MAN OF STEEL
2 out of 4 stars
Portrayed on the big or small screen in one form or another now 175 times since 1941, Superman is the most iconic of all comic book characters and, oddly, the one with the most troubled track record. The best known interpretation -- "Superman" from 1978 starring Christopher Reeve -- marked both the creative and commercial zenith for the caped superhero, and it's been all downhill ever since.
When you consider that the screenplay for "Man of Steel" is based on a story conceived by master of pain "Dark Knight" trilogy director Christopher Nolan, it's easy to understand why this film is such a glum, joyless, uninspired, by-the-numbers slog.
Trying to differentiate as much as possible from the Reeve productions and the lowly 2006 movie "Superman Returns," director Zack Snyder ("300," "Watchmen"), Nolan and writer David S. Goyer ("The Dark Knight Rises") approach this reboot with a level of seriousness and dour moodiness never before seen in any previous Superman production, large or small.
The first hour is by far the most interesting portion of the torturously long 143-minute movie, but to be clear, "interesting" doesn't necessarily equal good. Set on Superman's home planet of Krypton, the filmmakers offer a nice balance of drama and action and explain the origin of the character clearly with a minimum of extraneous embellishment. Wisely not attempting to replicate Marlon Brando's performance from 1978, Russell Crowe as the father Jor-El instead delivers his material in a way every British-accented sci-fi patriarch has done previously -- with a honey-drenched authoritarian baritone. His infant child leaves Krypton as Kal-El and is christened on Earth as Clark Kent.
The narrative delivers a welcomed left turn by initially skipping the boy's upbringing and revisits it only intermittently via flashback. The flashback device is generally not a good idea, but here it serves the material quite well and gives us the indication "Man of Steel" is going to go out of its way to separate itself from the rest of the summer 2013 action/adventure overkill titles.
When we meet the adult Clark (Englishman Henry Cavill), he more resembles Wolverine from the "X-Men" flicks. A physically-ripped, do-good loner with a sullen air and too much facial hair, Clark drifts from town to town and job to job performing the occasional life-saving miracle and bolting before the locals figure out he's not of this world.
It is during a gig working for the U.S. Army in the frozen Canadian tundra that Clark first meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a no-BS Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter who favors straight Scotch and assumes the role of the anti-love-interest. This is where the filmmakers take their biggest storytelling gamble and turn the Clark-Lois dynamic on its ear. It's different, to be sure, and there are certainly going to be some die-hard fans who will be quite nonplussed.
The is the point where Clark realizes he has been found out by Lois and is going to have become Superman full time and where the filmmakers cave to what was certainly heavy pressure from the studio to amp the action and ditch the namby-pamby dramatic exposition. The first time Clark is shown in the Superman tights is the beginning of the end of the movie, and there's still some 80-plus minutes left.
Overcompensating to the nth degree, Snyder loses all sense of restraint and turns everything over to his CGI effects team, and they approach the material like a ferret after downing a triple espresso. Making "The Avengers" and the "Transformers" outings look like "The Remains of the Day" by comparison, the action instantly becomes interminable and migraine-inducing.
It is edited so fast you often can't distinguish one character from another, and the fight scene between Superman and villain General Zod (the formerly reliable Michael Shannon) goes on and on and on for close to a half an hour without either of them getting so much as a scratch, despite the pair flying through multiple skyscrapers. Even by outlandish action standards, it is utterly impossible to be taken at face value. The lame final blow in the tussle offers up the movie's most unintended bit of humor and irony.
Of course it concludes with the promise of a sequel and marks the first and only time we see Clark Kent wearing glasses and a tie. It's too little too late and offers a sad end to yet another wasted opportunity to properly revive the world's best known comic book icon. (Warner Bros.)