Hollywood owes an enormous debt to the creators of the first caped crusader, the apparently immortal Superman. His comic books spawned radio shows, television series, and all those costumed superheroes, magically gifted adventurers who could fly, float, burst into flames, turn invisible, suspend the laws of physics, and satisfy other juvenile fantasies. The latest addition to the series also demonstrates the contemporary film industry's propensity for relying on the triumph of technology over imagination.
"Man of Steel" essentially retells what's known in the trade as the origin story, familiar to any comic-book reader and millions of moviegoers all over the world. As the planet Krypton heads rapidly toward its own apocalypse through mindless destruction of its core — whatever that means — a wise leader named Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to evacuate his newborn son, Kal-El, the first naturally born child in centuries, to save the Kryptonian race. His antagonist, General Zod (Michael Shannon), plans another agenda, involving a kind of genocide, attempts to stop Jor-El, but ends up imprisoned temporarily in a science-fiction limbo.
That initial conflict establishes the major plot of the movie when Zod and his cohorts turn up on Earth to colonize the planet and recover Kryptonian DNA from Superman (Henry Cavill). As we all know, the protagonist landed there as an infant and was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). The most interesting parts of the movie, however, deal with the background of the hero's life as Clark Kent and his ambivalence about his powers and his place in the world.
The internal conflicts that Clark Kent suffers provide "Man of Steel" with a greater emotional depth than any of the previous works in the franchise. The people and actions frequently touch, however tentatively, on mythic and religious themes, which if fully developed, would add a further, richer dimension to the all-too-familiar story. His arrival as an infant, for example, recalls the story of Moses floating down the river in Egypt, and his several references to his age — 33 — and to his ambiguous role on Earth as both an enemy and a savior emphasize his connections to another Biblical figure, suggesting he is more a god than a superhero.
Some of the best moments in the movie involve Clark Kent's relationship with his foster parents, shown mostly through an intermittent series of flashbacks to his childhood and adolescence. When he performs one of his miracles to save a busload of children, for example, he and the Kents realize that his difference from ordinary humans creates distrust, that people hate what they cannot understand. This Superman becomes a most reluctant hero, who dons his cape with a good deal of doubt and uncertainty.
Despite all that sympathetic and mature material, the script ultimately settles for the now obligatory pyrotechnics of the Hollywood spectacular — epic battles, explosions, conflagrations, massive destruction of buildings, vehicles, airplanes, and, though never shown, people. One of the many repeated battles between Superman and Zod's gang of evil Kryptonians demolishes the town of Smallville, now moved from Illinois to Kansas; another, on a larger scale, destroys much of midtown Metropolis. After perhaps the 10th shot of Zod or Superman throwing his opponent through skyscrapers, the extreme violence becomes ridiculous, even boring, not exactly the desired reactions to a blockbuster.
The talented and accomplished cast again provides the real emotion in the film. The understated, underplayed scenes featuring Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Henry Cavill display some genuine humanity, the words and actions of a most believable family confronting a most unbelievable situation. Their validity and appeal in a sense negate the explosive exaggeration of the endlessly repeated, endlessly uninventive confrontations between Zod and Superman.
The script's interpretation of General Zod turns the character into a sneering, snarling Hitler who believes in racial purity and the extinction of inferiors, allowing Michael Shannon, who gives good crazy, to overact in contrast to the other characters. Following some handsome, muscular actors in the role, Henry Cavill makes a most impressive superhero. His chiseled good looks and his impressive physique, often exhibited shirtless or in a new, extremely tight costume, will surely please any female fans of the series, which will, alas, surely continue.