A serious superhero fights on
Film of the Week: Superman: Man of Steel (12A, general release, 143 minutes) 3 STARS
Director: Zach Snyder Stars: Henry Cavill, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams
This is a Superman for 2013 alright. Since 9/11 the tone of superhero movies has veered towards a darker, more realistic vibe. Maybe America felt vulnerable, because since the towers fell a new superhero has emerged who is as complex and flawed as the rest of us. Suddenly, a happy ending is not guaranteed.
Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins saw Gotham's favourite nocturnal hero fly close to his never-kill mantra by refusing to save the bad guy. In The Dark Knight, he fails to rescue the girl. The most interesting aspect of X-Men: First Class was Michael Fassbender's transformation into Magneto. The time was right for Bond to fully embrace the cold, calculated assassin of Ian Fleming's novels.
Which takes us to Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, Man Of Steel.
Snyder is experienced in the world of cynical superhero movies after his ambitious Watchmen adaptation, and he has on board both Nolan and David S Goyer as writers here.
The script doesn't mess around much with the origins: Krypton is collapsing in on itself, but there's just enough time to imprison renegade General Zod (Michael Shannon) and for Jor-El (Russell Crowe) to launch his son on a course for Earth.
But in this extended intro, Snyder offers something different, treating the audience to a look around Superman's little-seen home planet. Flashforward 20 years and Kal-El/Clark Kent, discovered by Kansas farmers Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, is a factotum of extreme jobs, trying to keep out of Lois Lane's (Amy Adams) column, who suspects that there is more to these reports of otherworldly acts of heroism.
Just as she finally tracks her mysterious hero down, Zod and his mini army appear in Earth's orbit, spilling the beans on Kal-El's existence to the entire planet and demanding his return or else.
So we got a little bit of Richard Donner's Superman, some of Richard Lester's Superman II, and no Lex Luthor.
In contrast to Nolan's Batman, this Superman doesn't really flirt with the dark side, but it takes itself very seriously with an adult tone that belies the cartoonish pow-bang-wallop sequences.
Once it gets going, and it takes a very long time to do so with Snyder's flashback-flashforward style halting momentum, there's enough action sequences to keep one entertained, with Snyder delighting in tossing all and sundry through as many buildings as he can.
It's no accident that those collapsing skyscrapers and the chasing dust clouds invoke memories of 9/11; the director uses the imagery to root his story in some kind of solid reality, but when you have spaceships, laser blasters and flying men it's a lost cause.
Jor-El's hologram, a hologram of a man who died 20-odd years ago, influencing some action scenes is rather confusing too.
Cavill is fine in the titular role, but any possible romance between him and Adams is hampered by a separation for almost the entire film. Shannon's Zod is more complex than Terence Stamp's word domination lunatic despite his silly beard, however.
Thankfully, the Christ analogy that Bryan Singer's Superman Returns laid on so thick isn't as in your face here.
While this new kind of superhero movie is welcome, there is an argument for a return to the more simplistic – and fun – variation. After all, this will be the first Superman experience for some kids and they're going to wonder why everything has to be so serious.