At once frantically overblown and beautifully filigreed, “Man of Steel” will turn on everyone it doesn’t turn off. Summer blockbusters have a way of encouraging multiplex Manichaeism, though I propose a middle way. It won’t be easy. Even those who patiently ride out the bludgeoning excesses of the film’s final 45 minutes may wonder what happened to the movie — the one about human and humanoid struggles — they watched for the first 100. They may also wonder why no one, anyone, smacked the director, Zack Snyder, in the head and reminded him that he was midwifing a superhero franchise, as the film’s first image, of a yelling, straining woman signals, not restaging the end of days.
Apocalypse Now (a movie that Mr. Snyder nods at), Apocalypse Then: The 21st century has been tough for Superman, at least at the box office. After decades of saving the world on the screen and on the page, the movie character seemed stuck, particularly after the dreary 2006 reboot, “Superman Returns.” The Superman story had been told in so many ways and in so many moods in the comics — he has married and mourned, died and been reborn — but shaping these transformative cycles into a new film, much less a viable series, remained elusive. Christopher Nolan went dark and then darker with another DC Comics legend in the Dark Knight films, but this was Superman, idealism embodied. What was there left to say about the man in the primary-color suit, especially after Sept. 11?
For starters, return to basics, and add a fighting-trim Russell Crowe, a howlingly mad Michael Shannon, that emotional guidepost Amy Adams and a superdude — the British actor Henry Cavill — so ripped that he’s nearly shredded. Much like “Batman Begins,” the first part of the Dark Knight trilogy, “Man of Steel” narrates the how and why of its character, tracing an existential arc from child to man. The difference is that while Batman has to journey into the world (with a layover in a bat cave) to acquire his particular skill set, Superman comes fully loaded. He just needs to burrow into his innermost self, hang out at the Fortress of Solitude and meet the right woman.
He does all that in “Man of Steel,” which was written by David S. Goyer from a story that he created with Mr. Nolan that extracts the canonical account from 75 years of seemingly infinitely layered supermythology. To that end, the film begins at the beginning, back on Krypton where Jor-El (Mr. Crowe) attempts to persuade its council, wearing dour expressions and ornate headdresses evocative of Gothic tracery, that their planet is doomed. It’s a measure of the film’s striking design here that the headdress latticework is echoed in some of the pleated clothing, as well as in the curvilinear buildings, suggesting that someone behind the scenes (the production designer is Alex McDowell) is an admirer of the architect Zaha Hadid and her flowing organic forms.
These graceful contours are further picked up in spaceships that float like jellyfish and in suits of armor that evoke crustaceans, adding to this alien world’s striking conceptual unity. Lovely and imperious, the headdresses are also emblems of the countervailing forces that have led to the ruin of Krypton, a civilization undone by its own advances. The resemblances to Earth are blunt enough for an eco-savvy kindergartner and pop off the screen like speech balloons. But, then, this is Superman, and Mr. Snyder, whose earlier movies include a stillborn adaptation of the graphic novel “Watchmen,” is here playing with different narrative forms as he toggles between cinematic realism and the kind of comic-book-style exaggeration that distills ideas into images.
The birth of Superman, who’s given the name Kal-El, opens the film and precedes Krypton’s end. Jor-El and his wife, Lara Lor-Van (the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), decide to rocket their child to Earth, sending him off to safety in the futuristic equivalent of Moses’ basket. Given that Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were Jewish, much has been written about Superman’s similarities to Moses (“el” is a Hebrew word for God), which is complicated by the character’s likeness to Jesus. (Superman’s Earth mom was originally named Mary.) Mr. Snyder, with his characteristic lack of subtlety, hits the Jesus angle amusingly hard, primarily in a later scene in which Superman — framed by a stained-glass tableau of a supplicating Jesus draped in a red robe — consults with a priest in a church. By then, the rocketing baby has become the man and given a soul-sick mien. That’s because the next time you see Kal-El after liftoff, he’s all grown up and toiling on a fishing boat off the northwest Canadian coast, a filmic ellipsis that abruptly spans decades. A beat later and he’s also shirtless and holding back a tower wobbling on a burning oil platform. And then, like Hercules who rises from his funeral pyre — having cast off his mortal body and assumed his godly form — Superman, a k a Clark Kent, is engulfed in flames. It’s a nifty, startling image, even if it transforms Mr. Cavill, a pretty man whose body has been inflated to Bluto-esque proportions, into barbecue beefcake. Mr. Snyder, perhaps intuiting how fast this image could slip away from him, cuts his way out of there fast.
This superhero flambé aside, the oil platform is most notable for the workingmen Superman rescues, laboring brothers to the trapped coal miners who figure into one of his first comic-book outings in 1938. One of the pleasures of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” series, which took off in 1978 and bottomed out in 1987, was how the movies managed to be both charmingly old-fashioned and of their contemporary moment. There are a number of overt references to the past in “Man of Steel,” a title that itself summons up America’s lost industrial history. There’s even a scene in which Jor-El narrates Krypton’s rise and calamitous fall using immersive, metallic-gray images that morph and scroll across the frame like an animated version of a W.P.A. bas-relief mural.
For roughly 100 minutes, or the running time of an average movie, Mr. Snyder is in control of his material. His handling of the story’s many flashbacks, which fill in piecemeal Superman’s Kansas childhood as Clark, is fluid and apt. Each return to the past becomes another tile in the mosaic, adding to the emerging portrait of the adult wanderer and seeker he has become. His adoptive parents, Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan (Kevin Costner), come into focus, as does the bewildered child (played by Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry), who doesn’t understand why he’s so different. Mr. Snyder borrows too many canted camera angles and too much sun-kissed fluttering laundry from Terrence Malick, but the Kansas scenes solidify the human foundation of a divided identity.
To be human or not to be is Superman’s great question, a schism that evokes other familiar God-human divides. It’s one that he struggles with in his fights with an alien foe, General Zod (Mr. Shannon), and in his attraction to Lois Lane (Ms. Adams). It’s hard to believe that any actor could compete with Terence Stamp’s dandified turn as Zod in the 1978 “Superman,” but Mr. Shannon, delightfully embracing gnashing-teeth villainy, proves one of the new film’s strengths. A true Krypton believer, Zod has his own good reasons for chasing after the being he knows as Kal-El. While these add another layer, they and everything else are almost lost in the last 45 minutes, when Mr. Snyder piles on the hammering special effects, becoming yet one more director gone disappointingly amok.
That’s too bad, because if you wave away all the computer-generated smoke and see past the pulverized buildings, it’s possible to remain hooked on the resonant origin story that wends through “Man of Steel” — that of the immigrant. It’s a story that begins with the launching of the spaceship and continues through a child’s pained attempts to assimilate and a young man’s sense of not belonging. In his excellent 1987 essay “What Makes Superman So Darned American,” Gary D. Engle wrote that “Superman raises the American immigrant experience to the level of religious myth.” Mr. Snyder isn’t capable of mythmaking, but in his sometimes poetic, sometimes crude way, he has given Superman a new lease on franchise life by affirming that this most American hero is also an alien yearning to breathe free.
“Man of Steel” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Parental death, alien battles and annihilated worlds.
Man of Steel
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Zack Snyder; written by David S. Goyer, based on a story by Mr. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, and characters appearing in comic books published by DC Entertainment; Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; director of photography, Amir Mokri; edited by David Brenner; music by Hans Zimmer; production design by Alex McDowell; costumes by James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson; visual effects supervisor, John Desjardin; produced by Charles Roven, Mr. Nolan, Emma Thomas and Deborah Snyder; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 24 minutes.
WITH: Henry Cavill (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Michael Shannon (General Zod), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Russell Crowe (Jor-El), Antje Traue (Faora-Ul), Harry Lennix (General Swanwick), Richard Schiff (Dr. Emil Hamilton), Christopher Meloni (Col. Nathan Hardy), Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent), Ayelet Zurer (Lara Lor-Van), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Cooper Timberline (Clark Kent at 9) and Dylan Sprayberry (Clark Kent at 13).