Man of Steel, the movie that dares not speak its name, uttering the S word only once, opens in a CGI sci-fi universe reminiscent of Avatar. No giant Smurfs, but plenty of bizarre creatures and vaguely cloud-forest images. Russell Crowe shows up, reprising his weird fake English accent from Les Mis but now playing a Jedi, including requisite Prequel Mullet, and before long the movie looks like Star Wars by way of Alien, a kind of PG-13 HR Giger, biomechanical but desexualized, down to the Kryptonian asexual reproduction, even as everything on Krypton also looks like a phallic symbol. (They’re obviously sublimating their sexual frustration.)
Then Michael Shannon shows up, and you know he’s a bad guy because of the shape of Michael Shannon’s head. Krypton blows up on cue, Kal El is launched in another phallus, and before long, Clark Kent is a grownup on Earth—33 years old, a portentous age that the movie does not fail to point out to us. Then we’re in X-Men territory, as the heavily muscled and even more heavily chest-haired Henry Cavill drifts, just as heavily muscled and equally hirsute Hugh Jackman did as Wolverine over a decade ago, trying to understand his place in the world, the charm on his necklace again his only clue. Cue “Seasons,” the depressing Chris Cornell acoustic grunge song from the movie Singles, as the Artist Formerly Known as Superman swipes a conveniently flattering flannel shirt from a clothesline and hitchhikes to the next identity a la David (not Bruce) Banner in the TV show The Incredible Hulk. If only the movie played that music instead:
The movie is cut with flashbacks to young Clark’s childhood, where, rather than having super abilities, he’s treated, and behaves, more like a child with disabilities. It’s an interesting metaphor that the movie doesn’t do much with—Smallville, the TV show, did it much better. Ma and Pa Kent show up, although Kevin Costner’s Jonathan isn’t what I associate with the role. Rather than teaching Clark to celebrate who he is and always do what’s right, he warns him that he has to hide his true self. Again, shades of X-Men, which I always read as a reversal of the Superman story. While classic Superman is a wonder of assimilation, cheered and welcomed by humanity for his differences, the X-Men are feared and suspected for their differences, and in Man of Steel’s revision, Superman is not only an alien but alienated.
Christopher Nolan co-wrote and produced the film, and he brings his rebooted Batman sensibilities to the project—Superman is dark and brooding, not just orphaned, like Batman, but orphaned twice, by both Jor El and Jonathan Kent. Before long, General Zod’s mean-shaped head is back and threatening to TAKE OVER THE WORLD, at which point the movie takes its cues from War of the Worlds, down to the giant tripods, and Cloverfield and other 9/11/2001-infleunced films, all shaky handcams and masses of people fleeing the dust, wreckage, and debris of falling buildings. Meanwhile, a Transformers-like cityscape CGI battle ensues for, I don’t know, like an hour. Superman wins! Yay! And kisses Lois Lane, even though Metropolis looks like it was hit by a hundred 9/11s. No matter. In the final scene, the Clark Kent we know and love—glasses!—shows up in a miraculously restored Metropolis (although it took over a decade to put up a single new tower in Ground Zero), and we’re ready for the next adventure.
Look. I don’t want to be a jerk here. But I took my boys, ages 11 and 15, to see this movie, hoping for—for what? The way I felt when I saw Superman with Christopher Reeve, I guess. Or Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or the many movies that I can honestly say felt like a formative childhood experience. I’m not one to wax nostalgic. And there’s nothing exactly wrong with the picture, as the discrepancy between the fan ratings (largely positive) and critics’ reviews (negative to lukewarm) suggest. But in borrowing from, let’s recap here, Avatar, Star Wars, Alien, X-Men, Hulk, Smallville, Batman, War of the Worlds, Cloverfield, and whatever I left out, director Zak Snyder and Nolan seem profoundly embarrassed by Superman himself. Superman thrives on the dramatic irony of Clark Kent’s nebbishy persona, the one that Reeve did so well, the one that is as absent here as Superman himself is. We know who he really is, and we’re special for it. But there is no Clark Kent here, and no Superman. Nolan’s Batman movies got to the core of that character, a man pushed by tragedy to the brink of psychosis, living in a noir nightmare, neurotically and impotently trying to avenge and atone for his parents’ deaths. But Superman is not Batman, and Man of Steel does not get to the core of Superman. In trying to reboot him, it abandons what I liked about the character–his contrasting personas, his simplicity, his good nature, his fun. It should be awesome to be Superman. We don’t need to learn that [spoiler?] he himself is somehow responsible for luring Zod to Earth, or [spoiler x2?] not saving Jonathan, that he struggles with who he is, that humans fear him. (The only human who used to fear Superman was Lex Luthor.) In the end, Man of Steel is a perfectly adequate summer special effects extravaganza. It is not Superman. Which is a shame.
Time: 55 minutes
 “Superman.” What S word did you think I meant?
 Usually British accents come easier to Aussies and Kiwis. Not so Crowe.
 Michael Shannon will make phrenologists of us all.
 I will admit that I was happy to see the chest hair. I’m not only a member of the Chest Hair Club for Men; I’m also its president.
 Or wax anything. See: chest hair.