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'Man of Steel' should be better than it is, but hope remains for sequels


It has the hallmarks of a failed Match.com date.

Sure, you have common interests. Namely superheroes, Christopher Nolan and watching things blow up real good.

And it’s definitely a looker.

But while listening to it yammer on for 2½ hours about where it comes from and all of its daddy issues, you realize there’s just no spark.

“Man of Steel” kicks off with an extended look at a vastly different Krypton — no sterile ice palaces here — than we’ve come to know. Not to mention a badass Jor-El (Russell Crowe) who’s about as far removed as he could be from the white-haired peacenik draped in glowing tinfoil of 1978’s sillier-than-you-remember “Superman.”

There are a few departures. The genesis chambers, for example, in which all of Krypton’s children except Kal-El, the planet’s first natural birth in centuries, are grown to fill specific roles. But for the most part, the backstory is the same as ever.

General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his cohorts stage an unsuccessful coup and are exiled to the Phantom Zone. (This time, though, they’re not smushed into a pane of Plexiglas.) Shortly after a newborn Kal-El is shipped off to Earth, Krypton explodes.

Fear not, Crowe fans. Jor-El, or at least his consciousness, returns at key moments to interact with various characters, rendering him equal parts Jor-El and Jor-Exposition.

“Man of Steel” wisely skips over Kal-El’s formative years as Clark Kent, covering his time in Smallville with his adoptive parents Martha and Jonathan (Diane Lane and a weathered, spot-on Kevin Costner) with a few flashbacks.

The first time we see Clark (“The Tudors’ ” Henry Cavill), he’s a ripped, bearded drifter, “Deadliest Catch”-ing his way across the Pacific Northwest with absolutely no interest in journalism. (Et tu, Superman?)

The Daily Planet is still there, though. Thankfully, it hasn’t been reduced to a blog or a snarky gossip site. It even still has the budget to send intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, far more believable than Margot Kidder) around the globe, including to the site of a mysterious craft submerged in ice where she first meets Clark.

That craft, a scout ship sent from Krypton 18,000 years ago, also acts as a homing beacon for Zod and his crew, who’ve spent the past 33 years hunting Kal/Clark across the universe. Zod, full of Shannon’s finely honed brand of quivering rage, interrupts TV broadcasts and hijacks cellphones across the globe with a message for Clark: “Surrender within 24 hours or watch this world suffer the consequences.”

What follows is a convoluted plan by which Zod — who’s given new depth with the revelation that he was genetically engineered to protect Krypton — wants to rebuild the dead planet on Earth using a “world engine,” a “phantom drive” and other assorted whatchamacallits.

There’s also a series of uninspired fight scenes that go on longer than that runway in “Fast & Furious 6.”

“Man of Steel” should be so much better than this, considering the script comes from David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”), with a story by him and Nolan, who so masterfully rejuvenated Batman in the “Dark Knight” trilogy.

Director Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) clearly wants to distance “Man of Steel” from the Christopher Reeve movies — and their spiritual successor, 2006’s “Superman Returns” — but he may have overcorrected.

There’s no slapstick, no golly-gee enthusiasm, and no glasses-on, glasses-off chicanery. But there’s also very little joy. Even a single, well-timed snippet from John Williams’ iconic score would have blown the roof off of theaters.

After the success of “The Avengers,” Warner Bros. is desperate to get a Justice League movie off the ground. “Man of Steel” even recalls some of those Marvel movies. Its showdown on the main drag of Smallville is reminiscent of a similar set piece in “Thor,” and its widespread decimation of New York — err, Metropolis — by aliens a la “The Avengers” can’t shake its been-there, destroyed-that vibe.

The somber “Man of Steel,” though, fits squarely into Nolan’s world, paving the way for “Justice League.” If the previous movies were comic books, this is most definitely a graphic novel.

There’s still plenty to like about “Man of Steel,” thanks in large part to its top-notch cast. Reeve is, was and always will be the ultimate Superman. But with the other possible exception of Crowe’s replacing Marlon Brando’s Jor-El, every other actor is an upgrade.

And it’s important to remember that the “Dark Knight” trilogy didn’t become a classic until it got past its own origin story.

I’m excited to see where “Man of Steel” goes, now that it’s accomplished its own bit of world building.

There’s every reason to expect the inevitable sequels will be better.

Even if you don’t fall in love, they’ll surely make for a good booty call.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.