Newly minted superstar Henry Cavill makes a well-built, handsomely credible Superman in “Man of Steel” — or at least he will, in an already-planned sequel that, with luck, will more thoughtfully exploit his talents.
For now, audiences can only speculate as to the hidden depths of Cavill, who in Zack Snyder’s busy, bombastic creation myth is reduced to little more than a joyless cipher or dazzling physical specimen. Produced by Christopher Nolan, who brought such grim self-seriousness to the “Batman” franchise, “Man of Steel” clearly seeks the same brand of grandiose gravitas. But that dour tone turns out to be far more appropriate for a tortured hero brooding in his cave than for an all-American alien who is as much a product of the wholesome windswept Plains as a distant planet called Krypton.
Snyder and his writer, David S. Goyer, accentuate Superman’s intergalactic provenance in “Man of Steel,” which opens on Krypton just as the planet is crumbling, the rogue General Zod (an alarmingly skeletal Michael Shannon) is threatening a coup and the wise scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is sending his infant son Kal-El into the cosmos in order to begin the world over again. Seeking to cram as much back story as possible into a movie that feels like a reboot, prequel and creation myth all in one, Snyder and Goyer then leap forward to a time when Kal — now an adult earthling named Clark Kent — is working on a fishing boat, haunted by an unnamed past and once in a while jumping into the water to save a crew from a burning rig with his superhuman strength.
It takes nearly an hour for Clark to don the iconic red cape and “S”-imprinted chest plate, which turns out to be not even the midpoint in a story that, with its back-and-forths, jump cuts and flashbacks and repetitively percussive action sequences, seems to have been filmed by an easily distracted child or sentient garden hose. We see Clark being bullied as a child, then saving a bus full of his tormentors; we see him confer with his adoptive parents, the Kents (beautifully played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner), who sense they’re in the middle of the ultimate drama of the gifted child. We zip to the Arctic tundra, where Daily Planet staffer Lois Lane (Amy Adams) — now a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter — is writing about a mysterious discovery beneath the ice. Wait a minute, is that Jor-El again, brought back in holographic form? Wait, how did Clark get to the tundra, exactly? Is that a tornado coming our way? I thought we weren’t in Kansas anymore!
Dispensing with such pesky bits as smooth transitions and logical chronology, Snyder pings and pongs viewers through “Man of Steel,” his blurry swish pans, jittery zooms and blobby close-ups an uneasy fit with 3-D that, as in most cases, is completely unnecessary. With such a disorienting visual language, accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s turgid, over-produced score, “Man of Steel” is an exceptionally unpleasant viewing experience, especially coming on the heels of such snappy superhero movies as “The Avengers.” Indeed, by now, it’s difficult not to see the DNA of previous comic book movies throughout the iconography of this one, right down to the way Superman kneels with his fist on the ground, Iron Man-style, before rocketing into space.
Backloading “Man of Steel” with three epic confrontations in a row, Snyder tries to up the spectacle ante with ever more explosions, crashes, thermal blasts, topological realignments, gunfire and mano-a-mano fistfights. But the result is a punishing sense of diminishing returns and a genre that has finally reached the point of mayhem-induced exhaustion.
It seems beside the point to assess the performances in such a joyless, one-note production: Everyone hits their marks and takes their job seriously, especially Crowe, who utters his often absurd lines with the soft sincerity of a true pro. But even when she’s being swept off her feet by a tall, dark dreamboat in tights, Adams never looks like she’s having much fun. The fact that Lois susses out Superman’s identity early doesn’t bode well for chemistry in future installments. (The closest anyone comes to actually calling Clark Kent “Superman,” by the way, is when Lois starts to say it before being interrupted.)
And rest assured, there will be future installments: Reportedly, Snyder and Goyer are already at work on the follow-up to “Man of Steel,” which, with its allegorical nods to adolescent struggles with identity and ungovernable impulses, may have gotten the why-so-serious stuff out of the way. “Man of Steel” ends on an optimistic note, at least, with the maddeningly impassive Cavill — who was so delicious in the TV series “The Tudors” — finally showing a different emotional color than the movie’s myriad shades of gray. That rare sighting up on screen isn’t a bird or a plane: It’s just a smile.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense sequences of sci-fi violence and destruction, and some language.