Playing Superman is sometimes seen as a curse for an actor. The career and life of George Reeves were blighted by his association with the role, Kirk Alyn did little else of note, and Brandon Routh, from 2006s tepid Superman Returns, has hardly become a household name. Even Christopher Reeve, who had many fine credits apart from the tights and cape, is still chiefly remembered as the Krypton Man.
On the other hand, none of these actors had much right to grumble, in my opinion, because…well, because they got to play Superman! They had, at least at that point in their lives, the looks and the physique and the genial charm to play America’s own folk hero, our Hercules/Everyman/Immigrant-Makes-Good hybrid, not to mention the even better role of sly, likably milquetoast Clark Kent.
If you get to do that, anything else you get to do should be regarded as gravy. Besides, if you’re right for Superman there’s a decent chance you won’t be quite right for much else anyway.
That seems to have been the feeling toward the latest victim/favored son—British actor Henry Cavill, of TV’s The Tudors, was reportedly considered and passed over for James Bond, for Edward in the Twilight movies and for a key role in a Harry Potter flick. As Clark Kent/Cal-El in the current Man of Steel, he’s buff of bod and pretty of face, and if he has any personality to speak of, he doesn’t show it.
But the movie has plenty of more vibrant actors to make up for this. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer as Clark’s Kryptonian parents, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as his Kansan parents, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Richard Schiff as a mild-mannered scientist and Christopher Meloni and Harry Lennix as military men all contribute solid turns, and Amy Adams is beguiling as usual as Lois Lane, though in general I object to Lois Lanes that don’t wear big librarian-ish glasses.
The best performance, however, is by Michael Shannon as the villain, the exiled, enraged megalomaniac General Zod. Though Zod is from Krypton, he seems oddly flinty and Midwestern somehow—he might almost be a shady politician from Smallville. Shannon doesn’t have the weird, campy magnetism that Terence Stamp brought to the role in 1980’s Superman II—he’s a repellent figure. But he’s more dramatically substantive. Without overdoing it, he carries a hint of tragedy in his eyes.
This echoes both the merits and the downside of Man of Steel. Unlike most of Superman Returns, the new movie isn’t dull, but it’s on the heavy-handed side. Directed by Zack Snyder from a script by David S. Goyer, it retells, in its first half, Cal-El’s nativity and his escape from the dying planet Krypton, his arrival on Earth and adoption by the Kents, his discovery of his incomparable powers and his early attempts to help humankind. In its second half, it’s basically a loose remake of Superman II, with Zod and his comrades, banished from Krypton just before its destruction, invading Earth with an eye to remodeling it in their home planet’s image.
The ensuing clash between Zod’s forces and Superman is a special effects spectacle, no question, with cities crumbling before the might of cool spaceships that look like robber crabs or scarabs. There are superb, imaginative scenes earlier on, as well—like the young Clark unable to look at his teacher or classmates with seeing their skeletons and organs. But I found the movie a bit much—too many percussive explosions and collapsing building, too many pummeling fistfights, a little too much too much sturm und drang.\
What Man of Steel lacked, for me, was a fun, playful side. Part of the delight of the Superman myth has always been its unabashed, primary-color cheeriness, but Man of Steel has a chilly, haunted feel.
There are a couple of episodes—one on a oil rig, one on a school bus, and one involving a waitress being harassed—where the title character simply gets to come to people’s rescue, and they’re among the best moments in the picture. Why can’t we have a whole movie of this sort of thing? They’ve already turned Batman into a Dark Knight—would it be so terrible to have an uncomplicated, civic-minded Bright Knight?