Zack Snyder's new take on the most famous of comic book heroes could just as easily be called "Superman Returns...Again," but Warner Bros. presumably was in no hurry to remind us of Bryan Singer's 2006 disappointing "Superman Returns." Compared to the four-film run of the 1978-1987 series, Singer's Superman apparently returned just for a quick visit. The events of that film have vanished into the Phantom Zone in the world of this re-reboot.
In the lead, Henry Cavill ("Immortals") steps more than adequately into Brandon Routh's tights and red boots. Unlike the Singer film, "Man of Steel" retells the entire back story — you know, Krypton on the verge of destruction, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sending his infant son on a rocket ride to Earth, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane) raising him as a normal Earthling in Kansas. The script adds a few clever embellishments — for instance, we learn that the insignia Superman will wear on his chest is actually the El family symbol — but it's mostly the same.
There's no Lex Luthor this time around — just General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his posse of Phantom Zone escapees. Zod does horrible things throughout, but the script manages to make him a little less than a monster. He's just a devoted military man, doing his best to protect his army, his people, his planet. Or so he says. This may be the film's main political moment; there's also a gag at the very end that takes a more direct dig at current events.
The movie's DNA combines one strand of Snyder ("300," "Watchmen") with one strand of the Christopher Nolan "Batman" trilogy. This is no surprise, given that Nolan is among the producers and cowriters. Others on board from the "Batman" team include producer Emma Thomas (Nolan's wife), producer Charles Roven, writer David S. Goyer and composer Hans Zimmer.
One of the central special effects looks childish and crude: when Kryptonians fly or start running, they go from 0 mph to a gazillion with no transition. The problem isn't that this violates the laws of physics, but rather that it looks dumb; it's cartoonish, in the bad sense. On the other hand, both Zod's and young Clark's initial experiences with x-ray vision and superhearing are logical, cool, and more than a little frightening.
With the possible exception of Amy Adams, who gives us an adequate Lois, the major casting is impeccable. Shannon is perfect as Zod; Crowe is a much more believable Jor-El than Marlon Brando; and Laurence Fishburne makes an excellent Perry White. Cavill is as good as the script allows, but the script doesn't allow much. This Superman has gone beyond troubled to downright sullen. Reeve — whose portrayal looks better and better with time — managed to be charming even when things got serious. He always had a boyish grin lurking somewhere. But Cavill's Superman is too downed-out all the time; he's too cold to convey human emotions. Reeve was someone you might want to hang with, but not this guy.
Indeed, the biggest problem here is the near total absence of humor in a 2-hour, 23-minute opus. The 2006 film — universally described as "more serious" than the Reeve series — looks like "Airplane!" compared to "Man of Steel." It's clear that the studio and the filmmakers wanted to "Batman"-ize Superman. But even the Batman trilogy had its light moments. The problem may be the script, but it might be Snyder, whose films — including this one — are close to being devoid of humor.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).