More solemn than super, this doesn’t quite soar

Boasting a confident 144-minute running time and superhero authorities like director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Sucker Punch) and co-writer Christopher Nolan (of Dark Knight fame) at the helm, you look at your ticket and just know you’re in for an intensely energetic and full-bodied experience. In this age of eye-popping computer-generated effects and images, you don’t for a second let the colourless and oddly minimalistic titles suggest anything other than a bombastic blockbuster with a pre-sexual-revolution machoistic hero.

And you’re kind of right. At any rate, there’s a lot of stuff to take in here, and if it isn’t all particularly interesting or moving, it’s visually superb and extremely action-packed.

Ambitiously enough, the party starts with a bit of back-story that lets us in on the grotesque political and environmental crises plaguing Kal-El’s (that is, Superman’s) birth planet, Krypton. Due to the government’s fatal mismanagement of natural resources, Krypton is about to implode and, for reasons having to do with Superman’s birth, the military leader General Zod (the genuinely sinister Shannon) is bent on engineering a full-scale rebellion. His adversary in the crisis, Jor-El (Crowe), is the planet’s top scientist and Superman’s father. Sporting a salt-and-pepper beard under world-weary eyes, he blends in well with the melancholy monochrome of the imploding and ruined world – a colour theme maintained throughout.

Recognising that the planet is indeed dying, Jor-El sees no other way to save his new-born son than by blasting him off to Earth in a tiny spaceship. To the devastated mother’s inevitable worries (“He’ll be an outcast! They’ll kill him!”), a stoic Jor-El grumbles: “How? He’ll be a god to them.”

‘God or outcast?’ – there’s a theme for you. This overture, steeped in illogical and strained sci-fi though it is, functions well as a transition to the Americana tale of a handsome young Clark Kent growing up in Kansas and calling Lane and Costner Mom and Dad. His eventual discovery of what and who he is involves a significant encounter with Lois Lane (Adams), a zealous reporter for the Metropolis newspaper the Daily Planet. But the romantic excitement one is excused for expecting is sadly missing. Adams, who wowed reviewers in Junebug (2004), is strangely subdued and jaded here, and Superman forgets to look interested.

There are things to like about the first half of the film, though, before all hell breaks loose in intergalactic warfare. One commendable feature is the vividly represented flashbacks to Superman’s childhood and adolescence. It’s great fun to see a kid save the day by pulling a school bus out of the river, or impaling an abusive trucker’s vehicle with pine trees. And it’s surprisingly spooky to borrow his x-ray vision and see the skeletons within each of his classmates while distinctly hearing every minute sound from miles away.

What I felt lacking, though, was the spirit of triumph and excitement, and of reassurance and success. This Superman never shows off, never seems to enjoy combating evil, and never acts human (although he isn’t, admittedly). His ‘god’ is decidedly glum and disenchanting. Nor, unfortunately, are love and humour allowed to relieve the oppressive atmosphere of doom and hopelessness.

Technically sublime in all the relevant ways, the film’s machine gun-like narration will please the fan base. But agnostic moviegoers will find that Snyder and co got carried away on a wave of grimness and moral dilemmas. The solemn allusions to September 11 don’t advance the film’s thrill factor for this reviewer. And isn’t a superhero someone you’re supposed to root for – automatically?

Man of Steel (11)

Dir: Zack Snyder; US action/fantasy, 2013, 144 mins; Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne

Premiered June 14

Playing at Nationwide