Planet Krypton is heading for destruction. Rebellious leader Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares for the end by rocketing his newborn son to a life-form-compatible planet called Earth. The end is even nearer for Jor-El, though, when he encounters the wrath of bureaucratic General Zod (Michael Shannon). But baby Kal-El escapes, and lands safely at the Kansas farmstead of a couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) longing for a baby. The Kents accept their intergalactic bundle of joy as a godsend and call him Clark.
After this potent backstory opening, it’s almost jarring to fast-forward to grown-up Clark (Henry Cavill) working on a trawler. But not for long: A loner who keeps the self-discipline lessons of his father close to heart, Clark is searching for the meaning of his alien existence and the superpowers that have set him apart all his 33 years. Similar to Batman Begins, Man of Steel (produced by Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan) takes the comic-book icon and reboots him by telling the story from fresh angles. Artistically down-to-earth rather than broodingly dark (in contrast to the urban milieu of Spidey and Batman, the set design makes good use of remote vistas), this latest in superhero dramatization is exceptionally well-acted. This includes Clark’s run-ins with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). While these are usually a minefield of corny meet-cutes, here they are presented, affectingly, as inevitable. The feisty reporter is investigating a mysterious structure found in the arctic. This is where a caped crusader saves her life, though he doesn’t yet have a cape or a crime-fighting career. That comes later, after a life-coaching session with an astral projection of his biological father’s consciousness.
British model Cavill, who showed he could grow as a character as a co-star of The Tudors, proves again that being ridiculously handsome is not an impediment to being expressive, and he ably conveys Clark’s deep well of ambivalence. Clark’s agonized heroics are textured with environmental and biblical overtones, and his messianic stature is nicely arrived at, aided by Hans Zimmer’s lyrical score. It’s after the invasion of Zod and his lethal minions (notably Antje Traue as a sexy, relentless assassin) that Man of Steel starts to feel like a ton of bricks. There is interplanetary philosophizing regarding Krypton’s bioengineered Codex, and CGI mass destruction from the pummeling hand of director Zack Snyder, who after making the crisp kill fest of 300, went on to turn The Watchmen into a meandering, punishing mess.
Zod’s genocidal mission nicks some visuals from War of the Worlds and a few other movies, turning earlier, clever flourishes—Superman begins with Clark’s clenched fist sending seismic tremors through the ground—into CGI superpower overdrive. The climactic sequence is a blue-screen pow-bam-splat video game, and though Shannon could reduce a city to rubble with his glower alone, Zod is reduced to a boring cyborg. It’s to the credit of the script (by Dark Knight scribe David Goyer) that even after a much-too-long rendezvous with global annihilation, the rise of Clark Kent will be a welcome one.