Born amazing, his Kryptonian genetics a crushing rebuke to all Earthling bench press efforts, the mighty Kal-El (ain't calling him Superman just yet; the movie barely wants to do that itself) isn't cut from the same cloth as the tortured Dark Knight. In fact, most representations we've seen of this mega-person from comic books to TV shows to films have presented him as fairly delighted in his own prepubescent abilities to lift cars and boulders and stuff. He changes clothes in clear glass phone booths. He's not exactly shy. He's bright primary blue and yellow and red. He's the best and proudest and strongest and most morally correct guy this side of a deity. Until now, of course. It's 2013 and he's kind of neurotic.
Dark times call for lone lions who come out of nowhere with the power to fix what no army, corporation, government or religious body can. The closest we get to a group effort on behalf of goodness these days is the bickering, dysfunctional family of The Avengers, and they aren't exactly reaching out beyond their ranks to encourage you to personally lend them a hand. More to the point of this reboot, dark economics at the box office demand lone superhero movies to singlehandedly save a studio's summer release schedule. So just a few short years after the wildly anticipated (and now considered a misfire) Superman Returns, Superman has returned. But please, call him Kal.
Henry Cavill stars as the gun shy adult Kal, a man raised by the Kents (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane) in Smallville and repeatedly told by them to remain small. The world's not ready for you or your ability to turn railroad tracks into bendy straws just yet, they tell him. Even when young teen Kal (Dylan Sprayberry) springs into action to thwart a devastating local accident, Costner's more worried about the boy's difference being exposed than about the deaths of other Smallvillians. In other words, the adoptive Earth parents have drilled some good old-fashioned fear and shame into their superkid's head. He's got some coming out to do.
Enter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to uncover Kal's secret identity, surviving Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon, yelling just the way he should) to start a cruel, murderous fight and the U.S. government to run around flailing. And once Zod's evil plan gears up you've got the makings of a post-9/11 showdown with the fate of the entire planet in the balance, one depicted so aggressively and violently as to rival all the other tentpole movies that also employ/exploit 9/11 imagery to jolt our deepest fears (been paying attention to that? they pile up quickly). The battles are tough and visceral, the effects, sound and editing are pummeling. And throughout, Cavill is stoic but not a blank slab of concrete, conflicted but not crazy and, thanks to the threat all around him, steadfastly refusing to toss out any Iron Man-esque one-liners. It's a balance that's tough to pull off and he's the right man for the job. Meanwhile, thanks to director Zack Snyder and, probably more importantly, producer Christopher Nolan, this is Superman at his darkest and definitely most furious. Even his cape is blood red.
It would be an act of movie fan dishonor to hint at the outcome, but it's in the final act that this most recent chapter in the evolution of The Last Son of Krypton turns a corner into some truly new territory. It lays down a blueprint for future films and a lot more future wars, whether fought with the collective Justice League or alone, the way this brooding hero would probably prefer. But matter how he does it, this is the right Superman at the right time, the return that feels most welcome.