Seventy-five years ago, as the Greatest Generation geared up to save the planet from tyranny, a figure of Christ-like perfection standing up for Earth's right to exist was precisely what pop culture needed. In 1938, an alien savior in red underwear appeared in newsprint, establishing a new form of allegorical fiction. Seven years later, the threat of global fascism lay dismantled. For Superman, it was all downhill from there. Original archetypes don't adapt well (see: the Sex Pistols, Hulk Hogan, Cheerios), and as the world changed, old Supes stayed the same, fighting for truth, justice and the American Way, even as those definitions blurred, warped and finally lost meaning. Only dying made him interesting, and even that was temporary.
Comic-book fans have decried superheroism's founding father as a crusty anachronism for over two decades now. But it doesn't take a geek scholar to recognize that an invincible, morally superior star-man isn't going to fly in an age when all heroes are antiheroes—especially if he can fly. There's a reason the Superman mythos has been revisited on film only one other time since 1987, and it's the same reason people fall asleep in church: Flawlessness is boring. Approaching Superman in the post-Dark Knight era means either altering fundamental aspects of the character or embracing full-blown camp. Or, y'know, doing what Zack Snyder does in Man of Steel: recycling the origin story with stone-faced seriousness, and blowing shit up for 2½ hours.
On one hand, it's a good move. The last thing the summer needed was a broody Superman movie, particularly one directed by the guy who made Sucker Punch. Early trailers suggested we were going to get Existential Crisis-Man, what with the operatic score, shots of drizzly shipyards, and the imprimatur of Mr. Monochrome himself, producer Christopher Nolan. Turns out, this is a Zack Snyder joint after all. He spends the first 20 minutes of Man of Steel on Krypton, not so much to reacquaint audiences with the tumultuous infancy of baby Kal-El as to show off the CGI planet he's created before blowing it to smithereens. As the escape pod containing the future Clark Kent hurtles toward Earth, Snyder inverts the 2001 jump-cut, leaping from space to a fishing boat, where a thirtysomething Kent (Henry Cavill) rescues workers trapped on a burning oil rig, then leaps into a flashback from his childhood, where he lifts his school bus out of a river, and on and on for the next 143 minutes. Snyder can't film three seconds of laundry flapping in a gentle breeze without getting jittery, let alone stop to ponder the thin discrepancies between good and evil. This is his Superman, and he isn't going to think about much of anything else.
But if Snyder wasn't going to rethink Superman for the 21st century, what the hell is the point? Sure, his Man of Steel modernizes the action of Richard Donner's original genre-birthing trilogy, destroying Metropolis in a 45-minute climax of explosions, flying debris and turbo-mode fight sequences, but Christopher Reeve's '70s and '80s Man of Steel felt more urbane, almost relatable. Cavill looks the part, with his square jaw and action-figure chest, but he's mostly there to fill out a suit. That suit, with its darker hues and more form-fitting design, is actually the most updated thing here. The film plays out episodically, grazing past childhood and years as a jobless drifter, hinting at complexities Snyder doesn't have the patience to explore. Cavill isn't the only one who suffers: The typically mesmeric Michael Shannon, as General Zod, is reduced to a permanent bug-eyed scowl. Amy Adams has more to do than the Lois Lanes of the past, meaning she gets to fire a couple photon guns.
Is it possible for Superman, in 2013, to grip the zeitgeist like Batman and the Avengers? He doesn't have to be a scowly, growly antihero or a wisecracking frat boy. He just has to be more than what he is right now. In Snyder's hands, he's the same thing he's always been: just a god in spandex. Critic's Grade: C
Man of Steel is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at St. Johns Twin, Eastport, Clackamas, Cedar Hills, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Pioneer Place, Division, Roseway.