Well, be careful what you wish for, because you couldn’t get more sincere than this Superman (Henry Cavill). Even when, eventually, he is compelled to don the iconic blue stretchy suit, he does so with a muscular seriousness that firmly banishes all possibility of silly fun.
He starts out naked on the Planet Krypton, birthed by his parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) in secret defiance of the law that says Krypton babies must be grown artificially. As their planet gradually implodes, the couple dispatch their wriggling infant, named Kal-El, in a kind of metal space-cradle towards earth, to the fury of General Zod (Michael Shannon). He is himself sent to an ice-prison for an attempted coup just before Krypton breaks up for good.
Kal-El grows up on a Kansas farm, rechristened Clark by his adoptive parents, Martha (Diane Lane) and Jonathan (Kevin Costner), but we first meet him as a grown-up rushing to save a clutch of desperate workers whose oil rig has gone on fire. Clark is a creature of two planets, a smuggled Kryptonite who has learned to love humans, and is warned by his earth father to keep his powers as secret as possible.
This advice turns him into a bit of a loner and drifter, mooching from bar jobs to deck-work, turning his back on pushy pugilists (although, in one rather pleasing moment more reminiscent of the furious feats of The Hulk, he does impale an offender’s pick-up truck on a tangle of telegraph posts).
Clark’s true powers, however, are discovered by Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who is in two minds whether to break a big story or protect Clark from big government. Yet when a liberated Zod comes back with an eye to using Earth as a handy base for reconstructing Krypton, she finds herself flying through space herself. As ever, she’s a reporter who will go to the ends of the earth for a story.
For a film which largely conducts itself amid a cacophony of breaking rock, glass and brick, the most memorable moments are the silent ones: the look on Costner’s face as he vanishes into a tornado, still willing Clark not to blow his cover by rescuing him, or the visibly painful self-restraint when Clark is baited by a wiry bar-room bully.
We could have done with more of this, and a little less of the endless parade of urban destruction: Snyder (300) operates on the directorial principle that a shot of four toppling tower-blocks is invariably better than one.
Although Cavill makes a likeably straightforward hero, there is little sexual chemistry between his character and Adams’s. (Don’t they do flirting on Krypton? Then again, it is an art at which most superheroes seem spectacularly poor).
The latter part of the film gets lost in action: the ghost of Jor-El keeps appearing, and the plot-twists crowd in by means of almost impenetrable space science. Man of Steel becomes a constant hurtle. Michael Shannon – Hollywood’s new favourite villain, fresh from contract killing in The Iceman – plays Zod with undeniable conviction, helped by his own crazy eyesut the film around him turns into the cinematic equivalent of a permanently banging gong.
Snyder needs, perhaps, to remember that success sometimes blooms in the silences.