For years, Warner Bros. has been trying to figure out how to make Superman relevant for the 21st century. After all, he was kinda square, a virtually indestructible throwback to an era when superheroes didn't need psychological baggage, back before Marvel Comics' characters changed the landscape.
Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns tried to embrace Superman as an icon, but didn't quite grab the public imagination. So with Man of Steel, it seems Zack Snyder realized how to give us a contemporary Superman: by turning him into Spider-man.
That's not as big a stretch as it might seem. After all, Superman was created in the 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of Jewish kids crafting the ultimate story of an immigrant who not only found a place in American society, but respect and even reverence. Man of Steel tilts that slightly toward something closer to what Stan Lee did with his Marvel heroes in the '60s: Capture the anxiety of the outsider, someone who means no harm but whose different-ness marks him for ostracism.
Snyder (Watchmen) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (producer of Christopher Nolan's Batman films) extend that metaphor even further in re-telling the familiar Superman origin story. On Krypton, scientist Jor-el (Russell Crowe) is battling not just against an establishment that refuses to acknowledge the imminent destruction of the planet, but a "Kryptonian supremacist" in the person of General Zod (Michael Shannon). When the infant Kal-el is sent to earth, it's not only the act of a father trying to save his son; it's about the American melting pot as a heroic ideal vs. radical separatism.
But the filmmakers go perhaps a touch too far in trying to inject Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) with a dose of Peter Parker's radioactive blood. His relationship with his adoptive human father (Kevin Costner) carries more than a few echoes of Uncle Ben. We see Clark struggle with when and for what purpose to use his powers. It's earnest, sometimes very effective stuff, but sometimes it also feels just a bit ... off.
There's also plenty of action here, and Snyder simmers down the flashy style he brought to 300 and Sucker Punch to make the big set pieces work. It takes some navigating through an awkward flashback structure to get to those scenes, as well as the establishing of Clark's relationship with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). But eventually Snyder cranks up the apocalyptic donnybrook, sending the combatants blasting through skyscrapers in yet another superhero adventure where the stakes aren't high enough unless an entire city is at stake.
Does Man of Steel earn its wide-scale carnage by virtue of bringing its characters more down to earth? Sure, to a certain extent. Cavill often seems to be unsure exactly who this character is, which might either be perfectly fitting, or evidence that the script tries to do too much. But it feels like a risky choice that pays off more often than it doesn't, by being brave enough to admit that the competition figured out how to present this kind of character in a more compelling way.
If Superman can adjust to life on earth, I suppose he can adjust to the atmosphere of the Marvel Universe.