- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
About halfway through “Man of Steel,” or the 72-minute(!) mark, it hits you: Why is it so difficult to make a good Superman movie?
We have had a few decent ones (the first two Christopher Reeve pictures, though the first doesn’t hold up as well as you think), some silly ones (the rest of the Reeve movies) and a spectacular, boring misfire (“Superman Returns” with Brandon Routh playing our hero as a creepy stalker).
The Last Son of Krypton has actually done better on TV, from the classic 1950s show to the sitcom-ish “Lois and Clark” to teen melodrama “Smallville,” which was excellent for a few seasons there.
So why is a great Superman movie so elusive? Maybe it’s because there’s pressure to deliver something Truly Epic at the expense of a decent story.
Or maybe it’s that Superman’s basic concept is both simple and complicated: As legendary comic book writer Alan Moore once put it, Superman is “a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.”
Perfection and goodness can be pretty difficult to play (and, in fairness, that’s only one interpretation of a character who has been around since the FDR administration and goes though some tweaking about every 20 years), so it’s understandable why storytellers would want to introduce some existential angst, family drama and Russell Crowe.
Directed by Zack Snyder, the “Watchmen” and “300” guru whose kinetic reboot of “Dawn of the Dead” remains his strongest movie by far, this swing through the Superman mythos takes its sweet time getting, well, anywhere.
It starts, and stays for a good 20 minutes, on Krypton, where scientist Jor-El (Crowe) has done the unthinkable: He and his wife, Lara (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), have conceived and birthed a child the old-fashioned way, practically illegal on a planet where children are genetically engineered for pre-determined roles in a big room that looks left over from “The Matrix.”
Far from the sterile Marlon Brando of the Reeve movies, this Jor-El is a man of action, fighting with military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon, not as good as you were hoping) during the latter’s attempted coup. But no matter how much CGI frippery is gunked onto the screen, we know how this has to end: Baby Kal-El must be shot into space, and Krypton must go boom.
After that, “Man of Steel” flashes forward and backward in time, adding to and subtracting from Superman’s basic origin story.
As Clark Kent (Henry Cavill and his amazing jawline doing a perfectly good job with a part that is always harder than it looks) mopes around the planet trying to figure out what his existence means, we see glimpses into his past.
His Earth parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent (Diane Lane, it is always good to see you; Kevin Costner, not so much), are convinced the world is not ready for their adoptive son, especially after some Smallville parents freak out when a school-age Clark saves a busload of his friends from a watery accident.
Meanwhile, here in the present, Clark does pretty much the same thing: random acts of largely anonymous superheroics that nobody can explain. No wonder Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) smells a story.
But when Zod and his minions figure out that a Kryptonian is on our planet, well, unless we hand over the alien, we’re pretty much doomed, and suddenly Clark has some choices to make.
Snyder (and writer David S. Goyer) can’t seem to decide which theory of Superman he wants to go with, so he takes elements of all of them.
The plot, such as it is, is full of early ’60s sci-fi/Silver Age weirdness, from the fantasy elements on Krypton (is Jor-El riding a dragon AND talking to robots? Awesome!) to clumsy exposition about “the Kryptonian codex.”
But the mood is somber and the colors muted (it was produced by current Batman swami Christopher Nolan, who knows a thing or two about humorless superhero movies). There is no joy in Smallville. Or Metropolis. Or anywhere Clark hangs his cape.
And Snyder seems torn about the whole Superman-as-savior thing. Jor-El (who is mighty chatty for a dead guy) is convinced Kal can be a messiah, a light to his adopted home. There’s even a scene of Clark in a church next to a stained-glass Jesus (and ha ha ha to that throwaway line about Superman going public when he’s 33 years old).
But this Superman does some mighty violent things. And as enjoyable as the action is — the flying is appropriately muscular and glorious, and Snyder knows that a fight between two superbeings would be, above all things, fast — the final battle between Zod and Superman is city-smashing disaster porn that makes the final scene in “Avengers” look like a model of tasteful restraint.
Superman is one of the great American fairy tales; the only thing that disqualifies it from being an actual myth is that myths aren’t subject to copyright. When a good Superman story ends, you should want to do the right thing, all the time, to the best of your abilities. “Man of Steel” just wants to you to show up for the sequel and, as such, is yet another missed opportunity for an iconic character.
And will someone please tell Jor-El to shut up already?
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction and some language. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes. Theaters: Alamo Lake Creek, Alamo Ritz, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo Village, Barton Creek Square, Bullock Museum, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Galleria 14, Cinemark Round Rock 14, Cinemark Southpark, Cinemark Stone Hill Town Center, City Lights, The Domain, Flix Brewhouse, Gateway, Highland 10, Lakeline Mall, Metropolitan 14, Moviehouse & Eatery, Starplex 12, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Westgate 11.