Superman is probably the superhero least in need of an existential crisis, but leave it to Christopher Nolan to give him one anyway. As the producer and co-writer of the story for Man of Steel, the auteur who put the dark in The Dark Knight strips away the character’s unassailable integrity and moral certitude and gives us a Kal-El who’s far more man than super. He’s paired with dyed-in-the-wool fantasist Zack Snyder, who’s spent the better part of his career deconstructing superhero mythology (and mythology itself), and the two make for strange but oddly complementary bedfellows. Together, they reinvent the great-grandaddy of funnybook strongmen as a struggling orphan whose destined-for-greater-things future is framed — and forged — by the influence of not one, but two sets of parents.
The film opens on Krypton with the birth of Kal-El, the planet’s first natural-born child in centuries. Kal’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a scientist, has warned the planet’s elders about an imminent environmental catastrophe, but a civil war engineered by Michael Shannon’s General Zod has distracted them from dealing with it until it’s too late. With mere hours remaining before the planet explodes Jor-El ships Kal off to Earth, both to save him and to protect the last vestiges of Kryptonian civilization, which he’s packed away in the newborn’s spaceship.