How do you take your superheroes? I prefer mine light and sweet, but these days they mostly come dark and bitter. In the wake of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy, Spider-Man has gone all angsty, Iron Man suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and now we have a brooding "Man of Steel."
Look, up in the sky! It's a guy struggling with inner conflict! By casting Superman as a literal and metaphorical alien, "Man of Steel" aims to update a beloved but creaky icon for a problematic, post-9/11 world. It's written by David S. Goyer, who collaborated on Nolan's three "Batman" films, but this time the dark shadings feel like a fashionable Hollywood pose.
A reworking of the 1978 and 1980 "Superman" movies, "Man of Steel" can be entertaining and hits some satisfying notes. Brit Henry Cavill, chiseled and soulful, replaces the cherubic Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent, now a scruffy drifter hiding his superpowers. Clark (called "Superman" only twice) keeps rescuing folks and moving on, like Bruce Banner hiding his Hulk-ness. It's slow going, but director Zack Snyder handles the material sensitively. Clark's adoptive parents are played by Diane Lane and a genuinely moving Kevin Costner.
Reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), whose Daily Planet is now edited by Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, has grit and swagger but disappointingly little gift for banter. She mostly regards Clark as a source. "It's all downhill after the first kiss," she says, a dry wisecrack that turns out to be too true.
Superman's new costume has trendy new textures (and no red briefs!), but the biggest suit to fill may belong to the ruthless General Zod, first immortalized by Terence Stamp and here played by Michael Shannon ("Revolutionary Road"). Zod has now-obligatory whiffs of terrorism, but Shannon, an actor of almost supernatural intensity, plays him with a rage and empathy worthy of Shakespeare's Richard III. When he's on screen, "Man of Steel" earns its air of gravitas.
Mostly, though, the movie panders. Krypton is needlessly refashioned into Middle Earth, with dragons and wizards (Russell Crowe pontificates as Superman's all-knowing father, Jor-El), while Metropolis is decimated in a long sequence that's part Twin Towers re-enactment, part special-effects bonanza. "Man of Steel" may successfully resuscitate our most cherished superhero, but now he just looks like all the other guys in tights.
PLOT An earthbound alien with superpowers must protect his adopted planet from invaders.
CAST Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon
BOTTOM LINE Cavill broods handsomely as Superman, but this reboot skimps on fun and romance. Why so serious, chums?