Most Americans are more familiar with Superman’s biography than with Abraham Lincoln’s, so the story in the franchise reboot “Man of Steel” doesn’t really matter all that much.
Oh sure, there are some new little wrinkles to the origin; but what is going to make this movie soar above the simple satisfaction of seeing an indestructible force fighting for goodness and decency is the quality of the cast and the tone set by the director.
Fortunately, the cast is excellent and director Zack Snyder (mostly) strikes the right balance between reverence and vitality resulting in an above-average superhero movie.
While the Marvel “Avengers” movies have doubled down on “fun and entertaining,” DC seems to be trying to shore up the “grandiose and profound” corner of the superhero market staked out by “The Dark Knight” trilogy.
They even went so far as to bring in “Knight” director Christopher Nolan as a producer and enlisted him to help write the script with franchise scribe David S. Goyer.
This is probably why underlying all the ephemeral explosions and visual spectacle is the meaty theme of nature vs. nurture, as Superman is torn between a group of invaders from Krypton, his planet of birth, and the Earth and the humans who raised him.
Starring as Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El is Henry Cavill, a British actor whose only major credit before this was a starring role in the forgettable mythology flick “Immortals.” Cavill certainly looks the part with good looks and muscles to spare, but he also is able to find some depth in what is traditionally a very uncomplicated character.
Russell Crowe is great as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El, who blasts his son to Earth just as his own planet is about to be destroyed. He is complemented by Kevin Costner as Clark’s adoptive father Jonathan Kent. Both men teach their son about sacrifice although one preaches about protecting the vulnerable while the other proclaims the importance of a brighter future.
Superman also requires a formidable enemy and an even more formidable Lois Lane. “Man of Steel” delivers both with the great Michael Shannon as Kryptonian General Zod who eyes Earth as a nice place to rule, and the equally great Amy Adams as the intrepid reporter who starts tracking Superman around the globe as his pre-caped acts of heroism catch her attention.
Rounding out the cast are solidly dependable actors like Lawrence Fishburne, Diane Lane, and Christopher Meloni.
My only problem with “Man of Steel” lies with Snyder. The director is a special-effects savant whose cinematic results have run the gambit from impressive (“300”) to mixed (“Watchmen”) to downright awful (“Sucker Punch”).
To his credit, there are some inspired moments here, like the battle sequences on a dying Krypton or Superman learning to fly (a nod to comic-purists, he’s not really flying he’s jumping) and illustrating how terrifying the onset of super-sonic hearing and x-ray vision would be to an eight-year-old.
But the movie becomes a tad lifeless during our hero’s effects-laden battles with Zod and his cohorts. And, for all the lip service given to Superman’s tireless protection of innocent life, not so much of a word is breathed about the thousands upon thousands of anonymous citizens of Metropolis who had to have been killed with each cataclysmic explosion or collapsing skyscraper.
Even so, “Man of Steel” is at its best when living, breathing actors share the screen and, in spite of any shortcomings, this movie is still leaps and bounds better than the dull and quickly forgotten “Superman Returns.”
A sequel to “Man of Steel” has already been greenlit and the future of this franchise looks bright. Somehow the world seems a little better whenever Superman is saving the day at a cineplex near you.
“Man of Steel” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action, and destruction, and for some language.