Superman is probably the superhero least in need of an existential crisis, but leave it to Christopher Nolan to give him one anyway. As the producer and co-writer of the story for Man of Steel, the auteur who put the dark in The Dark Knight strips away the character’s unassailable integrity and moral certitude and gives us a Kal-El who’s far more man than super. He’s paired with dyed-in-the-wool fantasist Zack Snyder, who’s spent the better part of his career deconstructing superhero mythology (and mythology itself), and the two make for strange but oddly complementary bedfellows. Together, they reinvent the great-grandaddy of funnybook strongmen as a struggling orphan whose destined-for-greater-things future is framed — and forged — by the influence of not one, but two sets of parents.
The film opens on Krypton with the birth of Kal-El, the planet’s first natural-born child in centuries. Kal’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a scientist, has warned the planet’s elders about an imminent environmental catastrophe, but a civil war engineered by Michael Shannon’s General Zod has distracted them from dealing with it until it’s too late. With mere hours remaining before the planet explodes Jor-El ships Kal off to Earth, both to save him and to protect the last vestiges of Kryptonian civilization, which he’s packed away in the newborn’s spaceship.
Decades later, Kal has become Clark Kent (Henry Cavill of The Tudors and Immortals), a migrant worker who keeps to himself as he attempts to figure out his place in a world he knows is not his own. His Earth parents Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) have encouraged him to hide his gifts until he figures out what to do with them, but his innate sense of justice — and a desire to help others — repeatedly exposes him, and eventually forces him to move on to another job and another remote location. But after rescuing reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) during her investigation of an alien spacecraft, he finds it increasingly difficult to remain anonymous — especially after she tracks him down at his childhood home in Smallville.
Despite having stumbled across the story of the century, Lois shows Clark compassion when he explains why he’s stayed out of the limelight, and she decides not to disclose his identity to the rest of the world. But when General Zod contacts Earth demanding that its leaders turn Kal-El over to him, Clark is forced to choose between two worlds — the one from which he came, and the one he now calls home.
In a culture that seems as eager to tear down heroes as it is to build them up, it feels like there’s no longer a comfortable place for the pure idealism of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, nor even the nostalgic romanticism of Bryan Singer’s flawed but underrated Superman Returns. Nolan utilizes the same technique he used in Batman Begins, grounding everything the character does in a semblance of believable “reality,” while Snyder uses that reality as a foundation for recreating the Superman that audiences know and love — by the end of the film, anyway. Since moviegoers have never seen how Kal-El came to terms with his destiny as Earth’s protector this reverse-engineering approach works even better than it did in the Batman films. The tactic creates a hero’s journey that possesses enormous amounts of human relatability even as it crystallizes the persona of the resolute, incorruptible Superman audiences know and love.