Squeezing into Superman’s tights following his spell in doublet and hose on The Tudors, Henry Cavill cuts a brooding figure for much of comic-book movie reboot Man of Steel.
And with Watchman director Zack Snyder at the helm and Christopher ‘Dark Knight’ Nolan co-producing and co-devising the story, it’s no surprise that the mood should be dark and serious. If you’re hankering after the playful innocence of Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, you’ll definitely be disappointed.
A brother under the cape to Christian Bale’s Batman, Cavill’s Superman is another of those superheroes who are wracked by existential angst. And given Snyder and Nolan’s sober take on the tale, it’s no wonder he has issues.
Exiled to Earth as a baby from his dying home planet Krypton, the future Superman grows up amid the cornfields of Kansas. Yet it’s far from an idyllic boyhood, notwithstanding the love of adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane). The young Clark Kent, né Kal-El, finds his super-senses a torment and must keep his super-powers under wraps for fear of persecution.
No wonder, then, that when we first encounter Cavill’s Clark, he’s a bearded outcast living on the fringes of society, ready for instant flight should his compulsion to intervene in moments of jeopardy draw attention. At least, that’s the case until Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane gets on his trail – and with Amy Adams playing Lois as a savvy Pulitzer Prize-winner there’s going to be no opportunity for any of the flirtatious dual-identity byplay that was such an enjoyable feature of the earlier films.
Besides, the planet is in peril. Genoicidal Kryptonian renegade General Zod (Michael Shannon) has turned up in a spaceship, threatening Earth with destruction unless its leaders hand over the secret extraterrestrial refugee living in their midst – the cue, sadly, for a series of those prolonged slugfests between near-indestructible foes that are a regrettable feature of the superhero genre.
As comic-book adventures go, Man of Steel is far too solemn and self-important to deliver a true sense of wonder, but it’s by no means a total flop.
Surprisingly, the acting is one of its stronger suits. Russell Crowe displays suitable nobility and gravitas (and a posh English accent) as Superman’s father, Jor-El. Costner and Lane are even better as Clark’s all-American adoptive parents.
Indeed, when Lane’s Martha comforts the young Clark after his newly discovered X-ray vision causes him to freak out, the moment is heart-meltingly tender; later on, Costner supplies an even more touching moment in the midst of whirling tornado.
As for Cavill, even if he rarely gets the chance to lighten up, he looks entirely at ease in the role, whether as ripped, rugged outcast or as supremely noble saviour, which makes his lack of rapport with Adams’ Lois even more of a shame. Fortunately, when Superman takes to the skies, the movie soars. It lands with a thud, though, when Zod and his cohorts touch down.
In cinemas from Friday 14th June.