There’s nothing like superhero flicks to make a moviegoer feel powerless. They are as inevitable as the changing of the seasons, and the changing of the seasons into summer triggers a bunch of them. Welcome to summer, here is your Superman.
Wrapped within that inevitability is the inevitability of a multi-climax crescendo—rolling destruction that prioritizes implicit ideals of saving the world over the human lives suffocated under the ensuing rubble. This is how almost all of them end. This is how Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel ends, with Superman flinging his intergalactic enemies through buildings, pulverizing Metropolis for the sake of saving the world so that he can save it some more in the film’s “fast-tracked” sequel, which will open the doors for a Justice League movie, fingers crossed.
Granted, this iteration of Superman comes with more internal conflict than most. In this retelling of his origin story, we see a young Superman wrestle with his specialness. He just wants to help people with his superhuman strength, but his adopted father (Kevin Costner) warns him against coming out of the closet/phone booth: “You have to keep this side of yourself a secret.” Greatness is like being gay is like being Jesus (Superman reveals himself to the world and opens himself up for persecution at age 33) is like being an alien. The sci-fi side of Superman has never been more explicit, which is cool. I like aliens, man. I really do like aliens.
For the first two thirds of Man of Steel, Snyder and his screenwriter David S. Goyer do a deft job of justifying the retelling of Superman’s origin, teasing out the vulnerability of a virtually unbeatable man, resting so much on his caped shoulders (the continuation of his own people versus citizens of Earth), and hinting at Nolan-style gravity without getting too preachy. This is a story about every person’s inherent ability to be a “force for good,” one that wears hope not on its sleeve but blazing on its chest (that “S,” see, is not an S but a Kryptonian symbol of hope, because they said so). Like last year’s origin-story retelling The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel strikes a good balance, neither becoming overly ponderous or so amused with itself that it’s impossible to take seriously. Washed out and full of Giger-esque imagery, it’s an uncommonly gorgeous blockbuster featuring an uncommonly gorgeous man as its hero — Henry Cavill’s performance is mostly blank, but that symmetrical, broad face with its pronounced features are all the assertiveness that he needs.
All of the explaining about Superman led to more questions in my head: If he strains while holding up a burning barge, there must be limits to his strength and if so, what are they? Why does everyone on his home planet speak English? How did he learn to control the powers that we see disorient him as a young boy? How is Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) still able to interact with the world if he’s dead? Why is he interested in Lois Lane (Amy Adams), with whom he has no chemistry? I’d rather let these questions play out in my head than have them shoved down my throat, but Man of Steel’s final hour bludgeoned whatever investment I had about this movie out of me. That its protagonist is so extraordinary makes it even more disappointing that in the end, Man of Steel is just another superhero movie. Watch it so you know what’s going on in the next one, which probably won’t be so great, either.