A grand, and grandly disappointing venture, "Man of Steel" reaches for the sun in trying to reset the Superman franchise, then plummets to earth in a storm of hyperactive CGI action sequences and overstuffed plotting.
It begins with hope and even a touch of awe, a story of fathers and sons, less about a man who can lift buildings than a wayward soul seeking to find a home on an alien world. But then the bad guy arrives, even before the main character has had a chance to establish himself, and the movie is overtaken by standard villainous sneering and apocalyptic dooms.
This film, directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer, has a couple of main problems. The most obvious is that it's two movies worth of material shoehorned into one. And this leads directly to the other: Superman never really gets to be Superman.
Oh, Henry Cavill does eventually don the familiar blue-and-red costume -- though, like everything else from the dead planet Krypton in the movie, it's reimagined with a hard-edged, militaristic texture, less apparel than armor. The British actor has a quietly commanding presence onscreen; he believably personifies a demigod.
(Though his lean, almost emaciated face seems incongruously perched atop the mountain of muscles he packed onto his torso for this role.)
No, what I mean is that Clark Kent, aka Kal-El of Krypton, spends the first half of the movie trying to find out who he is, and the second half trading epic haymakers with his enemies -- laying waste to half of Metropolis in the process. There's a missing second act where Superman reveals himself to the world, earns their trust, and is embraced as humanity's champion.
Indeed, some of the film's most powerful scenes involve Clark receiving tutelage from his two fathers -- Jonathan Kent (a strong Kevin Costner), the Kansas farmer who found his crashed spaceship and raised him up, and Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the enlightened Krypton scientist who dispatched him as a babe to Earth to be mankind's savior.
(Underlining the notion of Kal-El-as-Christ, in this version of the Superman mythology he doesn't declare his extraordinary abilities until the age of 33, the same as a certain other celestial pilgrim.)
There's a push and pull between the two men's teachings: Jor-El (who communicates through a holographic representation of his consciousness) daring his natural-born son to embrace his potential for greatness, constantly testing his limits, while Kent urges caution and forbearance, forcing his adopted child to absorb the pain of being an outcast rather than inflicting society with a knowledge they're not ready to bear.
Really, this is all the film needs in terms of narrative to take flight, and for awhile at least, it soars.
Things are complicated by the infiltration of a nosy journalist, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who comes asking questions about a mystery man who turns up here and there, performing amazing acts before disappearing. Clark and Lois form the beginnings of an important friendship, and we expect her to be the vehicle through which he emerges to the public.
But then General Zod arrives, and the quiet power the movie has built up is blasted away by a cacophony of explosions and destruction -- not to mention Hans Zimmer's bombastic musical score.
A usurper imprisoned by the Krypton leadership for an attempted coup, Zod sees himself as the true redeemer of his people, with dreams of establishing a new generation on this planet. (Of course, the existing species must go.)
Zod has about a dozen followers, each of whom replicates Superman's powers in Earth's atmosphere, or nearly so. And he's got an obligatory end-of-the-world plan ... actually, two: terraform the planet into a copy of Krypton, and some screwy twaddle about extracting the entire genetic plans for their race from Kal-El's cells.
Michael Shannon is terrific as Zod, a combination of arrogance and perseverance that allows him to justify unspeakable cruelty. And their fight scenes have a certain kinetic urgency, occasionally overindulged by Snyder, as their bodies slam through buildings like flotsam spun out of a tornado.
But this doesn't change the fact that Zod belongs in a separate movie, where his malevolence can sprawl and take root. Here, he shows up and immediately sets about his destructive plans, like a Cliff's Notes version of a cinematic scoundrel.
Superman may be capable of many astounding feats. But one thing he can't do is turn two films worth of storytelling into a single good one.
Christopher Lloyd is co-founder of The Film Yap.