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When it comes to action heroes, origin stories seem to work best. Where did Batman begin? How did Tony Stark become a man in an iron suit? And how did Clark Kent become a “man of steel”?

In this retelling of the Superman story, director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300), with some help from Christopher Nolan (Inception, the recent Batman trilogy), focuses on Clark Kent’s origins and his search for his true—American or alien—identity.

The movie begins at the planet Krypton, where things are falling apart. General Zod (Michael Shannon) leads a coup to overthrow the shortsighted rulers who have exploited Krypton’s resources to the point that the planet is about to self-destruct. Meanwhile, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the planet’s lead scientist, plans another form of rebellion. Before Krypton blows up, he manages to infuse his newborn child, Kal-El, with Krypton’s Codex (part DNA and part Book of Life, if I understood correctly) and sends him off to Earth to save, one day, the Krypton race.

Fast-forward 33 years (catch the messianic symbolism?). Jor-El has become Clark Kent, adrift in the world, trying to figure out why his alien father ever sent him to earth. Until now, his adoptive father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) has told him to keep his power and true identity secret—for his time will come. That time comes with the return of General Zod and an alien host in search of the Codex.

Lois Lane (Amy Adams) enters the fray as a star reporter who uncovers Clark’s identity. Adams plays Lois as a bold and independent woman who becomes too soon another action movie damsel in distress, in search of her superman’s pecs and abs of steel. The ending, however, suggests that Clark and Lois’ future relationship will be about more than making superbabies.

I decided not to revisit previous Superman movies and was surprised that the new film didn’t handle the Superman story ironically. No “it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman” jokes. And no scene with Clark Kent asking people with cell phones where he could find a phone booth to change in. Instead, the film plays on Superman’s all-American upbringing and offers some nice cinematography—clothespins floating in a bucket of rainwater, rich Kansas farmland, and country roads.

In Man of Steel, Superman is more clearly than ever compared to Jesus. In one scene, Clark Kent (a suitably square-jawed Henry Cavill) enters a church where a priest is busy cleaning the floor. Clark wonders if he should help save the earth against an alien attack—would the world accept him? The stained-glass windows in the background offer not just one but two images of Jesus.

The movie’s initial play on environmental and religious themes, along with Kevin Costner’s passing on words of fatherly wisdom, may seem to drag for some. But soon enough, Man of Steel turns into a full-blown military operation combined with alien-to-alien combat scenes. Metropolis—the New York City stand-in—is laid to ruin. Buildings collapse, inhabitants flee, in computer-generated images that evoke 9/11 attacks, as seems to be the rule in most of today’s action movies.

As with most superhero movies, the essential question is who will save the day? In whom will we put our trust? (Warner Bros.)

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