Richard Donner’s “Superman” arrived in theaters in 1978 with the tagline, “You will believe a man can fly.” The tagline for “Man of Steel,” which reboots the Superman character in grand, big-budget fashion, could be, “You will believe a man can punch.”
“Man of Steel” features an awful lot of punching, even for a superhero movie. That’s especially true in the film’s second half, when the superaction — as well as Superman himself — really starts to fly. This isn’t a bad thing; indeed, it’s one of the film’s biggest strengths, because this is punching like you’ve never seen before.
Director Zack Snyder works awfully hard to innovate in the already crowded superhero-punching space, and it pays off. The movie is part origin story, part coming of age tale, with Superman (Henry Cavill) facing off against a squad of baddies from his home planet of Krypton, led by General Zod (Michael Shannon).
This gives Mr. Snyder the opportunity to pit Superman against a fleet of other supermen. The metahuman fisticuffs between the big red S and his Kryptonian counterparts have a startling speed and power, with hits that send their targets flying over miles of territory, through building after building, at fighter-jet velocity. These are action scenes meant to suggest the limits of human comprehension. When it works, it’s genuinely awesome — the sort of fist-pounding superspectacle that a lot of big-budget summer movies aim for but few achieve.
It’s also surprisingly gorgeous. Mr. Snyder’s sun-speckled imagery is both epic and elegant, with magic-hour skies and artfully wrecked cities providing the backdrop to his biggest and most breathtaking sequences. If not for all the destruction, some of his wider shots could be paintings of fantasy-land vacation resorts. There’s a sublime grandeur to his Herculean throwdowns; it might be the most beautiful punching you’ll ever see.
And what about the nonpunching parts? They’re pretty good too. The movie was produced by Christopher Nolan and written by David S. Goyer, the director-writer pair whose moody Batman trilogy helped set the tone for a decade of dark and brooding franchise reboots. The duo take a similar approach to the Superman mythos, shedding the sillier elements in favor of a grimmer, more grounded approach.
No longer is Superman’s human alter ego, Clark Kent, a mild-mannered newspaper dweeb. Instead, he’s a brooding loner, trying to figure out where he fits in. And much like Batman foes Bane and Ra’s al Ghul, General Zod — played with memorably manic ferocity by Mr. Shannon — is a villain driven by ideological fervor.
Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who tracks Superman before he’s revealed to the world, seems more like a real newspaper reporter than ever before. And strong performances from Superman’s trio of parental figures — Kryptonian dad Jor-El (Russell Crowe), adopted earthly father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his wife Martha (Diane Lane) — grant the movie something like a realistic emotional reality, or as close as you’ll find to one in a $200 million superhero film.
The movie works diligently to humanize Superman, a tough task given that he is literally an alien. But as with Mr. Nolan’s Batman trilogy, “Man of Steel” isn’t so much about the characters, or the specifics of the story. Instead, it’s about the look and feel of a world inhabited, protected and destroyed by costumed heroes and villains. It’s a movie about the esthetic reality of comic books, and the questions it asks are fundamentally about the way a world with superheroes would actually work: How would they dress? How would they move? How would they talk, and fly, and walk? And most importantly, how would they punch? Now we know.
TITLE: “Man of Steel”
CREDITS: Directed by Zack Snyder; screenplay by David S. Goyer
RATING: PG-13 for super-action
RUNNING TIME: 143 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS