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Film Review: Man of Steel

13/06/2013 22:58 BST | Updated 12/08/2013 10:12 BST

A few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that 300 and Sucker Punch director, Zack Snyder was to helm the Christopher Nolan produced Superman reboot, Man of Steel, but the guidance of the Dark Knight director, along with addition of some reliable and talented cast-members was more than enough to make this origin story the most anticipated blockbuster of the season. Snyder's vision is a clear departure from previous adaptations, ridding itself of the wry humour, self-deprecation and black and white morals of Richard Donner's films. Snyder's universe is not one in which cats are saved from trees and people wear underpants over their trousers. Even the name 'Superman' is absent, replaced by either Clark or Kal. From the film's opening moments, set on a fast-imploding Krypton, the stage is set for a fresh, ultra-modern take on the Superman franchise that will do to Richard Donner's films what Christopher Nolan did to the Batman TV series of the 1960's... or that's how it was supposed to happen.

The narrative follows Kal-El, the first naturally conceived Kryptonian child in centuries, born in the flames of a dying planet (in an opening scene that immediately evokes the introduction of James T Kirk in J. J. Abram's Star Trek). Kal's father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) makes one last, futile attempt to convince the planet's elders to abandon Krypton, before pumping his new-born son full of blue light from a mysterious skull and firing him into deep space. As we know, Kal soon lands on Earth where his is adopted by a loving, Kansas couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and grows up to learn that he is capable of the extraordinary. Meanwhile, the recently exiled General Zod (Michael Shannon) sets out to track down Kal-El (Henry Cavill), believing him to be in possession of something that could restore Krypton to its former glory

An attempt has been made to scientifically explain the superhuman phenomena, and Russell Crowe is given the poison challis of spouting endless expositional monologues about atmospheric pressure and skin density, making him sound as if he is a shampoo commercial. However, the opening act of the film does have some interesting ideas about the genesis of the super suit and the 'S' logo, and it is great to see a young Clark struggling to control his powers. As the film progresses, we are introduced to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), whose complete lack of personality is the first of Man of Steel's crushing disappointments. Adams' Lois is head strong and proactive, but shows nothing in the way of flaws or vulnerability. There's also a distinct lack of chemistry between her and Henry Cavill, and their first meeting is the first of many at which Christopher Reeve's humility is sorely missed.

In a film in which the emotional side of the story is supposed to be the focus, almost every character is exhaustingly bland. Shannon's Zod is given some potentially intriguing new motives, but Snyder's direction has such a lack of dynamic range that the resulting performance is borderline pantomime. The only emotionally engaging character comes, surprisingly, from Kevin Costner, who brings some much needed warmth and paternal tenderness to the role of Jonathan Kent. Cavill's performance is serviceable enough (although he seems to act almost exclusively with the space between his eyebrows) but the alienation and personal turmoil we were promised are nowhere to be seen.

Whilst the clunky but admirably ambitious set-up is let down by its failure to flesh out the lead characters, it is in the film's final third that Man of Steel descends into generic, summer blockbuster cacophony, and is the damage is irrecoverable. For around an hour, computer generated effigies of Zod and Superm... sorry, Kal, throw each other through skyscrapers, hurl cars at each other, and generally set about ransacking Metropolis, causing unfathomable damage to the city, and presumably killing thousands of innocent people in the process. Snyder directs with the subtlety of a toddler with a tambourine, with the carnage only stopping intermitted for the rivals to exchange lines of terrible dialogue from David S. Goyer's torturously vapid screenplay such as "this will only end one way: either you win, or I win". Even Michael Bay would deem it "a bit much".

While Man of Steel should have made Richard Donner's 1978 movie look like a camp relic, its lack of levity and charm instead serves as a reminder of just how good Superman The Movie was. Any potential from Man of Steel's ideas-driven opening act is soon negated by overblown direction, underdeveloped characters and complete lack of humour. Snyder's superman reboot is po-faced, heartless and, worst of all, boring.

★★☆☆☆