Warner Bros. has struggled to make Superman relevant in the 21st century. After all, he was kind of square, a throwback to a pre-Marvel Comics era in which superheroes didn't need psychological baggage. Perhaps that's why the studio turned him into Spider-Man for Man of Steel.
That's not as big a stretch as it might seem. Superman was created in the 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of Jewish kids crafting the ultimate story of an immigrant who found a place in American society and earned its respect as well. Man of Steel examines the immigrant experience from a different perspective. Instead of emphasizing how revered an outsider can become, it captures the anxiety that comes with being markedly different, much like Stan Lee did with his Marvel heroes in the 1960s.
Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (Christopher Nolan's Batman films) extend that metaphor even farther in retelling the Superman origin story. On Krypton, scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is batting General Zod (Michael Shannon), a "Kryptonian supremacist" who wants to keep the bloodlines pure. When the infant Kal-El is sent to Earth before Krypton is destroyed, it's not only about a father trying to save his son. It's also about the clash between radical separatism and melting-pot idealism.
But the filmmakers go a touch too far in trying to inject Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) with Peter Parker's radioactive blood. Clark's adoptive father (Kevin Costner) resembles Peter's Uncle Ben in the way that his lessons and actions shape the hero's destiny. We even see Clark struggle with when and how to use his powers. It's earnest stuff that's sometimes very effective. At other times, it feels a tiny bit off, as if someone decided the only way to make viewers swallow Superman was to make him less "super."
There's also plenty of straight-ahead adventure material here. Snyder tones down the flashy style he brought to Sucker Punch to make the big set pieces work. He must navigate through an awkward flashback structure and establish Clark's relationship with reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but he eventually makes the combatants blast through skyscrapers and punch one another into exploding tanker trucks.
Does Man of Steel earn its carnage by bringing its characters down to earth? To a certain extent. Cavill often seems unsure of exactly who Superman is, which suggests that the script is trying to do too much. But this risk pays off most of the time since Warner Bros. is brave enough to admit that the competition discovered how to present this kind of character in a more compelling way. If Superman can adjust to life on Earth, I suppose he can adjust to the Marvel Universe, too.