In "Man of Steel," Superman does something none of his previous screen versions has ever done.
No, not fly. Christopher Reeve did that in 1978.
And not bounce bullets off his chest. George Reeves was doing that on TV in the '50s.
Woo Lois Lane? Dean Cain covered that on TV in the '90s.
Grow up? Again, on TV, with Tom Welling.
What this version of the iconic DC Comics superhero does is emote convincingly.
Thanks to director Zack Snyder and a serious-minded script by David S. Goyer (who shares story credit with his "The Dark Knight" collaborator, Christopher Nolan), "Man of Steel" gives the last son of Krypton an action-packed origin story with a minimum of camp and an intense emotional authenticity. Not bad for somebody who spends half the movie wearing blue tights.
The prologue takes place on Krypton, a planet that's dying after (allegory alert!) thoughtless overconsumption of its energy. Krypton's top scientist, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), warned Krypton's rulers of this danger, but they did not listen. Now, as the planet is tearing itself apart, the ruling council is attacked in an attempted coup by the imperious General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is determined to preserve Krypton's elite bloodlines.
Jor-El and his wife, Lara (Ayalet Zurer), oppose Zod and have violated Krypton law by giving birth to the planet's first natural-born child in generations. They place little Kal-El in an escape pod loaded with a codex that carries the genetic code of all of Krypton and send him to Earth.
We meet the adult Kal-El (played by British hunk Henry Cavill) as a vagabond, trying to figure out his true self and, by the way, saving people in danger. We also experience his flashbacks, of a childhood in Smallville, Kan., raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). The couple helped him control his powers and taught him to keep them hidden, because people weren't ready to accept a superior being among them.
Kal-El, aka Clark Kent, ends up on a military excavation of what appears to be an alien spaceship, where he learns of Jor-El, Lara, Zod and his now-destroyed home planet. Also at this excavation is Lois Lane (Amy Adams) of The Daily Planet, who has heard rumors of a mystery man with extraordinary powers. Lois shown as a smarter and tougher reporter than any previous screen incarnation knows she's onto a great story, if only she can nail it down to the satisfaction of her crusty editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne).
When Zod and his minions show up on Earth, demanding the Kryptonian immigrant or else, Kal-El must choose between Jonathan Kent's advice to stay hidden and Jor-El's admonition to inspire humanity with his example. He dons the blue suit minus the red hot pants and goes to work defending humanity, while also working to convince American military leaders that he's "as American as you can get."
Snyder has emulated comic-book artistry ("300") and lampooned comic-book conventions ("Watchmen"), but in "Man of Steel" he shows a refreshing maturity by handling the original superhero with care. There's less of the "wouldn't it be cool if …" mindset that permeates his past work (like the frat-boy fantasy of "Sucker Punch") and more of a feeling that he knows how important this character is to many viewers. In fact, for some, toying with Superman (the title is used only late in the film) would be as unthinkable as messing with Jesus or Lincoln.
That said, Snyder and Goyer's take on Kal-El's origins is fresh, and the moral dilemma as Kal-El seeks to balance Jor-El's hope and Pa Kent's caution is a fascinating one to put on his big blue shoulders. Only in the last act, when the computer-animated fighting between Kal-El and Zod takes out large chunks of Metropolis, does the movie lose its grip.
Cavill wears the "S" more authentically than any actor since the late Christopher Reeve. He's freakishly handsome and has muscles on his muscles, but his face also shows kindness and vulnerability the qualities that make this "Man of Steel" not just humanity's hero but one of us.
'Man of Steel'
A new take on Superman stays true to the legend, but brings a fresh spin and a worthy portrayal from Henry Cavill.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, June 14
Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.
Running time • 143 minutes.