Thanks, “Man of Steel.” Because of the scene where Superman battles two of his adversaries from the planet Krypton in downtown Smallville, wrecking most of an IHOP and a Sears store, I now associate pancakes and appliances with pain and suffering.
This time no trace elements of camp intrude on the landscapes of Krypton, Metropolis or Smallville, Kan. We are a long, long way from “Superman II” (1981). Director Zack Snyder is the man behind “300,” “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch,” three decorative slabs of digital slaughter. He also made the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” by far his best so far. Working from a story by producer Christopher Nolan, “Man of Steel” turns Superman into a close cousin of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy.
The scale of the destruction borders on the grotesque. By the time Superman (Henry Cavill) squares off against General Zod (a fiercely effective Michael Shannon, bringing the interstellar glare of doom) in a climactic, city-destroying melee that goes on for what feels like weeks, it’s no wonder the boy born Kal-El on Krypton eventually transforms into a bit of a prima donna. “I’m here to help, but it has to be on my own terms,” Superman scolds Harry Lennix’s Army general at one point.
Nolan’s Batman movies proved just how far a worldwide audience was willing to follow a caped comic book hero into the heart of darkness. “Man of Steel” ventures in the same direction, though with its emphasis on hand-held close-ups, the look of this film is deliberately rough-hewn. Snyder films the violence in “Man of Steel” the way he films most of the rest of the picture: like a man chasing tornadoes and not even trying to keep subjects in frame. It’s a choice, and not a bad one, necessarily — the Smallville farm scenes, in particular, respond well to the approach — but by the end it’s a visually limiting one.
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Few will care about such things. There are gut-wrenching (though not necessarily pleasurable) suspense scenes such as a school bus full of kids headed for a watery grave. The supporting cast includes such stalwart players as Laurence Fishburne (as editor Perry White), Christopher Meloni (as the toughest guy in the U.S. military) and Richard Schiff (a scientist, hanging around to explain magnetic polarities and such).
The crowd at a “Man of Steel” preview the other night exited the theater not excited, not chatty, but quiet, vaguely shellshocked. Was it the ridiculously loud volume levels? Or the pounding inflicted by the most protracted action sequences? Or both? This is the secret to any superhero movie’s success, bad, good or — in the case of “Man of Steel” — respectably in between.