The Superman of the post-Christopher Nolan era has arrived on planet Earth, in fiction and in reality. In fiction, no one expects him, but in reality, he's about what moviegoers would expect. He's still an unfailingly polite and upstanding young man, a moral exemplar, and an alien being like unto a god. But following the massive success of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel comes obliged to be more philosophical than fun.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily. But the self-seriousness with which Man of Steel reboots the comic-book mythology sometimes unintentionally brushes the comical. Nolan is here as a producer; he shares story credit with David S.Goyer, who worked on Nolan's Batman films; and composer Hans Zimmer brings the bwaaammmp, but the directing duties go to Watchmen's Zack Snyder, a fellow who feels more comfortable in the realm of comic-book fantasy. Right out of the gate, Man of Steel establishes a wild world of science fantasy by retelling Superman's origins: his birth and Moses-esque journey from his home (the doomed planet Krypton) to a new land where baby Kal-El will grow up to become a super-powered leader of men. Alex McDowell's production design of Krypton skews toward the silly side of "fantastic art." (Really? This highly advanced race flies around on giant dragonflies? Okay.) And it is a bit jarring pitting Russell Crowe's pseudo-British scientist Jor-El against Michael Shannon's Chicago-inflected General Zod. But we are talking about a movie concerning a flying Jesus in tights, so silly is sorta relative.
Snyder includes a couple of "oh, brother" moments that belabor that messianic subtext. Kal-El's dad Jor-El lays down some fairly blunt lines like "He'll be a god to them" and "You will give the people an ideal to strive towards...In time, you will help them accomplish wonders," but Snyder piles on a couple of shots that are the visual equivalent of an elbow in the ribs: during a scene in which Superman (Henry Cavill) consults a priest, Snyder frames a giant-sized stained-glass image of Jesus behind Superman's head, and in a later scene, Jor-El gets his Obi-Wan on, intoning, "You can save her, Kal. You can save all of them," to which our hero responds by instantly floating into a Christ-figure pose (arms akimbo will have to wait).
But all that is really window dressing to what the film is actually about. On a basically literal level, Man of Steel is about "the element of choice." It's a story of Kal-El choosing to be Superman, and what that means to him and to his adopted planet. As such, it's also a "first contact" story that deals with the ramifications of a superpowered, and therefore inherently threatening, alien presence. Trust must be earned between Superman and humanity, a process not made any easier by the arrival of Kryptonian war hawk General Zod and his trusted soldier Faora (Antje Traue). I won't spoil their evil plans, but they involve world domination, wouldn't ya just know it?
On a thematic level, Man of Steel digs into Kal-El's self-actualization by checking off issues of destiny (Pa Kent: "I have to believe you were sent here for a reason"), genetic engineering (another form of predestination), social engineering (nurture), and the aforementioned "element of choice" (positioned here as a realization of true nature, understood in reflection and embraced in action). As per tradition, Superman struggles with how much of his identity is Clark Kent—raised by Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his wife Martha (Diane Lane)—and how much is Kal-El. Sure the world is not yet ready, protective Jonathan insistently keeps Kal-El under wraps, but General Zod's surprise arrival forces the point. The "ghost" of Jor-El, for his part, speaks up for Kal as Zod's enemy (and, therefore, humanity's savior).
But after the last Superman movie—Bryan Singer's not-bad but noticeably inert Superman Returns—there'd be hell to pay if this one didn't have a ton of action, which it does. The Krypton section quadruples down on gunfights, hand-to-hand combat, explosions, and all manner of CGI detail. Superman-in-hiding discovers and tries out his powers in a number of scenes, and Superman emergent opens up the flick's action floodgates when Zod unleashes hell on earth. The action doesn't become particularly rousing, though, until Supes and Zod start clobbering each other in Metropolis (this sequence and the product placement valued in the tens of millions recall Richard Donner's Superman II).
There's something perverse about taking the sunniest of superheroes and dulling his primary colors, not to mention controlling the spitfire of Lois Lane (Amy Adams). All that restraint is certainly trendy, but doesn't engage the imagination of kids of all ages like Donner's 1980s Superman two-fer did. The actors are fine but never overcome the speechifying enough to generate excitement on their own steam (Cavill's more credible in the role than Brandon Routh, though both took cues from forebear Christopher Reeve), and Goyer and Snyder allow some of the action beats to be murky in their particulars. On the other hand, Snyder does achieve some elegant visual poetry around his hero that shows a kind of evolution of Donner's making us believe a man can fly.
Lastly, because this is 2013 (and the terrorists have apparently won), no blockbuster movie would be complete without consciously evoking 9/11. The extended climax enacts something like what Trey Parker and Matt Stone jokingly referred to in Team America: World Police as "9/11 times a hundred." Superhero stories basically require mass urban destruction, of course, and here it's used as the trump card for this fable of human goodness and potential in the face of life-threatening adversity. And so we get 9/11-loaded examples of human heroism to prove that Superman sets a standard others follow: cops, soldiers, a scientist (the always-welcome Richard Schiff), Lois Lane and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) all brave death on behalf of others. As Superman explains of his family crest, "It's not an S. On my world it means hope."
On balance, this new cinematic take on a 75-year-old icon constitutes a worthy Superman movie and a modest improvement for a franchise that had creatively stalled. But just because grey and grit worked for Batman and James Bond doesn't mean they suit Supes: hopefully future installments will loosen up, brighten up, and lighten up (and light a fire under Lois Lane) to achieve more exhilarating ends.