments of 911, most of midtown Manhattan is destroyed by the end of the film. For ten years after September 11, 2001, this probably would've been too difficult to see. This film takes us deep into Christopher Nolan Territory, in which one must follow a complicated plot that plumbs the human psyche. It’s still fun, but it’s not your father’s—or grandfather’s—Superman.