After what seemed to be a decade of post-production, Zac Snyder's epic scale reboot of Superman, Man of Steel, flies into theaters weighed down by the gloominess of producer and Dark Knight mastermind Christopher Nolan.
The first shocks come early with the portrayal of Krypton. We've only seen it as an icy Styrofoam world in the original Superman, so to see animals (that seem left over from Avatar) and a culture that has babies like The Matrix is both jarring and surprisingly unoriginal. In this telling, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife have had the first natural birth in centuries (of course), but since the planet is dying, he's going to send this last son of Krypton to Earth, but this time also carrying the genetic code for all Kryptonians with him in a slightly different form.
Instead of recounting young Clark Kent's upbringing in Smallville, Kansas in the usual linear manner, David S. Goyer's script (with the story co-written by Nolan) uses a flashback structure showing a bearded Clark wandering around like Bruce Banner, trying to find his place in the world and experiencing the same things he did as a boy raised by the Worst Father Ever, Kevin Costner. Seriously, when you sum up the totality of his terrible advice - "Let kids die to hide your power. Let me die because." - it's a miracle Clark didn't become Superemo. While this structure spares us some of the boredom, it only really works because everyone knows Superman's origin story so well, these broad sketches suffice, but also prove unnecessary.
In mashing up the plots of the first two Christopher Reeve movies, General Zod (Michael Shannon) comes to Earth looking for Kal-El and decides that Earth would be a fine place to regenerate Krypton, even if it requires exterminating the indigenous population of the planet (that would be us humans) via terraforming with a giant "world engine" that looks like the Reaper ships from the Mass Effect games. Much destruction ensues.
The old Superman movies were hampered by the limited special effects technology of the late-Seventies. The slogan was, "You will believe a man can fly," but while the flying was sort of OK most of the time, the fights in Superman II were just painful to watch in their sluggish non-glory. That's fixed here as you definitely get the sensation of superpowered beings pounding the bejeebers out of each other. You want train engines being thrown like toys? You got it! The problem is that Snyder rapidly sails into the pure noise zone as Metropolis is pounded into dust. Forget the hundreds of billions in damage and the tens of thousands of people who are probably lost in the chaos, it's simply finely rendered particle system VFX static after a certain point. It loses its capacity for visceral impact early on and gets less exciting, not more.
As with Brandon Routh in Superman Returns, the question is whether Henry Cavill can adequately fill Reeve's cape and the answer is yes despite the problematic script. (Same as it was with Routh, whose career suffered through no fault of his own when his turn flopped; it's not like Clooney in Batman and Robin.) Saddled with lots of doubts due to his crappy upbringing, he manages to make Kal/Clark/Supes work. The rest of the cast - Shannon, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Amy Adams as Pulitzer Prize-winning (as she is forced to say) Lois Lane - are solid, though why did they have to make Diane Lane as Ma Kent look so weathered.
While I was watching Man of Steel, I was enjoying the huge scale but as the noise factor worked against it and things dragged on to the conclusion, I realized that I wasn't having much fun. There are perhaps two laughs in the whole movie and that's not enough for an over two-hour comic book flick. I'm not demanding an Avengers-style laugh riot, but as with Nolan's The Dark Knight Reloaded, this "dark and gritty" take on things is getting to be a drag.
Score: 7/10. Catch a matinee.