Man of Steel: The Dark Knight-ification of Superman

The reboot, from director Zack Snyder and co-writer Christopher Nolan, is thoughtful, ambitious—and less fun than it might have been.
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Warner Bros.

Early in Man of Steel, we watch as a school bus carrying a teenage Clark Kent and his classmates veers out of control and plunges off a bridge into a river. As the bus sinks below the surface, its trapped and terrified occupants frantically seize what appear to be their last gasps of air. Lucky for them young Clark is aboard! He lifts the bus back up from the depths and saves the day.

But word gets around that something out of the ordinary has taken place—the parent of one of the rescued kids declares it "an act of Providence"—leading Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) to lecture his adoptive son on the need to be more discreet with his superpowers. "What was I supposed to do, let them die?" Clark asks. His dad replies, "Maybe."

Wait—what? Maybe Clark should have let a busload of kids drown rather than risk revealing his powers? Forgive me, but I thought this had been meant as a rhetorical question.

Welcome to the Dark Knight-ification of Superman. Yes, the film is directed by Zack Snyder, but it is heavy (in all senses of the word) with the imprint of co-writer and co-producer Christopher Nolan, who's followed his decade with the caped crusader by taking on the task of rebooting DC Comics' other superstar superhero. The tone is somber, the palette is grayish, and you can scarcely swing a cape without it getting snagged on some moral dilemma.

Man of Steel is an audacious undertaking, a stylistic and thematic mash-up of Avatar, The Matrix, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day, The Thing, Thor, and (especially) Bryan Singer's X-Men films. What is open to question—and I confess to finding myself uncharacteristically ambivalent on the subject—is whether the resulting heavyweight summer blockbuster is very much fun.

The story begins on Krypton, a planet of floating robotic valets and winged mounts that would make a Nazgul sick with envy. There's just one catch: Due to the government's poor management of natural resources (it has taken the "drill, baby, drill" mantra to improbable extremes) the planet is about to explode. Krypton's military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon) responds to this news by fomenting rebellion; its top scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) opts for putting his infant son, Kal-El, in a tiny spaceship and blasting him to Earth. (In a neat inversion, what makes this savior-to-be special is that Krypton grows most of its children artificially and Kal-El, by contrast, was the product of the planet's first "natural" birth in centuries—i.e., his is a uniquely non-immaculate conception.)

From there, we flash forward to Earth about 30 years later, where a handsome drifter (Henry Cavill), equal parts pectoral muscle and facial hair, is making his way across Canada, hopscotching from truckstops to military installations. And no, before you ask, this isn't Wolverine, whose reboot doesn't arrive until next month. Rather he's Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent (no one's thought to call him the S-word yet), and he's looking for answers about his origins that he can't find in the copious flashbacks to his childhood in Kansas. Eventually, he finds them in an old Kryptonian spaceship that can project a hologram of his dead father. But intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) also finds him, and he pleads with her to let him stay un-found.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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