The Man of Steel had gotten rusty. While his DC Comics counterpart Batman was conquering the world via the Dark Knight trilogy, and the rivals over at Marvel Comics were raking in the cash with "The Avengers" and all its spinoff films, Superman had been put into mothballs.
His last cinematic outing, 2006's costly "Superman Returns," was director Bryan Singer's affectionate tribute to the 1978 Richard Donner film starring Christopher Reeve. But the movie, which grossed $390 million, felt too familiar and reverent to justify its budget of $270 million. Although Superman comics continued to sell well, and the TV series "Smallville" ran for 10 seasons depicting the adventures of a teenage Clark Kent, Hollywood had temporarily forgotten about the invulnerable do-gooder.
But with the "Batman" finale rapidly approaching, and comic-book movies showing no sign of slowing down, executives at Warner Bros. knew they needed to figure out a way to revive their most iconic -- and potentially lucrative -- hero.
The question was: How do you make a 75-year-old character cool and hip to modern audiences? "It was really a case of the good Superman movies having run their course," says director Zack Snyder ("Watchmen," "300"). "They had used up all the character's battery life, and we needed to juice him up. I have great respect for all those films, and they endure in pop culture for a reason. But when we started thinking about this one, we couldn't think of it as any movie that had ever been made before. We couldn't cherry-pick the stuff we liked, such as that famous John Williams score. We had to make everything new. We haven't seen a Superman origin story since 1978. My kids have no idea where he comes from."
A critical part of making Superman relatable was casting. The actor who would portray Kal-El, son of Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe), needed to be a relatively fresh face with little baggage from other films, but charismatic and sympathetic enough to make the audience care about the woes of a being who can do practically anything.
U.K.-born Henry Cavill, who had acted in a few movies ("Immortals," Woody Allen's "Whatever Works") but was best known for his recurring role on the cable-TV drama "The Tudors," landed the part.
"I made a point not to think of any of the other movies when it came to my performance," Cavill says. "I wanted to feel like were telling this story for the first time. And I could relate to the loneliness and estrangement of the character. That was something quite personal to me. When I was at boarding school, I didn't have many buddies, and when I've traveled, I've often been in strange cities by myself. I've spent a lot of time sitting down just watching people behave the way they behave. That's what I think Kal-El does -- he's watching the world and trying to make sense of it. That gives him a sense of an outsider."
Although Snyder is known primarily for visually stunning movies -- and "Man of Steel" has more building-flattening action than the rest of the Superman movies combined -- he says that wasn't the aspect of the project that lured him in.
"I'm a huge comic-book fan, but I had already made a comic-book movie ['Watchmen']," he says. "I wanted the opportunity to make a superhero movie in a way that people could appreciate the way I appreciated the comics as a kid."
In his 2 1/2 star review, which ran in yesterday's Newsday, movie critic Rafer Guzman said "Man of Steel" "can be entertaining and hits some satisfying notes."
Here are what other critics said:
* "The casting is impeccable, beginning with Henry Cavill as an uncommonly brooding but refreshingly deep Superman. The script doesn't give him much to say, but it doesn't need to." -- Toronto Star
* If every generation gets the Superman it deserves, "Man of Steel" suggests we've earned one utterly without wit or charm." -- McClatchy-Tribune News Service
* "Director Zack Snyder does a respectable and sometimes inspired job of remaking the basic Superman tale." -- San Jose Mercury-News
* "Never has a race to save the fate of humankind seemed so tedious." -- Entertainment Weekly