If casting really were everything, Man of Steel would be phenomenal: Henry Cavill soars away with the title Best Looking Superman Ever; Russell Crowe brings emotional depth to the role of his father, Jor-El; Michael Shannon glowers as Jor-El's power-hungry nemesis, General Zod, yet makes us see that Zod believes he's trying to save their planet from destruction. (Why Jor-El has an Australian accent and Zod sounds American remains a nagging mystery. Are they from different parts of Krypton?) Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are unexpected but touching as the lovable and loving Earth parents who found the baby Superman when his pod from outer space crashed on their Kansas farm.
But this overheated action film reminds us that casting isn't everything. The film's first half is engaging enough. We meet Clark Kent as a young man with an identity crisis: to reveal his superpowers or not? Cavill's Clark is strong, sensitive, with a conscience -- a Superguy for our times. By the last hour, though, director Zack Snyder has turned the movie into a gigantic bonfire of explosions for the sake of explosions and nothing more. It's a lost opportunity because Man of Steel had the potential to be that rare thing: genre-plus, the kind of emotionally resonant beyond-action crossover that the Dark Knight series is.
That was a real possibility; the story is by the Dark Knight team of Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (Goyer wrote this screenplay). As in their screenplay for Batman Begins, here they offer a hero's origin story. The opening sequences of Man of Steel fluidly blend action and character, in a microcosm of what the whole thing could have been: on Krypton, an embattled planet of glittery silver images and shape-shifting hologram faces, Jor-El and his wife decide they must save their son by sending him away. As General Zod makes a thwarted grab for power (yes, there are battle scenes) we feel the parents' wrenching loss and their idealism about their boy's peaceful role in a new world.
Yet all that X-ray vision stuff can make a kid an outcast, and little Clark Kent, who doesn't yet know he's Kal-El, has a hard time fitting in. As a young man he's adrift, until one day his powers are discovered by a certain dogged investigative reporter. Amy Adams plays Lois Lane as fearless but also appropriately ordinary, with the kind of wholesome looks a farm boy like Clark might go for.
Fathers and sons, Clark's questions about his own origins, fraught moral choices everywhere, including Lois's journalistic dilemma about whether to reveal Clark as an alien. What more could a story ask for? But all those juicy elements are ultimately buried under Snyder's onslaught of predictable, visually unoriginal action. Zod attacks, a gas station blows up -- as if we need to see one more exploding gas station on screen -- terrified people run down the streets as glass shatters from skyscrapers, there's something about pods syncing up to restore Earth's gravity to its normal pull, on and on ... it's exhausting and eventually a little bit dull at two and a quarter hours.
All those explosions are exactly what an action blockbuster needs, of course, and Man of Steel is a perfectly good one on its own terms. If you love action, it's all there; if you don't you can always gawk at Cavill. And if you want genre-plus, you can always revisit a Dark Knight.