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.
The question of whether or not Clark should reveal himself to humankind is soon rendered moot, however, by the arrival of another spaceship, bearing his dad's old nemesis General Zod. The general, who evidently watched The Dark Knight during his long journey to Earth, immediately takes a page out of the Joker's book and demands that Kal-El surrender himself or he'll start killing Earthlings.
Inevitably, Zod and his followers announce their Evil Plan for the Human Race, and it falls to the newly christened Superman to foil it. This entails a great deal of fighting: punches are thrown, and cars too; flight and heat vision get their requisite workouts; and Zod's starship levels half the skyscrapers in—Manhattan? Metropolis? Either way, it's played by a combination of Chicago and Vancouver.
As the man of steel, Cavill (best known from Showtime's The Tudors) displays a magnetic presence and topographic physique in the star-making role that had narrowly eluded him in the past. (He was the runner-up to play Bond in Casino Royale but was deemed too young; Twilight author Stephenie Meyer called him "my perfect Edward," but by the time the novel was optioned he was deemed too old.) As Lois Lane, Adams shows so much pluck that it's a wonder she isn't conscripted for duty on a poultry farm. And the rest of the cast (which also features Ayelet Zurer and Diane Lane as Clark's biological and adoptive mothers, respectively, and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White) fulfill their obligations with aplomb. I do wish, though, that Shannon (as Zod) had been asked to dial back his patented brand of wide-eyed crazy at least intermittently.