News Column

'Man of Steel' Is Fresh Yet Familiar

June 13, 2013

Superman was the original superhero.

He first appeared in 1938 and like Batman, who followed a year later, has gone through multiple iterations. But the new Superman movie "Man of Steel" is so late to the game that the modern-day blockbuster road it travels feels paved by others.

It has a villain resembling Khan of "Star Trek into Darkness" in General Zod; the turn-cities-to-rubble battle scenes of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"; the father-son dynamic and otherworldly architecture of "Thor"; a learn-to-fly scene similar to the rooftop web slinging in "Spider-Man"; and an invasion from the sky similar to "The Avengers."

All that's missing is an appearance by Stan Lee.

Often, these elements give this franchise reboot a perfunctory feeling. But then a detail emerges, the mythology kicks in or the reinvention makes sense, and the elements feel connected in a way that offers a fresh perspective on a familiar thing. And when it is in this zone, "Man of Steel" is pretty good. Maybe even the best Superman movie yet.

Then again my memories of the Christopher Reeve trilogy from 1978 to 1983 are faded.

And the truth is I may have written the same thing about the 2006 reboot by Bryan Singer.

"Man of Steel," directed by Zack Snyder, written by "Batman Begins" screenwriter David S. Goyer and with Henry Cavill wearing the "S" -- a symbol of hope on his home planet of Krypton -- on his chest is really three stories, which explains its 143-minute running time.

First up is a long origins story on the doomed planet of Krypton where solemn patriot Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, and the secessionist General Zod, played by histrionic Michael Shannon, do battle over sending a rocket with Jor-El's son Kal-El -- "the first natural birth" on Krypton "in centuries" -- to Earth where the yellow sun will give him super powers. (Despite having advanced technologies, Jor-el inexplicably travels on a pterodactyl-type beast.)

Then there is Kal's bucolic youth as Clark Kent on the family farm where his adopted dad, played by Kevin Costner, warns him to keep his head down and resist striking back at bullies. The boyhood scenes are shuffled in and out of the narrative in sepia-toned flashbacks.

Last is his adult discovery of his heritage at the same time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, tracks him down. Once Lois knows Clark has superpowers she works with him to save the Earth from Zod, Jor-El's old nemesis.

Zod, who escaped Krypton's demise and also has super powers, aims to kill Kal-El and claim Earth as a new Krypton.

Their battles -- and assorted futile military bombardments -- cause considerable damage and, presumably, countless deaths in Kal's hometown Smallville and his new home in Metropolis where The Daily Planet editor Perry White, played by Laurence Fishburne, watches in horror.

Snyder -- who directed "300" and the dark anti-Superman film "The Watchmen" -- is visually bombastic in action scenes. Lighter moments -- Clark's relationship with his adopted mom, played by Diane Lane, or the distracted look on his face, like a dog hearing something in the distance, before he flies away -- add a poignant subtext. But aesthetically Snyder has created a movie that is more in the tradition of a summer blockbuster than that of Superman.

Man of Steel ***

Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Laurence Fishburne.

Behind the scenes: Produced by Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Emma Thomas. Written by David S. Goyer. Directed by Zack Snyder.

Rated: PG-13; fantasy violence, brief language.

Approximate running time: 143 minutes

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