Henry Cavill is Superman in 'Man of Steel.' (Clay Enos / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Candid admission: In the eternal fanboy comic book debate over who’s cooler, Superman or Batman, I’ve always been squarely in the Dark Knight’s corner.
For my money, the stolid, square-jawed epitome of “truth, justice and the American way” is a bore, lacking intrigue, flash, zing or discernible edge.
Director Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) and writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan labor mightily to overcome that hurdle in “Man of Steel,” Superman’s third big-screen reboot. But even Nolan, who was so brilliant with the “Dark Knight” trilogy, can’t consistently replicate that magic here.
That’s not the say the film is a total bust; it does some things well, and some very well, such as the opening scenes on Superman’s doomed home world of Krypton that feature very cool tech, most of which has a sinuous, liquid-metal quality to it.
Anyone familiar with this saga knows that Krypton is a dying planet, about to break up into teeny pieces. Just before the big bang, pre-eminent scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) puts his young son Kal-El on a rocket and dispatches him to Earth.
He lands on the Kansas farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). They take the baby in, name him Clark and raise him as their own.
From an emotional perspective, the subsequent scenes are arguably the most engrossing, with young Clark wrestling with the frightening powers that our yellow sun gives him, and striving to refrain from crushing the skulls of the local school bullies.
But the air starts to slowly leak out when the adult Clark (Henry Cavill) takes center stage.
When we first meet him, he’s a lone drifter moving from one odd job to another, anguishing over whether, when and how to fully reveal himself to humanity — even as the military and plucky reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) begin to suspect that an unusual stranger walks among them.
Clark’s hand is forced when an alien spaceship appears in Earth’s sky carrying a band of Kryptonians, led by General Zod (the great Michael Shannon, adding another choice villain to his résumé), the dead planet’s former military commander.
Zod was imprisoned off-world along with some of his troops after he tried and failed to topple the calcified ruling council just before it all went kablooey, but was freed by the blast and has now made his way to Earth.
The messianic Zod means to wipe out humanity and rebuild Krypton. And since he acquires powers equal to Superman’s, he may be unstoppable.
All the ingredients seem to be in place. But unlike Superman himself, who in one scene goes for a super-flight around the world and into outer space (the only true “wow” 3-D touch in the film), it never really takes off.
Some fault goes to Cavill, or at least the way his part is written. He sure looks right — ripped bod, piercing eyes, lantern jaw. But he’s a bit stiff, especially in the film’s middle third, which has too much meandering exposition.
This being a “summer blockbuster,” the requisite action eventually kicks in when Superman squares off against Zod and his cronies. It’s thrilling to watch them knock each other through tall buildings and tear up large chunks of poor old Metropolis — at least for a while.
But the fight goes on … and on … and on, pushing the simple plot’s running time to a ridiculous 2½ hours. After the 17th skyscraper topples, you wish it would just end already.
The big climax underscores the film’s odd trick of coming off as both undernourished and overblown, topped by a complete lack of wit or humor that begs for someone, anyone, to crack a joke — or even a snarky line.
Guess we’ll have to hope the inevitable sequel lifts this venerable franchise up, up and away.