As iconic as he has been since his creation in the 1930s, Superman has always been something of a problematic character -- particularly on film.
Over time, Supes has become all but indestructible, the rampaging Doomsday of the comic books aside. He is so true blue and virtuous and, yes, All-American that he has no nuance, certainly none of the dark corners of the soul that afflict Batman and other superheroes. There is a reason why Green Arrow always refers to him as the Big Blue Boy Scout.
Only occasionally do slivers of something more complex pierce the Superman iconography: the superheroes as misguided gods theme of the graphic novel "Kingdom Come," the teen angst of television's "Smallville."
The makers of the new "Man of Steel" -- director Zack Snyder ("300") and screenwriter David S. Goyer working on a story from producer Christopher Nolan (director of the Dark Knight films) -- seize on those hints of gray in their reboot of a franchise that hasn't really clicked since 1980s "Superman II." The result is a film that while relentlessly grim and badly in need of humor, manages to be a smart, nuanced take on the Superman mythology. It successfully tweaks the now-familiar Superman origin story to make it more complex and more interesting. And it carries enough visual and action punch to succeed on that level.
The Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) we first meet in "Man of Steel" is hardly a Superman (that name for the character is actually used only once in the movie). He is a man in his 30s drifting through life, going from job to job with only occasional flashes of his powers. Much of the first half of the film consists of flashbacks to the dying planet of Kyrpton and to the Smallville of Clark's youth.
There are far more psychological layers to this Superman-in-the-making with a fuller exploration of the tragic Kyrpton and Clark's relationship with his adopted Earth parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane).
In fact, big chunks of the early "Man of Steel" are carried by Costner's Kent and by Russell Crowe's Jor-El, Superman's two fathers. Crowe, in particular, is a weighty presence as he defends his son Kal-El long enough for the baby to be sent rocketing to Earth and away from the clutches of General Zod (Michael Shannon), a military leader staging a coup against the government in what he sees as one last attempt to save the planet.
One big shift in the Superman storyline comes when Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) discovers his secret early on and actually helps him protect it. That doesn't last long, though, as General Zod and his followers (the only other survivors of the destruction of Krypton) turn up looking for Kal-El. Since most of humanity didn't know there was an all-powerful, Godlike alien walking the planet, they're not sure whose side to take and the American military simply wants to blow the heck out of all the superbeings.
As you might expect, this all ends up in an extended and often spectacular battle that takes out most of Smallville and a good chunk of Metropolis. The final showdown between Superman and Zod is particularly long and brutal, ending with a "Dark Knight"-like moment that may jolt some of the audience.
I've never been a huge fan of Snyder's work. (He really made a hash out of the brilliant Alan Moore/David Gibbons' comic series "The Watchmen.") But on "Man of Steel," he does a respectable and sometimes inspired job of remaking the basic Superman tale.
Cavill is perfectly fine as Supes although it's not until the very end that he gets to flash the kind of charm and sly wit Christopher Reeves brought to the role. Shannon, a terrific actor, is a big plus as Zod and you want to see more of Adams as Lois because she animates every scene she is in. Crowe, Costner and Lane all do fine by their parts.
That said, "Man of Steel" is just too grim to be fully successful and way too heavy-handed in its attempts to draw parallels between Clark/Kal-El and Jesus. OK, guys, we get it -- Godlike figure willing to sacrifice himself for all mankind -- so let it go.
If just a few glimmers of the wry humor of, say, "The Avengers" and of the joy that was watching Christopher Reeves soar into the skies for the first time had made their way into "Man of Steel," this film really would have been something.
For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
'MAN OF STEEL'
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sci-fi action and violence)
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon
Director: Zack Snyder
Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes