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REVIEW: 'Man of Steel' - 'S' Stands For Serious

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Superman is the same - red cape, arms crossed, the mother of quiffs - but different, as director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) puts his stamp on (arguably?) the ultimate superhero, in his massive reboot Man of Steel.

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Henry Cavill is just your normal bi-planetary bloke dealing with his destiny

I guess if you want a re-run of the courtly, hammy, almost effeminate charms of the much loved and missed Christopher Reeve, who defined Superman for a generation with his trilogy (we don't mention IV: Quest for Peace), you could just dig out the videos and feast again on his squabbles with Luthor, bumbling Otis and Terence Stamp's scene-stealing General Zod. Zack Snyder has brought something very different to the screen.

With all such superhero irony, and iron, currently being monopolised by Robert Downey Jr, Snyder has opted instead to focus on the origin story, as well as the serious, big-stakes intent of Superman's mission. And yes, if a comic icon swapping ham for heroism does sound familiar, new Batman bard Christopher Nolan does indeed share the story credit for this first instalment.

Fellow Batman alumnus David S Goyer's script emphasises the duality of Superman, who starts life as Kal-El on doomed planet Krypton, before his parents ensure his solo survival by sending him to Earth. Thus, from the off, he is a boy who must face his destiny, confused by his bi-planetary DNA, strength sent from Krypton, a moral compass sent from... not sure, but he's confused, anyway.

He starts out in corn-pickin' Kansas with adopted parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane) but there's no time for high jinks like racing against trains and picking up cars this time around. Clark (his nom de Earth) is too busy racing against time to save his adopted planet from more pesky Kryptonian interlopers - led by General Zod, played by a brooding Michael Shannon - intent on making Earth their own.

But, first, there is, oh, so much Krypton to be had. Whereas in earlier films, we basically had what looked like one of those Scandinavian ice bars with Marlon Brando wandering around for a bit, here we have the whole other-worldly shebang.... Lots and lots of exposition, alien creatures all spawning other ones, Star Trek-esque tales of planets collapsing, peoples doomed and hopes set on some mysterious element - 'the codex'. So far, so Prometheus. We're most definitely not in Kansas any more.

The good news is that this gives Russell Crowe, as Kal-El's scientist father Jor-El, far more than Brando's lucrative walk-on and his most physical role since Gladiator. He swims, he fights, he makes the most nonsensical lines about other planets sound reasonable, at least until he is reduced by Zod to an Obi-Wan type figure, wandering in and out of the rest of the film when needed, usually to protect Clark from the obsessed Zod, intent on claiming 'the codex'.

As Kal-El or Clark as we come to know him, Henry Cavill is beautiful and brave, his clefted chin wobbling every time he has to make a decision that may cause harm. If After Earth was accused of a Scientological sub-text, there's a whole load of Christian business bubbling away through Man of Steel. The big blue man with the cape hovers in the sky, enveloped by a bright light, every time he needs to have a man-to-(Super)man chat with earthly authorities and, just in case we missed it, he even goes and has a chat at one point with his local priest - as you do, between propping up falling oil rigs - who doesn't even flinch at the sight of a fugitive man wanted in two planets, and reminds him to keep the faith.

So without the theatrics of Gene Hackman, or Superman's knowing winks in coffee bars, what DO we get for our 143 minutes? Well, lots and lots of violence, destruction, big puffs of black smoke and two strong blokes knocking the high heaven out of each other, across bridges, through buildings and burst water mains. Zealous Zod just goes on and on about his mission for his people. And, in definitive proof that we live in the age of entitlement, Superman receives barely a nod of gratitude from the Earthlings for all the risks he's taking for them. Is Superman really sure he wants to unite these two worlds? He doesn't seem too popular in either, with nay a shout of 'It's Superman!' to be heard.

Some of the best bits in the film are Clark's childhood days, told in flashback with Lane and Costner both on gentle form as his parents, and I'd have liked a bit more of this American Pie wholesomeness to balance all these puffs of big black smoke everywhere.

There's not much time for romance, either, with Amy Adams as Lois Lane - ditzy but Pulitzer Prize-winning, naturally - too busy flying spaceships to provide much of an ordinary contrast to Clark's crazy other-life. The best line of the film is saved for the end - when Goyer finally nods to the legacy of Superman on the big screen, and it sets things up nicely for the inevitable sequel.

So, yes, Zack Snyder can safely say he's put his own stamp on a 80-year brand, and it's the stuff teenage male dreams are made of, but I'd have happily swapped 30 minutes of the black puffs of smokey apocalypse for just a couple more raised eyebrows and acknowledgement that a beautiful man, blue tights, arms crossed, red cape and quiff a-kimbo is actually quite a funny thing when you think about it.

Man of Steel is in cinemas on 14 June. Stills below...

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