For its first half, “Man of Steel” is well on its way to superhero-movie greatness.
Dark, turbulent and not at all campy, it casts the young Clark Kent as a perennial outcast, a boy trapped between the wishes of his adoptive father, who demands he keep his strengths secret, a world that shuns him when he shows any evidence that he is different, and his gnawing desire to be who he really is.
Using alienation as a theme is familiar to the comic-book world, of course. The “X-Men” and “Dark Knight” sagas have trod this territory, but it's new for the cinematic “Supermans,” at least to this degree. No surprise then that Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, the men behind the gloomy “Dark Knight” movies, co-wrote the story and Nolan co-produced.
But it’s director Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen,” the “Dawn of the Dead” reboot), redeeming himself from the wretched steampunk shenanigans of “Sucker Punch,” who pulls it all together. His hellish vision of the planet Krypton in its end times — where Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his newborn son, Kal-El (later known as Clark Kent) into deep space to be raised on Earth — and Clark's tortured road to manhood are rife with despair.
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But then the constraints of being an estimated $225million film, with all the weight of box-office expectations that number brings, begin to tie the filmmakers' hands in bonds that not even Superman can break. By the end, “Man of Steel” has mutated into just another superhero action movie, with explosions galore and city buildings toppling like so many Legos. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That's too bad because, until the point where it turns into a routine exercise like “Thor,” “Man of Steel” has so much going for it.
When we are introduced to the adult Clark (Henry Cavill, “The Tudors”), he lives a loner life, not revealing much of anything to anyone — unless his help is really needed, as when some workers have to be rescued from a collapsing rig in the middle of the ocean. But when an alien ship from Krypton is found buried near the Arctic — and the government as well as Lois Lane (Amy Adams), an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet, are trying to figure out what it is — Kent's private life begins to unravel.
He is forced to make himself public when his dad's nemesis from Krypton, General Zod (Michael Shannon), shows up looking for Kal-El. It seems that dear old Dad packed something besides his only son on that ship many years ago; he also sent along the seeds for all future generations of Kryptonians. Long story short: The diabolical Zod wants to terraform and repopulate Earth in the image of his dearly departed Krypton.
Of course, Kal-El, aka Clark Kent (cleverly, the name “Superman” is only hinted at), can't let that happen. And that's when things begin to spiral into the ordinary as the future of Earth hinges on a battle between Zod and his minions and Superman and his newfound government buddies, including Col. Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni), Gen. Swanwick (Harry Lennix) and scientist Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff).
“Man of Steel” is loaded with solid performances, starting with Cavill, who not only has the physical presence of someone with a giant “S” on his chest, but also brings the right amount of pathos and unease to the part of a man trying to find himself. (Dylan Sprayberry, who plays him as a teenager, is also quite good).
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are wonderfully sympathetic as Kal-El's adoptive parents, who want to shield their son from the worst the world has to offer but realize they can't keep him hidden away forever. For the always reliable Shannon (a critics' favorite in films like “Take Shelter”), this could be a breakout role, while Adams' Lois Lane sports a feisty independence.
The special effects are impressive — especially a tornado that sweeps through Clark's Kansas hometown — but as the climactic battles wear on, they become repetitive, and more adventurous viewers will feel that a big chance was lost.
But in Hollywood's real-world war for the hearts, minds and dollars of summer moviegoers, “Man of Steel” will no doubt be the winner.