Come on, guys, can’t you give us one superhero who is not all angsty and conflicted? Director Zack Snyder, who presided over the ultimate superhero deconstruction in Watchmen, and producer/co-screenwriter Christopher Nolan, who put the cinematic “dark” in Batman’s Dark Knight have taken the original superhero, the one all the others are a reaction to, the one who never needed to be reminded that with great power comes great responsibility, and saddled him with an existential crisis.
This is less an updating of Superman than a downgrade.
That is not the fault of British actor Henry Cavill, who plays Clark Kent and Superman with a lot of heart behind that flawlessly heroic jaw, cleft chin, and broad shoulders. It is the sour tone of the script and the drab look of the film, with completely unnecessary post-production 3D adding a greyish cast over the bleached-out images.
And a reboot really does not require yet another retelling of the origin story. We all know about the little spaceship sent off from Krypton by Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) before the planet exploded, and the baby who was discovered by the childless Kents, honest farmers who called their new son Clark. Here the re-telling is used to lay the foundation for a battle of former Kryptonians, with towering rage specialist Michael Shannon as General Zod (memorably played in “Superman II” by Terrence Stamp). A new wrinkle: as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and “Gattaca”, the decadent, depleted Kryptonian society genetically programs fetuses for particular purposes.
In defiance of this system, Jor-El and Lara produce a child the old-fashioned way, the first such birth in generations. But it is too late. Krypton has ignored its inconvenient truths for too long. The world, including technology that features a phone that looks like a talking pomegranate, is about to end. General Zod, once Jor-El’s friend, rebels, killing Jor-El, and vowing revenge as he and his followers are sent to the Phantom Zone. (And by the way, the Phantom Zone here is not nearly as cool as the rotating glass plane in “Superman II.”
After the Kryptonian prologue, we get a distractingly disjointed story, beginning with Clark as an adult, saving the day in secret and disappearing before he can be identified. In flashbacks, we see that Martha Kent (Diane Lane) teaches him how to manage his super-senses without getting overwhelmed. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) tells his adopted son not to reveal his powers because the world is not ready to understand and appreciate him. Though he loves his parents, Clark feels isolated and anguished. He cannot help stepping in when rescue is needed (and in one case when a bully needs a comeuppance), but then he has to move on so his secret cannot be uncovered.
Lois Lane (Amy Adams), spunky as ever (“What can I say, I get writer’s block if I’m not wearing a flack jacket”) finds out Clark’s secret immediately. She is not someone who is going to be fooled by a pair of glasses and a timid demeanor. Indeed, one reason this story seems so sterile is that it leaves out some of the core elements of the Superman story. No kryptonite. Instead of graceful soaring through the sky, he takes off like a jumping bean. He does not call himself Superman and is only called it once. Instead of the iconic bright red and blue uniform, he wears a textured supersuit with a dramatic but not very practical ankle-length cape. Edna Mode, where are you when Superman needs you?
Clark keeps his secret, with tragic consequences, until General Zod arrives and insists that Earth surrender its lone Kryptonian. This leads to a half-hour fight sequence that is ably staged but empty in spirit. Post-production 3D effects are applied indiscriminately, with the pores of the actors’ skin unsettlingly immersive. The action is indiscriminate and overblown. Perhaps some day we will be able to appreciate mass destruction without painful associations. But here and now, it feels gratuitous. Clark Kent/Kal-El gets so caught up in his own existential angst he overlooks some complex moral issues in his fight with Zod. The plot draws too heavily from “Star Trek” (in at least two places) and not enough from Superman’s decades of history. What about Mr. Myxlplyx? The City of Kandor? Bizarro World? Don’t make Superman into another Dark Knight. Let Superman be his own super-self.
Parents should know that this film includes extended scenes of comic book-style action violence with fights, chases, explosions, tornado, planet annihilated, sad deaths of parents, crashes, and massive city-wide destruction. Many characters are injured and killed including fetuses. There is a non-explicit childbirth scene, some strong and crude insults, and some drinking.
Family discussion: Was Clark’s father right to tell him to keep his powers secret, no matter what the cost? How does this Superman differ from other portrayals and why? Is morality an “evolutionary advantage?” What would you pick for the symbol of your house?
If you like this, try: “Superman” and “Superman II” and the new book about the teenagers who created the character of Superman: Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster