Poor DC. Their legion of superheroes ruled the entertainment world not that long ago, the gritty counterpart to Marvel, whose seemingly endless failure to believably go Hollywood made DC the serious fanboy’s choice for a dark decade. Then Batman ended, the Green Lantern bombed, and Wonder Woman’s rebranding got relegated to one (admittedly incredible) straight-to-DVD story. Oh, and there was something in there called Superman Returns, which attempted to update the Man of Steel for a new century. Zack Snyder directed an extremely faithful Watchmen, too.
Now Zack’s back to save Superman from his own reboot, and under the watchful eye of writer and producer David S. Goyer, the man responsible for restoring another DC hero’s good name via Batman Begins. It should be a perfect match. Supes is, after all, a mythological creature at heart, part supersoldier and part savior, the Hercules of America, and Snyder already made his mythology bones with 300 — not coincidentally a Frank Miller comic. It’s a perfect circle: Goyer somehow got sober adults to believe a billionaire would purposefully dress up like a bat in order to fistfight psychopaths in his spare time; Snyder made the gladiator thing hip again. New Superman Henry Cavill, despite being a Brit, has the brooding intensity that got him considered for the Bond reboot Casino Royale, and the kind of good looks that got Stephanie Meyer to brand him her “perfect Edward.” All that and killer abs. Perfect.
Hang on. Neither Cavill, Goyer, or Snyder have bothered rethinking the Big Blue Boy Scout, and that’s a big problem: his very mythological stature makes him hard to pin down emotionally. All you can do is overwork him. Richard Donner’s first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies managed to make the character human for the first time, the kind of alien transplant you might actually run into if you didn’t happen to work for the Daily Planet, and Returns tried hard to reintroduce us to that guy, but failed, partially because of Brandon Routh’s utter vacuousness. So Goyer, whose script won out over what seemed like several thousand others, decided to Dark Knight him — he wanders aimlessly like Christian Bale did, looking for a purpose, then finds his own Fortress of Solitude and thus his destiny. Which comes complete with redesigned costume, oppressive Hans Zimmer score, and a traumatic childhood retold in flashback.
Goyer does come up with an interesting twist on the Man of Steel’s origin story: his father (Russell Crowe in Richard Burton mode) conceived him the old-fashioned way, even though Krypton has long since turned to genetic modification to keep societal order. It drives the plot — no fair telling how — but it doesn’t give our hero any purpose; his Earth parents (the Kents are stunt-casted with Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) advise him to deny his super self at all costs, and while that makes him alienated and withdrawn, it doesn’t explain him, quite. There’s no romance to humanize him, either: Amy Adams may be the most three-dimensional Lois Lane yet, but while she’s given a lot to do, these two strike zero sparks whenever he’s forced to rescue her. Over and over again.
Snyder, whose stamp on this version becomes very apparent in the second half, goes right for the mythological jugular — Crowe’s narration of his homeplanet’s history is a direct descendant of the classic WWII-era animated Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons and their propagandist look. The final battle for Metropolis spends a full 45 minutes straining to top Hollywood’s summer-blockbuster Wow Factor, incongruously at the expense of what seems like tens of thousands of innocent civilians, but since all Snyder knows is camp, the Sucker Punch-style set pieces come off puzzlingly cheesy in the context of Goyer’s gritty world. (You won’t necessarily believe a man can fly, even with a reported budget of $225 huge.)
Caught between two incomplete visions, Man of Steel still manages to be a decent Superman retelling, but as the second reboot in just seven years, this myth needed to be rebuilt completely from the ground up. Neither Snyder or Goyer, in the process of working against each other, ever get around to answering the two essential questions posed by a 2013 Superman movie: 1) Why should we care about a guy who’s so obviously morally and physically superior to everyone on Earth? 2) How the fuck do you top the battle scenes in The Avengers?