"Man of Steel," the latest attempt to fire up the Superman movie franchise is a technically awesome film. Just about every scene, even when it's relatively quiet, is packed with things to look at, things to look for, things to marvel at.
Remember the tagline for the first installment of the Christopher Reeve version of "Superman" way back in 1978: "You'll believe a man can fly"?
In "Man of Steel," you'll not only believe a man can fly, you'll believe he can do just about anything, except, perhaps, make you care very much about what happens to him.
That's because while the aforementioned special effects are astounding, when it comes to garnering emotional attachment to any of the characters, the film is strangely cold and impassive.
It's almost as if "Man of Steel's" heart is tainted with a bit of green kryptonite: not enough to kill it, but enough to reduce its superpowers and take it down a peg or two from what it could have been.
"Man of Steel" begins with the obligatory nod to the rebooting of any film series: the origin story. We open on Krypton, where scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is assisting in the delivery of his son, the future Superman. We're told little Kal-El (played as an adult by Henry Cavill) is the planet's first natural birth in millennia, because Kryptonian fetuses are nurtured in a womb-like Genesis chamber and are genetically imbued with everything they'll need to fit into predestined roles in their society.
By the way, why is an alien world's collection of test tube babies named after the first book in Earth's Bible?
Jor-El tries to convince his planet's leaders that the world is doomed because they've over mined its resources. Failing to persuade them, he prepares to launch his newborn son toward Earth, where the prescient scientist knows the infant will grow up to be considered a god.
Enter General Zod (Michael Shannon), who attempts a coup, but is ultimately banished, along with his followers, to the Phantom Zone, a world between dimensions, where they'll exist as ghost-like specters for all time.
Growing up on Earth, Kal-El hides his abilities, using his powers to help others only in secret. He's afraid of his abilities and of being ostracized because he's different than the rest of humanity. He doesn't want to become the world's most hunted alien.
Shannon's Zod is a genuine bad-ass, as are his Kryptonian cronies. They escape the Zone and then think nothing of trashing the Earth in an attempt to turn it into Krypton II.
The Man of Steel – and his dad – have to stop them, of course.
Crowe has a huge amount of screen time for someone whose character is dead, and much of the film is really about Jor-El versus Zod. Kal-El provides the brawn in the counter-plan against Zod, but his dad provides the brains.
And that's the crux of much of the film: an ear-splitting, eye-blasting battle between the good guy and a bunch of bad guys who are equally powerful and who cannot be harmed. How do you defeat someone who is just as indestructible as you are?
It's no spoiler to say the Man of Steel (the word "Superman" is barely uttered in the film's 143-minute running time) manages to save the day, but how he does it is such a departure from the Superman mythos that I was dumbfounded by writer David S. Goyer's decision to use it.
Director Zack Snyder pours on the special effects. The scenes of Kal-El flying – the one super-ability I'd love to have – are technically perfect. There's even the flare and sound when he breaks the sound barrier. The scenes of his first attempts are funny as he tries to master the ability to leap tall mountains in a single bound, and they're one of the few instances of humor in the film. Unfortunately, we never really experience the beauty and peace of what it must be like to glide lazily through the air. Kal is always zooming around, in such a rush to get from Point A to Point B that the audience really never gets to enjoy the ride.
This should have been an easy movie to make. Snyder obviously knows Superman's abilities, and presents them wonderfully onscreen, but he isn't able to craft an engaging story around them. Any of the three films in DC's "Batman" trilogy were better at grabbing at your emotions, as were Marvel Comics' rivals Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.
In "Man of Steel," however, it's not just Superman's iconic blue suit and red cape waiting to be filled; it's our emotional expectations as well.