This time around, Superman has not only lost his red underpants, he’s lost his identity– and he used to have two! Remember Christopher Reeve’s charming, bumbling Clark Kent who kept his cape under wraps around Margot Kidder’s sassy Lois Lane, that is– just until he’d explode out of his glasses and suit in order to save the world?  Faster than a speeding bullet, Reeve had a quicksilver ease about him; he embodied a multi-layered superhero with a twinkle in his eye and a spitcurl on his forehead, and despite his extraterrestrial heritage, he seemed to have human blood running through his veins.

As conceived here, Henry Cavill’s MAN OF STEEL is as plastic as a speeding bowling ball, able to break box office records in a single weekend, but unable to crack a smile let alone sport a spitcurl. He’s more like a transformer–engaged in overlong, messy, mechanical battles that boil down to big fist fights in the sky. The filmmakers have disposed of much of the classic plot– Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is mighty feisty as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who gets to know the big guy’s real identity right off the bat. No transparent disguises for her.  But she also gets to be rescued as he scoops her up, mid air, plopping her down in time for her to utter the climactic words: “He saved us.”  Was that before or after the I HOP logo loomed center screen– not once but twice?!

But back to the, uh, plot – ZOD (perfunctorily played by Michael Shannon) has killed Superman’s father Jor-El played by a glum Russell Crowe.  The pair seem more in danger of dying of boredom than from the imploding planet Krypton. Krypton, by the way, looks to be inhabited by be-togaed extras from GLADIATOR wearing bronze colanders on their heads. Zod has now got his sights set on Jor-El’s rubber-suited son, who’s apparently developed his superpowers gradually as a child. His mother,  a deliberately haggard-looking Diane Lane (and who wants to see that?) teaches him “how to cope” as he throws a tantrum at school in front of a hall full of gaping teachers and children.  In another awkwardly staged scene, Kevin Costner as Clark’s earthly father makes the ultimate sacrifice so as not to reveal his son’s “specialness.” This scene might have worked if the filmmakers had a clue about normal human behavior.

All of the characters are underdeveloped; Laurence Fishburne looks especially uncomfortable at having to spend any screen time at all as the Daily Planet’s Editor in Chief, Perry White– who by the way, turns down the scoop of the century because the world isn’t ready for it. Yeah…I want to meet that guy. As buildings crash down on Metropolis, several  minor characters get trapped–  we barely know who they are, let alone why we should care.

Which gets us back to the filmmakers and Mr. Cavill’s approach to the title role.  Superman is often framed against rays of light, godlike, with a droning, magisterial score urging him onward; Kal-El of Krypton is clearly meant to seem like some kind of interplanetary savior.  But his soulless stare and monotone delivery as he swoops in and out of frame–is just plain creepy.  What we need is drama, suspense, humor, romance, tension, a single character to warm to, or moment to believe in. But there’s nothing at stake here, except perhaps the sequel–and it’s already in the works.

What does it all mean? Movies may be doomed. Monosyllabic, tediously action-packed, fueled by product placement, and programmed for replication: BLOCKBUSTERS are now code for flaccid franchises churned into profit by way of crass mass consumption on the world market. Where’s a good stick of Kryptonite when you need one?