'Man of Steel" does things that are un-American. Un-Kryptonian, even.
Residents of every planet know Clark Kent and Lois Lane should meet in a newspaper office, and that Lois should have no idea Clark is Superman, because he wears eyeglasses.
Both characters should bumble a bit, because it's fun and adorable.
But "Man of Steel" contains little fun apart from the visceral thrill of seeing objects smashed in one of its endless action sequences.
Its Clark (Henry Cavill) and Lois (Amy Adams) share a resolute quality and a distinct lack of quirkiness. They meet after Clark hits the road to find himself, then engage in a perfunctory romance devoid of frothiness or flirtation.
During the film's course, Lois will solve most of the puzzles of Clark/Kal-El/Superman, child of Krypton turned Earth superhero, leaving little mystery for sequels sure to follow if this reboot story is a hit.
Sparks do not fly, and Superman does not fly enough just for the sake of it. This film is too sober and action-obsessed to indulge in moments of exhilaration. "Steel" offers captivating production design, a few thrilling action sequences and generally good acting, but it does not equal much less improve on the 1978 Christopher Reeve "Superman." Or 2006's "Superman Returns" for that matter.
Adams lends her usual vitality to Lois, but the film does not give her room to craft a substantial character. Worse yet, it fails to provide a showcase for Cavill, appearing in his first marquee film role.
He's an appealingly bulky Superman, as physically easy on the eyes as Superman's heat vision is tough on foes. But Superman spends much of "Steel" in younger form (and played by younger actors) or in a blur of computer-generated motion in action scenes, giving Cavill less actual screen time than you would expect from a lead actor.
When Cavill is allowed a moment of on-screen stillness, he evokes Jason Patric, in blue-eyed, chiseled handsomeness and in an inability to connect emotionally to the audience. But again, "Man of Steel's" construction does not give him a fair shake.
Action scenes dominate the second half of "Man of Steel," a Superman origin story that tracks Clark's discovery of his superpowers on Earth and his decisions about what to do with them. In this segment, Kryptonian villain General Zod (Michael Shannon) clarifies Kal-El's mission. He must battle Zod, who is terrorizing Earth in his efforts to reclaim remnants of their imploded planet.
Director Zack Snyder ("300") piles big set pieces atop one another, to wearisome effect. These scenes contain spectacular moments, but those moments can be hard to isolate amid the barrage of flying rocks. Cavill also is hard to identify it might be him, a stuntman or pure CGI.
The film's first, far better half tracks Kal-El from infancy on Krypton a technologically advanced but resource-depleted planet about to implode when Kal-El's parents send him to Earth through his Kansas youth and adult wanderings through snowy fishing villages.
This section also puts Cavill at a disadvantage. In addition to showing his character as a baby or youth, it positions Cavill as dramatic second fiddle to Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, both believably paternal and quietly pushy as Kal-El's two dads.
Krypton scientist Jor-El (Crowe) and Kansas farmer Jonathan Kent (Costner) were born on different planets but share a gravity of tone in reminding Kal-El/Clark he is the chosen one and needs to not screw it up.
It makes sense that a film directed by Snyder and written by David S. Goyer from a story by Goyer and "Batman" trilogy collaborator Christopher Nolan would be nearly humorless. Nolan and Goyer specialize in gloom, and "300" possessed not an ounce of irony.
Gloom works when Nolan directs it; he does not take technical or storytelling shortcuts. Snyder, though visually inventive, chooses more over better in effects scenes and cuts storytelling corners.
In "Steel," Snyder transitions between scenes so abruptly that he disorients viewers. One scene becomes a dream sequence without proper visual warning (transitions are tricky you only notice them when they're bad).
When Superman reacts angrily to a threat to his Earth mother (Diane Lane, lovely as ever and exuding warmth), his ostensibly powerful words get swallowed in the action.
"Steel" gives shortest shrift to its romance, which allegedly starts when Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lois travels to an arctic military base to investigate reports of a mysterious vessel buried under ice. There she meets Clark, who has made his way to the base after a spell as an itinerant laborer and people-saver in wintry coastal towns.
Their brief encounter begets a romantic connection that must have happened somewhere in the tundra, off screen. We don't see it, but it's referenced later.
Scenes leading to the arctic sequence, during which Clark works on a fishing boat and in a tavern, are authentic and alive. The blue-white tones and handheld camera work, along with Cavill's natural ruggedness, to give the scenes and the character a freshness. He's the earthiest version of Clark Kent we've seen yet.
The visual innovation Snyder showed in "300" echoes in his rendering of Krypton, where technological advancement coexists with ancient, burnished surroundings. The design style, emphasizing wings and shells, could be deemed "early cockroach." It's distinct from Earth, and from previous cinematic iterations of Krypton.
Snyder also uses 3-D to great effect in a thrilling scene showing a building's destruction. That's one memorable element in Snyder's second-half effects inundation. The other two are Shannon, as Zod, and Chris Meloni, as a U.S. colonel battling Zod and his team of invaders. The two actors share Mack-truck brows and an ability to rise above their material.
Shannon's Zod is not some gleeful comic book villain, but rather fueled by his conviction that he's acting in the best interest of Kryptonians.
Meloni maintains an unperturbed air as the stakes grow higher, shooting great "Whaddya got?" looks. Compared with the creeps Meloni faced on "Law & Order: SVU," invading aliens are no big whup.
MAN OF STEEL
Two 1/2 stars
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane
Director: Zack Snyder
PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.