It’s not your father’s Superman, but is it your kid’s? Man of Steel reprises the plot of Superman II (1980), with Earth attacked by a squad of evil Kryptonians. Their leader, the fascist General Zod (Michael Shannon) sports a Mongol beard and a mark of Cain scar; he escaped from entombment in living fiberglass in the Phantom Zone.
Can Superman stop them? Maybe. Henry Cavill plays the part with simplicity. Director Zack Snyder prepares us for the circusy uniform by muting the colors and animating the cape so that it’s jaunty even in a dead calm.
Longtime fans get a small taste of what we came for: a balletic pirouette as Superman glides to earth with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in his arms. But mostly, Man of Steel is not a graceful movie, in form or subject. It is about things getting smashed.
The filmmakers do the Christian side of the story proud. Superman is 33, the traditional age of Jesus in his last year. In a moment of doubt, he poses in front of a stained-glass window depicting Gethsemane. There’s not so much of the Jewish side, though—the idea of Krypton as Superman’s Zion.
Man of Steel gives us some of the most unhappiest sci-fi visualization of a planet since Prometheus. At one moment, the rise and fall of Krypton is illustrated in what looks like gilded debris from a 1930s World’s Fair pavilion.
But is Earth any nicer? A muddy sepia tints Superman’s flights around the world; it’s “Spare the Air Day” even before the apocalypse begins. In Smallville, where Snyder tries to evoke something like the Kansas of Terrence Malick—an upended Radio Flyer; a torn, dying monarch butterfly—we seem to be viewing our world through a sheen of crankcase oil.
‘Man of Steel’ opens in wide release on Friday, June 14.