"SUPERHEROES are the copyrighted property of big corporations," comics writer Alan Moore recently told the Believer. "They are purely commercial entities; they are purely about making a buck. That's not to say that there haven't been some wonderful creations in the course of the history of the superhero comic, but to compare them with gods is fairly pointless."
Nevertheless, that's how DC Comics likes to treat its characters: towering, grim-faced icons of modern mythology. But if there's one of their superheroes who does get close to being a god, it's Superman—a hero created in 1938 by two Jewish guys, who happens to share more than a few similarities with Moses (another hero created by some Jewish guys). An alien from the doomed planet Krypton, Superman is given his powers by Earth's sun. By day, he's Clark Kent, by—
Actually, fuck that: More people know Superman's origins than know where Moses came from. Which brings us to one of the remarkable things about Man of Steel: It's an origin story, but it isn't tedious. Director Zack Snyder, writer David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan have found a way to both reintroduce and celebrate a character everybody already knows; while Man of Steel isn't perfect, it's the best Superman movie yet, and offers some of the most fun you'll have in a theater this summer.
Snyder & Co.'s choices are bold: The narrative jumps backward and forward, touching back only on key moments in young Clark's life. Snyder is as happy to focus on small, melancholy details as he is to overpower with speaker-shaking spectacle. And at Man of Steel's core is a simple but effective dynamic: It's a big-budget My Two Dads, with Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) trying to balance the demands of Biological Alien Dad (Russell Crowe), who urges him to push himself and help puny Earthlings improve themselves, and Adoptive American Dad (Kevin Costner), who, afraid for how puny Earthlings will react to Clark's powers, begs him to hold back. As Clark tries to choose, he also has to deal with dogged Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian general intent on tracking Clark down—and, while he's in the neighborhood, maybe destroying the world.
With a solid structure and a stronger cast—Cavill, Adams, and Shannon are great, and Crowe and Costner, as the movie's emotional anchors, are excellent—this is Snyder's movie to mess up. He doesn't. Unlike his sometimes decent, sometimes terrible previous work—Watchmen, 300, Sucker Punch—Snyder steps back and lets the story, not the visuals, drive the film. (That said, Man of Steel is still really, really pretty.) With unexpected restraint and grace, Snyder hones in on the poignant heart and city-smashing action that define the best Superman stories.
That isn't to say there aren't problems: In its last half, Goyer's script betrays a clumsiness that should let Joss Whedon know he doesn't need to worry anytime soon. For a movie that idealizes the hell out of old-school Americana, there's some impressively tacky product placement. (Pity Zod's second-in-command, forced to give a menacing monologue while standing in an IHOP.) And the film's wearying climaxes, desperate to out-bombast each other, veer close to parody. That's too bad, because Man of Steel's strongest moments are its smallest ones, between Clark and the people he loves, and its weirdest ones, set on a baroque, rust-colored Krypton, full of strange creatures and technology. The end result, balanced between spectacle and sentiment, shows why Superman—despite being a 75-year-old piece of copyrighted property—still resonates. "I can do things that other people can't," Clark says at one point, mid-rescue. "Now hold my hand." If there are words that better capture everything good about Superman, I haven't heard them.