More space opera than superhero movie, Man Of Steel, Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, focuses almost exclusively on the DC Comics icon’s alien backstory. This gamble doesn’t entirely pay off; by effectively denying Superman his defining traits—his complex relationships to duty and humanity—the movie robs the character of any depth or agency. Decisions, not daring, shape heroes, and since Man Of Steel’s Superman never has a chance to make a decision, he never registers as anything more than a handsome, inscrutable alien with a smug smirk.
Man Of Steel opens on planet Krypton, a Roger Dean prog-rock album cover filtered through the sensibilities of David Lynch’s Dune. There, tough-guy scientist Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, pleads with the planet’s government to take action against a coming environmental cataclysm. (This is the first of the movie’s many half-hearted attempts at political relevance, which culminate in Superman punching out a Predator drone.) However, a coup by Michael Shannon’s General Zod interrupts the proceedings, leaving Crowe no choice but to steal a MacGuffin called the Codex and launch it into space along with his newborn son, Kal-El. As Krypton implodes, Kal-El’s spacecraft crash-lands in a field in Kansas.
The movie then leaps forward 33 years to find the adult Kal-El, now played by Henry Cavill, aimlessly drifting around Nova Scotia and working odd jobs. The discovery of an ancient Kryptonian spacecraft in Northern Canada brings Cavill into contact with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane; it also alerts Shannon, who survived the destruction of Krypton, to Cavill’s location. The rest of the film is set over a couple of days, as Cavill fights Shannon and his gang in a series of superpowered battles, all of which are admittedly pretty cool-looking; interspersed throughout are flashbacks to Cavill’s childhood as well as comically insistent product placement for IHOP.
Man Of Steel eschews the usual trappings of Superman stories—right down to the word “Superman,” which is uttered only once. There’s no Lex Luthor, no Kryptonite, no glasses, no mild-mannered reporter, very little Daily Planet, and even less Metropolis. However, the movie is anything but stripped down; like Snyder’s Sucker Punch, it’s a confused but fascinating mishmash of religious, military, and sexual imagery. One scene finds Cavill framed with a stained-glass Jesus behind him. In another, he—robbed of his powers by a gaping hole in narrative logic—races around a Kryptonian spaceship seemingly designed by H.R. Giger, vulvar doorways and all.
Cavill—whose performance involves more posing than acting—is alternately presented as an alien messiah, a superweapon, and an American flag flapping in the wind; the one thing he never gets to be is a character. As a result, Man Of Steel sometimes feels like arty advertising—the tentpole movie equivalent of a car ad that invokes images of freedom or luxury without ever mentioning the price or specifications.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can't reveal in our review, see Man Of Steel's Spoiler Space.