We had an abortive rebooting of the Superman saga seven years ago ("Superman Returns"), but with Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel" we have ignition. The movie answers the inevitable question -- "No, really, this again?" -- by two doing two simple but difficult things: It hits the story from a different angle, and it maintains a reasonably high level of quality throughout.
The only inhibiting factor is that, here and there, "Man of Steel" shows symptoms of Iron Man-itis, with long battles that confuse the eye and call to mind a computer screen, not a movie screen. This is, alas, a modern disease, most virulent in June and July. It's also worth noting that of all of Snyder's pictures, "Man of Steel" is the least identifiable as his work.
The movie lacks the strong directorial signature, the strange dark intuition that made "Watchmen" and "300" so successful and even the failed "Sucker Punch" interesting. Yet if "Man of Steel" is Snyder at his most conventional, he's still more inspired and innovative than his competition.
Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan, the team that wrote "Batman Begins," this new entry could just as accurately have been called "Superman Begins," with its concentration on the angst of growing up different.
In true Goyer-Nolan fashion, Krypton is a lot like earth, only worse. Its leaders are complacent, and the planet has a serious environmental problem: It is about to blow up. Until it does, Snyder has the opportunity to create a world of rock and dark metal, with little metallic pods with sunflower-like faces hovering everywhere. The pods are robots and sound something like the iPhone's Siri, but without the wit.
After the baby Superman is sent in a rocket ship to earth, the screenplay does something quite shrewd, in terms of audience patience. It skips ahead to show Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) as a grown man, but then accounts for his childhood, in considerable detail, through flashbacks.
Because "Man of Steel" dares to take the Superman story seriously enough to pursue its real-world implications, we get to see how difficult it is for a little kid to live with X-ray vision. And we witness the gravity with which Superman's adoptive father (Kevin Costner) goes about raising a boy who can either save or wreck the world. Though he often comes across as a chatterbox in interviews, Costner is the best living actor at playing quiet American integrity and decency.
We tend not to talk about Supermen the way we talk about James Bonds, but if TV's George Reeves was Sean Connery, Cavill is Daniel Craig. He is in remarkable physical shape, possesses an underlying emotional turbulence and makes us believe that he really cares about people.
The 2006 "Superman Returns" was hampered by a villain that was more appealing than Superman. Here that's not an issue, not with a truly menacing and unhinged Michael Shannon as General Zod, flying through the universe all bug-eyed and raving, ready to depopulate the earth. And not with a woman of substance, such as Amy Adams' Lois Lane, in Superman's corner. Adams is as inspired a bit of casting as Kirsten Dunst was in the first "Spider-Man" series.
Somehow no planetary calamity counts for anything unless it happens in New York, where the likes of Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his Daily Planet staff can watch from the large picture windows. And so New York takes an even bigger beating here than San Francisco took in "Star Trek Into Darkness."
What will future psychologists and historians see in our era's recurring fantasies of urban destruction? When Zod takes over the world's TV screens, it's like a moment out of a Cold War sci-fi from the 1950s. And while we're posing questions with no answers, why is Clark Kent identified as 33-years-old, even though the actor playing him is only 30? Is Superman supposed to be the returned Jesus, or a second messiah?
"Man of Steel" runs 143 minutes but would have been better at 125, with 18 minutes of street fights between super-human beings trimmed. There's really nothing interesting about watching equally matched super-beings fight it out, because we have no sense of their power -- anything is possible, so nothing has meaning.
However, in whatever cut, the shot of Superman flying through an oil tanker and then a gas station, causing two explosions in his wake, deserves to be retained as a magnificent example of glorious summer overkill.
Thanks, "Man of Steel." Because of the scene where Superman battles two of his adversaries from the planet Krypton in downtown Smallville, wrecking most of an IHOP and a Sears store, I now associate pancakes and appliances with pain and suffering.
A sure hit, if only because of its 100 "global promotional partners" (according to Advertising Age) and an estimated $170 million in product placement and "collective promotional support," "Man of Steel" has all the stuff it takes to compete in the modern blockbuster world. Director Zack Snyder's granite-fisted 143-minute picture treats the Superman mythology with enough seriousness to satisfy scholars of the Bible or the Torah, let alone presold fans of the comic book hero.
This time no trace elements of camp intrude on the landscapes of Krypton, Metropolis or Smallville, Kan. We are a long, long way from "Superman II" (1981), my favorite of the Superman films to date, in which director Richard Lester, replacing Richard Donner, blended fantasy, humor and viciousness with surprising ease.
Well, forget the humor. Director Snyder is the man behind "300," "Watchmen" and "Sucker Punch," three decorative slabs of digital slaughter (enjoyed parts of the first; hated the other two). He also made the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead," by far Snyder's best so far. Working from a story by producer Christopher Nolan, "Man of Steel" turns Superman into a close cousin of Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy.
The scale of the destruction borders on the grotesque. By the time Superman squares off against General Zod (a fiercely effective Michael Shannon, bringing the interstellar glare of doom) in a climactic, city-destroying melee that goes on for what feels like weeks, it's no wonder the boy born Kal-El on Krypton eventually transforms into a bit of a prima donna. "I'm here to help, but it has to be on my own terms," Superman scolds Harry Lennix's Army general at one point.
Cavill looks great in the key outfit. Maybe that's enough. The crowd at a "Man of Steel" preview the other night exited the theater not excited, not chatty, but quiet, vaguely shellshocked. Was it the ridiculously loud volume levels? Or the pounding inflicted by the most protracted action sequences? Or both?
This is the secret to any superhero movie's success, bad, good or -- in the case of "Man of Steel" -- respectably in between. You must destroy the planet, or nearly, for Superman to save it, and if it's more work than fun to witness, in 2013: That's entertainment.
-- Michael Phillips
By Mick LaSalle
San Francisco Chronicle