At first blush Man of Steel is everything about Superman we've seen in movies before: the infant Kal-El's exodus to Earth from Krypton, his Midwest maturation as Clark Kent, his settling into his role as world protector from arch-villains. Marlon Brando always played his dad.
Man of Steel does things differently, with director Zack Snyder retelling the myth with intimately hand-held cameras and deep-meaning conflicts. Russell Crowe steps in as the father. Superman becomes something of an art house action hero, embodied by the appropriately dimpled and chiseled Henry Cavill. This is not your father's Superman, but he could be your mom's.
Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer look closer at the legend, answering questions previous Superman movies sidestepped, cutting faster to the fireworks. They explore the down side of young Clark Kent's situation — new kid moves into Earth, becomes a god — and the Krypton politics shipping him there. Superman movies typically cut from there to the Daily Planet. Man of Steel wonders what happened in between.
The movie projects an air of realism and myth expansion that Christopher Nolan's trilogy lent to Batman, spending more time on Krypton with the dilemmas of Jor-El (Crowe, much more active than Brando) while making General Zod (scary-eyed Michael Shannon) into a richer, more principled combatant than ever. Goyer, who co-wrote the Dark Knight trilogy, revitalizes the legend by taking it seriously, and not in that bummed-out Superman Returns way.
In its earthbound passages, Man of Steel turns attention to Clark's adopted father Jonathan (Kevin Costner), who sagely counsels the boy on dealing with X-ray vision and super hearing. More astutely, Goyer's script insinuates a dual paternal conflict into Clark's predicament. The greatness Jor-El expects from him on Earth would bring the dangers Jonathan knows an alien would attract.
Choosing to keep his superpowers on the down low, Clark (Cavill) goes on the road, working odd jobs and maintaining the turn-the-other-cheek values Pa Kent taught him. Earth will just have to survive without his help. That is, until he can't resist a maritime rescue and sudden media interest. One snooper is Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, smart as always).
Snyder and editor David Brenner neatly shuffle these time and space elements, thankfully making Man of Steel less step-by-step than usual in a superhero movie. Time is taken for conversations to go elsewhere than exposition and jokes don't come cheaply, if at all. Amir Mokri's cinematography is a major plus, and Hans Zimmer's musical score keeps bombast to a minimum, but he's persistent.
Overall it's a smart start to what should be the next big superhero franchise, with Christian Bale done, Robert Downey Jr. eyeing the door, and Tobey Maguire's replacement not impressing much. Man of Steel is more than just Avengers-sized escapism; it's an artistic introduction to a movie superhero we only thought we knew.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.