Jerry Siegel initially conceived Superman as a Nietzschean über-mensch with telepathic powers who was bent on world domination. He was a ruthless, terribly bald villain whose first appearance came in the short story “The Reign of the Superman” in January 1933. Later, with the help of artist Joe Shuster, Superman was reimagined as a dashing hero with superhuman strength and abilities. His looks were modeled after Douglas Fairbanks, the actor best known for playing Robin Hood and Zorro during the silent era. In June 1938, Superman—as we know him—debuted in Action Comics No. 1.
The children of Jewish immigrants, Siegel and Shuster are believed to have fashioned their tale as a cultural-assimilation saga modeled after the plight of the American Jew (which may help explain Jerry Seinfeld’s extreme fandom). Man of Steel, the latest cinematic take on Superman, helmed by Zack Snyder, portrays the “last son of Krypton” as Christ.
Man of Steel opens on the planet of Krypton—an alien realm that resembles a cross between Avatar’s Pandora and Star Wars’ Cloud City. Lara Lor-Van, played by the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, is in labor. Bathed in celestial light, and with her husband, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), looking on, she gives birth to their son, Kal-El. Since Krypton is dying, Jor-El plots to send his newborn to a far-off planet and settles on earth. “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards,” he says. Meanwhile, General Zod (Michael Shannon), the planet’s military chief, is organizing a coup. After alerting his wife via pin-art intercom, flying a dragon, and recovering the “codex” that contains all of Krypton’s knowledge, including gene coding that would ensure the Kryptonian race’s survival, Jor-El manages to ship off his son, while Zod and his co-conspirators are captured and banished to a “phantom zone” black hole—all before Krypton explodes. This 19-minute sequence is far and away the most impressive part of the film, thanks to Crowe’s poignant turn as the noble, loving father. It’s a rare slice of humanity in a film that will soon devolve into a loop of bodies crashing through buildings.
The plot then jumps ahead to the present. Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is now a 33-year-old man (see: Christ) by the name of Clark Kent working on a commercial fishing vessel, still unaware of his true identity. When an oil rig bursts into flames, Clark saves the day, propping up the crumbling structure and allowing the trapped workers to fly to safety. It’s here where we’re introduced not only to Cavill’s jacked bod—let’s just say he looks the part—but also the influence of screenwriter David S. Goyer and executive producer Christopher Nolan (who shares story credit). These early scenes of Clark exploring the wilderness—and occasionally flashing back to his childhood traumas—recalls Goyer and Nolan’s previous DC superhero project, Batman Begins.
Clark and Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a no-nonsense, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for the Daily Planet, are drawn to a NORAD outpost in the Arctic overseen by Colonel Hardy (Christopher Meloni) and Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff). There, Clark discovers a Krypton ship trapped in ice—a stand-in for the Fortress of Solitude—where he communicates with a hologram of Jor-El, who fills him in on his people’s history and his mission. And with that, about an hour into the film, Kal-El transforms into Superman, sporting an updated suit and cape.
After Zod and his acolytes are unfrozen and return to earth to kill Superman and retrieve the codex—which will allow them to rebuild Krypton “over the skulls” of the human race—the film devolves into an endless string of people being hurled through buildings. While the CGI is impressive, there is nothing illuminating about these scenes as far as plot exposition or character development goes—it’s just chaos. And, while Shannon is an enormously talented actor, his Zod is decidedly one-note. He just yells. Constantly. He’s closer to Ares, the Greek god of war—right down to his ridiculous bowl cut—than the deliciously Euro-trashy version played by Terrence Stamp in Superman II.
Man of Steel combines the origin story from Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 film version with the Zod storyline in that film’s sequel, but it sacrifices many of those films’ most important elements in the process. Superman doesn’t moonlight as a journalist at the Daily Planet, and Lois Lane uncovers his otherworldly origins early on, so there’s no intrigue concerning his secret identity, which added to the duality of his character. Also, since there’s not much flirtation between Lois and Clark before she finds him out, their relationship is nonexistent; you have no idea why these two are drawn to each other. In the original films, Clark was a bumbling journalist who overcompensated for his inherent lack of human DNA by acting like a klutz, while Lois was a cagey journo who viewed him as a lovable goof, and the opposites attracted. Here, Superman isn’t human at all. Not only is the relationship with Lois MIA, but he also has precious few friendly interactions—or dialogue, period—with the people he’s sacrificing himself for. The comic-book Superman—and Christopher Reeve’s famous portrayal—saw him saving folks with a wink and a smile. A part of Superman always got off on being the hero, the protector, the “god” to these people. In Man of Steel, there’s no clue as to why this brooding, relatively humorless alien wants to save these people, aside from the fact that his daddy told him to.
It’s also become readily apparent that Snyder, known for the CGI fantasies 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch, has become a bit blinded by the wonders of CGI. Man of Steel’s final third is almost exclusively high-octane action sequences of buildings being destroyed—usually by having someone hurled through them (I can’t stress this enough, it’s constant). We’ve seen this footage countless times before, in the Transformers films and, most recently, The Avengers.
Even the flashback scenes to Clark's early days growing up in rural Kansas, raised by Jonathan (a touching Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane), are punctuated by loud, destructive events—a schoolbus crash, an outrageous tornado scene, etc. At 143 minutes and with a $225 million price tag, Man of Steel feels overlong and overdone. Hopefully, they’ll pull back a bit in the already-announced sequel and focus a little bit more on why the heck this world’s worth saving.