Zack Snyder's Superman reboot may be titled "Man of Steel," but kryptonite is the element that steals the show, with the film's focus being a threat from its hero's birth planet, Krypton.
To revive the franchise, director Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer expand on Superman's (Henry Cavill) origin, opening with a lengthy sequence detailing his birth and his parents' (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) decision to launch him into space for a new life on Earth. Krypton is dying, and its top general, Zod (Michael Shannon), has been exiled for attempting to save it by staging a coup. Their hope is that their son can learn to live peacefully with Earth's humans.
From there, the menacing mood never dissipates. Growing up in Kansas with loving adoptive parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), Clark Kent realizes he possesses physical features and abilities unlike any human. But it's not until Clark meets the space age ghost of his birth father – his consciousness animated by a Krypton aircraft uncovered on Earth – that he learns he is meant to one day save humanity.
The opportunity to do so comes soon after, when Zod and his forces invade Earth, planning to recreate Krypton with their "world engine" while wiping out mankind in the process. To take on Zod, Superman has the help of ballsy reporter-cum-love-interest Lois Lane (Amy Adams). But first they must gain the trust of other humans, particularly U.S. military brass (Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni) and the top scientist (Richard Schiff) leading the charge against the alien invasion.
"Man of Steel," not surprisingly, is heavy on the action and the carnage, with Zod's climatic attack on Metropolis recalling imagery of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The pacing is tight, and the movie never loses momentum – which is remarkable, considering it clocks in at nearly two and a half hours. Cavill carries the burden of the famed role (celebrating its 75th anniversary this year) on his very cut shoulders. He ably handles the fight scenes – of which there are many – often supplanted with plenty of CGI as he and Zod tumble through the air. But Cavill's piercing blue eyes betray the occasional moment of vulnerability, particularly when Superman parses out his fate.
Lois is, thankfully, not just a notebook-carrying damsel in distress, but an active player in the battle against the Kryptons. The rest of the supporting cast is dutifully skeptical of the duo's assertions about Superman's motives, and "Man of Steel" even throws in a Julian Assange-type character for good measure.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in "Man of Steel" is how seriously the movie takes itself. Attempts at humor are so infrequent and out of place that they feel off-putting. Rarely does anyone crack a smile – audience members included.
With Christopher Nolan credited for the story and as a producer, "Man of Steel" includes a few of his signature flourishes, particularly a booming score by Hans Zimmer and an ashy color palette. Yet "Man of Steel" lacks the social commentary of Nolan's "Dark Knight" series. Rather, the thematic conflict is one between destiny and Clark's ability to choose to be a hero. It's an existential crisis to be sure, with the fate of planet Earth resting on his decision. But that doesn't mean Superman can't have a little fun in the process.