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'Man of Steel' is another mixed bag blockbuster

The latest "Superman" picture, starring Henry Cavill as a brooding Kal-El, reboots the franchise but mostly winds up succumbing to modern blockbuster annoyances.

Amy Adams and Henry Cavill breathe new life into just another franchise reboot in "Man of Steel" Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures Amy Adams and Henry Cavill breathe new life into just another franchise reboot in "Man of Steel"
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

‘Man of Steel’
Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Today’s comic book movies are self-serious to a fault, and for that you can blame the first Christopher Reeve “Superman” from 1978. Frivolous junk for pre-adolescent boys (and the nostalgic adults they would become) was suddenly treated like grandiose American myth, complete with a sleepy Marlon Brando, top-billed and extravagantly paid, as Superman’s dad. “Superman Returns” tried to ape this style, and its failure — it “only” made $400 million — sent producers to start from scratch. A lot of what they came up with is roughly the same as before, still succumbs to many of today’s blockbuster annoyances.

Like the ’78 “Superman,” it opens with the death of Krypton, and the punishment of mutinous fascist General Zod (Michael Shannon!). Here, Zod gets to kill Jor-El (Russell Crowe, oozing gravitas despite spouting mostly exposition), but not before the latter sends his son to an uncertain future on Earth. Zod eventually re-enters the picture, demanding humanity hand over the now-adult flying humanoid (Henry Cavill) or else. (As it turns out, this is much like “The Purge.”) Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman, now a brooding drifter yet to take up journalism, has to decide whether to comply or fight.

He doesn’t have much deciding to do. Though shepherded by Christopher Nolan, this is surprisingly light on thought. A heavy first half, that regulates snippets of the origin story everyone knows too well to Nolan-style flashbacks, makes way for a solid hour of bombast, smackdowns and widespread destruction. Those who enjoyed major cities being leveled — with presumably thousands of off-screen deaths — in “Transformers 3” and “The Avengers” will get a kick out of Metropolis getting even worse treatment. At least it’s equal opportunity: The fight between S-Man and Zod’s minions begins with a thrashing of Smallville’s 7-Elevens and IHOPs.

The brute force, brought by a relatively tempered Zack Snyder (“300”) is impressive, at least at first: When the belligerent Kryptonians start wreaking havoc, things feel genuinely dangerous and out-of-control. These scenes, alas, subscribe to what could be dubbed J.J. Abrams syndrome. As in his “Stark Trek” pictures, thoughtful problem solving is replaced by mindless action. When Superman has to overpower a spaceship, there’s no strategy and no real doubt that it will all work out swimmingly.

Overqualified actors, as they did historically, make up for lots. Cavill, who never has to play nerdish Clark (not yet, anyway), is a fine Superman, imposing but wry. Though Shannon doesn’t find as iconic an incarnation of Zod as did Terrence Stamp in “Superman II,” he’s hammy fun, while Amy Adam’s Lois is nearly as plucky and flirty as Margot Kidder. But like most of today’s blockbusters, it’s a mixed bag of promise and mild disappointment, a potentially great picture hobbled by unnecessary busy-ness.

 
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