The latest Superman “reboot,” generically titled Man of Steel, is rich in inessentials. Sensibly concluding that the last thing we need is another hour of young Clark Kent gradually discovering his superhuman powers in Smallville while Ma and Pa Kent trade worried looks, director Zack Snyder has relegated most of the Midwest corn to flashbacks and focused (less sensibly) on what matters to him most: Superman as an alien coping with his alienness in the course of a massive outer-space invasion from Krypton avengers.
So you get spidery machines drilling into the Earth and blasting planes out of the sky and flattening Manhattan as thoroughly as Godzilla, Rodan, and the rest of the Toho gang demolished Tokyo. You get much ado about Krypton genes and a McGuffin called a Codex — or Kotex, I didn't get the spelling. You get War of the Worlds and Independence Day and lots of noise and clutter — but never the simple charm of the original comic by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster or the faintly self-abashed handsomeness of Christopher Reeve. The movie isn’t dead on arrival, like Snyder’s over-reverent Watchmen. But it’s pleasure-free.
The new Supey is a colorless Brit named Henry Cavill with a deep cleft in the middle of his chin and deeper ones where his lats meet his deltoids meet his pecs. His physique is as ripped as any of Snyder’s 300 Spartans — which flies in the face of the notion that Superman, unlike Batman, doesn’t need to spend hours at the gym to maintain his prodigious strength. Before we see him, we spend a long-ish stretch on Krypton, which is now an expensive-looking world of flying beasts and towering cliffs. Supey’s dad Jor-El is played by Russell Crowe in peacenik mode — which guarantees this sometimes-great actor will put nothing of his galvanic true self in the role and instead hide behind faux-Brit diction and a woeful countenance. Hands beatifically clasped in front of him, he gazes sadly at General Zod (Michael Shannon). He shares Zod’s conviction that Krypton’s elderly ruling council have made no provisions for the planet’s imminent destruction (thanks to reckless plundering of its natural resources, hint, hint) but not Zod’s impulse to shoot said council members in the head. Zod also has some crypto-racist (or Krypto-racist) ideas about re-creating the planet on a world of lesser beings with the help of said Kotex. Preaching the need to coexist harmoniously with other beings, Jor-El dispatches his only son to planet Earth to share the heavenly gospel.
Though gravity is different on Earth than it is on Krypton, co-producer Christopher Nolan ensures this will be the gravest Superman yet. There is no bright pop in the new costume. The blue is halfway to black, the cape burgundy. That makes for some striking, deep-toned images of the lonely savior against the colossal skyscrapers of Metropolis, and Superman’s X-ray eyes have an impressive, unearthly glow. But the fumbling, mild-mannered Clark Kent counterpoint is missing. Whatever future installments this new saga will bring, the Clark of Man of Steel doesn’t get to play a reporter haplessly trying to woo an impatient Lois. The delightful contrast between nerd and Samson — the genius element of the Superman myth — will have to wait.
Lois is Amy Adams, who carries her scenes with single-minded gumption. No role has given Adams as excellent an outlet for her Katie Couric–like combination of pertness and steel. (She could have her own spinoff — Anchorwoman of Steel.) But without the Clark-Lois banter, the screwball element is gone. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his Daily Planet staff watch Metropolis fall and enact mini feats of bravery. Great Caesar’s Ghost, they’re a dull bunch.
Shannon makes a super-serious Zod, without a smidgen of Terence Stamp’s delicious camp in Superman II. It’s the movie’s most heartfelt performance, but after Zod’s fifth tumultuous fight with Superman, Shannon — like the movie — becomes tiresome. The most affecting parts of Man of Steel are the most grounded, featuring Kevin Costner as Pa Kent and Diane Lane as Ma. The theme — articulated by Costner in his honest-farmer persona — is gradualism: Clark cannot fully exercise his powers until he acclimates himself to the needs of his new world and learns the motives of the father who sent him here. He’s moving, sincere, and for the purposes of the movie, party-pooping.
Watching the unprecedented spectacle of this Superman picture, I thought of the producer Lynda Obst’s new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, in which Obst explains why studios are making so many action-heavy, 3-D, IMAX monstrosities in lieu of anything else: This is what plays in the rest of the world, especially China, from which an astounding 80 percent of studios’ profits now come, according to Obst. The greed on display extends to the product placements. Amid the explosions and flying debris, the Sears, 7 Eleven, and IHOP logos are visible from all angles. Critics and even the American public might be cool to this War of the World take on Superman, but if Asian markets are onboard it’s pop-the-cork and green-light-the-sequel time: truth, justice, and the Chinese way.