Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is a movie event with an actual movie inside, crying to get out. Despite its preposterous self-seriousness, its overblown, CGI'ed-to-death climax, and its desperate efforts to depict the destruction of, well, everything on Earth, there's greatness in this retelling of the origin of Superman, moments of intimate grandeur, some marvelous, subtle acting, and a superhero costume that's a feat of mad mod genius. There's almost a story here. And the actors, including the picture's quietly dazzling star, Henry Cavill, do their damnedest to draw it out.
But there's just no stopping what comic-book movies have become, especially those bearing the royal seal of Dark Knight auteur Christopher Nolan. (He's one of Man of Steel's producers and also helped develop the story.) These movies are no longer driven by characters, though they feature some of the best-loved figures in the universe (whether it's Marvel's, or in this case, DC's). They're all about plot mechanics and increasingly elaborate special effects, though they pretend to tangle with the serious, life-and-death issues that end up being these movies' big bugaboo. In Man of Steel, the titan in the red cape, doing everything in his power to save humanity, is almost a distraction from the movie's larger mission to impress us with its vague, lofty ideals and attention to detail.
The press notes, for instance, tell us that a linguist who uses invented languages like Klingon and Na'vi as a teaching tool helped the filmmakers develop 300 distinct Kryptonian words and phrases. So now we learn that that letter “S” fitted neatly into triangular shield, which little kids since the 1930s have recognized as the international symbol of Superman, is really the Kryptonian glyph for “hope.” Who knew? Superhero movies are now so bogged down in detail they barely need superheroes anymore—much less real people.
Yet Cavill and his co-stars Amy Adams, Diane Lane, and Kevin Costner soldier on, turning Man of Steel into something that's almost great, even when it's not very good. The plot goes something like this: Realizing their planet Krypton is dying, and knowing that its bigwig military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon), is up to no good, upstanding citizen Jor-El (a preoccupied-looking Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), blast their diaperless newborn into space. Zod kills Jor-El—though like Hamlet's ghost, he gets several convenient reappearances—and Lara dies shortly thereafter. When next we see orphaned Baby Kal-El, he's a grown-up with a beard, a drifter working on a fishing boat. His name is now Clark, and he has superhuman powers, but he also carries much pain. Still, there is hope, or, as we must now properly call it, “S.”
Clark's adoptive parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent (Lane and Costner) of Smallville, Kansas, have done all they can to prepare their son for the world. But they don't know that Zod, having nursed a beef with Jor-El for several thousand years (or something like that), is headed to Earth to destroy their son. Meanwhile, Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane travels to the Arctic and suffers a stomach wound. Luckily, she also meets a mysterious hunk who can cauterize said wound with his eyes. “This is going to hurt,” he tells her, and he's right—she screams as the shot fades.
A little disturbing and intensely erotic, that petite mort is one of the most striking moments in Man of Steel. For an instant, the movie forgets that it's invented a whole new language and instead uses good, old-fashioned storytelling tools. But mostly, Man of Steel is preoccupied with its own spectacle. There's so much heaviness here that, ironically, nothing seems to have its own weight. And once Shannon's Zod shows up on Earth with his dumb little goatee, you know this super-engineered movie experience is just going to get bigger and emptier.
Does the destruction of New York City, or its stand-in, Metropolis, even require a spoiler alert anymore? If you think it does, stop reading here. If you've seen it all before—and you have—you won't be surprised to learn that huge swathes of the city are destroyed, 9/11-style, at the hands of General Zod and his destructo-spaceship. (It hovers menacingly over the skyline, like a malevolent gray lobster with three pincers.) At the end of the ordeal, three survivors climb from the rubble with dusty faces, essentially saying, “Whew! That was a close call.” But we've already seen sidewalks and streets buckling and caving, skyscrapers folding in upon themselves, hordes of people running for their lives. Thousands of citizens must have died, and yet the manufactured horror we've just witnessed is suddenly rendered weightless. That's because comic-book movies aren't real, silly—except when they're totally serious.
And Man of Steel is plenty serious. The MacGuffin here is a precious thingamabob holding the DNA codes for an entire race. How can anyone watching Man of Steel keep a straight face when a character asks solemnly, “Where is the Codex?” I wanted to yell out, “Aisle 9, right next to the Stay-Free.”
It's a relief just to watch the actors act once in a while, and thankfully, Snyder is astute enough to punch some breathing holes in this steel-clad colossus. Adams is a fine, no-nonsense Lois Lane; she makes nosiness sultry. And Costner and Lane, in their depiction of heartland parents, defy the idea of homespun coziness, taking corn-pone dialogue and turning it golden. Lane has an extraordinary moment when she's called to the school to calm down the preadolescent Clark, who's had a meltdown after realizing he can see through his classmates' and teacher's skin. (You would, too.) She talks to him through the closet he's locked himself into. “The world is too big, Mom,” he says, an instance of kid overstatement that in this case is perfectly justified. “Then make it small,” she tells him. “Focus on my voice.” If you were a young Superman in training, Lane's sturdy brand of reassurance is just what you'd want to hear.
No wonder this pensive, angst-ridden kid grows up to be Henry Cavill, so cautiously grounded he at first seems inexpressive. It took me a scene or two to warm to him, maybe because I still miss Christopher Reeve and his far-less-tricked-out pecs. But Cavill grounds the movie. His Superman is more a listener than a talker. That's probably what happens when you have X-ray vision, and you can see Cavill soaking it all in.
That quality serves him well even when he's flying. In the movie's finest scene, where he's just learning the ropes of taking off, he's more bird than plane, reading the signals around him as a Canada goose or a barn swallow might. Superman gets his wings in the Arctic. It's a fine and desolate setting for human flight, and a smashing one for his particular uniform: His cape is light and lofty, with a fine velvety texture—it ripples in the wind like an alert flag. And no sooner have his red boots touched down in the soft, crunchy snow than they're off again. This is costuming that allows an actor to defy gravity, if only in the make-believe way.
Much later, Clark Kent, tired of blurring his identity on fishing boats and Arctic explorations, will mount a truly impossible feat: a career as a journalist. And yet Cavill looks just as human in his Superman suit as he does in his newspaperman's uniform, with his laptop bag and nerd glasses. This Man of Steel is still faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. But even more miraculously, he humanizes the gargantuan movie around him. It's his Kryptonite, and still, he defies it.