Thanks, “Man of Steel.” Because of the scene where Superman battles two of his adversaries from the planet Krypton in downtown Smallville, wrecking most of an IHOP and a Sears store, I now associate pancakes and appliances with pain and suffering.
A sure hit, if only because of its 100 “global promotional partners” (according to Advertising Age) and an estimated $170 million in product placement and “collective promotional support,” “Man of Steel” has all the stuff it takes to compete in the modern blockbuster world. Director Zack Snyder’s granite-fisted 143-minute picture treats the Superman mythology with enough seriousness to satisfy scholars of the Bible or the Torah, let alone pre-sold fans of the comic book hero introduced by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1938.
This time no trace elements of camp intrude on the landscapes of Krypton, Metropolis or Smallville, Kan. We are a long, long way from “Superman II” (1981), my favorite of the Superman films to date, in which director Richard Lester, replacing Richard Donner, blended fantasy, humor and viciousness with surprising ease.
Well, forget the humor. Director Snyder is the man behind “300,” “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch,” three decorative slabs of digital slaughter (enjoyed parts of the first; hated the other two). He also made the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” by far Snyder’s best so far. Working from a story by producer Christopher Nolan, “Man of Steel” turns Superman into a close cousin of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy.
The scale of the destruction borders on the grotesque. By the time Superman squares off against General Zod (a fiercely effective Michael Shannon, bringing the interstellar glare of doom) in a climactic, city-destroying melee that goes on for what feels like weeks, it’s no wonder the boy born Kal-El on Krypton eventually transforms into a bit of a prima donna. “I’m here to help, but it has to be on my own terms,” Superman scolds Harry Lennix’s Army general at one point.
Nolan’s Batman movies proved just how far a worldwide audience was willing to follow a caped comic book hero into the heart of darkness. “Man of Steel” ventures in the same direction, though with its emphasis on hand-held close-ups, the look of this film is deliberately rough-hewn. David S. Goyer’s screenplay benefits from Goyer’s ambitious script structure, a thing of interwoven flashbacks and memory-triggered leaps into Superman’s past. It begins on Krypton, which is falling apart fast, with Russell Crowe’s Jor-El and Ayelet Zurer’s Lara sending their very special son off to Earth. You know a lot of the rest, probably. Raised on a Kansas farm by good, honest folk (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play the Kents). Outcast. Freak. Superpowers. Must. Remain. Hidden.
We meet Henry Cavill as Superman in his Christ-like wandering phase at age 33, working odd jobs, moving on, shirtlessly saving oil rig workers from a fiery death. Early on, reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) discovers the truth about a mysterious spacecraft encased in ice in the Arctic. There she meets the nomadic miracle worker she’s been tracking. Though not much is expected of him, Cavill is quite good: less impish than Christopher Reeve, more intense than Brandon Routh in the last Superman movie, “Superman Returns,” seven years ago.
Then again, Cavill’s enemy — the Kryptonian out to conquer Earth — is Shannon’s Zod, so the intensity levels are already in the red. When Zod lets loose, he and his fancy blue-light-planet-makeover machine level Metropolis in such a way as to shamelessly evoke the imagery of Sept. 11, 2001. Various other films have done this already, some well (Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”), others uneasily so. Snyder films the violence in “Man of Steel” the way he films most of the rest of the picture: Like a man chasing tornadoes and not even trying to keep subjects in frame. It’s a choice, and not a bad one, necessarily — the Smallville farm scenes, in particular, respond well to the approach — but by the end it’s a visually limiting one.
Few will care about such things. There are gut-wrenching (though not necessarily pleasurable) suspense scenes such as a school bus full of kids headed for a watery grave. The supporting cast includes such stalwart players as Laurence Fishburne (as editor Perry White), Christopher Meloni (as the toughest guy in the U.S. military) and Richard Schiff (a scientist, hanging around to explain magnetic polarities and such).
Cavill looks great in the key outfit. Maybe that’s enough. The crowd at a “Man of Steel” preview the other night exited the theater not excited, not chatty, but quiet, vaguely shell-shocked. Was it the ridiculously loud volume levels? Or the pounding inflicted by the most protracted action sequences? Or both?
This is the secret to any superhero movie’s success, bad, good or — in the case of “Man of Steel” — respectably in between. You must destroy the planet, or nearly, for Superman to save it, and if it’s more work than fun to witness, in 2013?
Well, that’s entertainment.