And the campaign to make Superman cool continues. It wasn't always this way. The most successful big-screen incarnation of the superhero – the Christopher Reeve flicks from the late 1970s – were happy portraying their protagonist as an intergalactic square for the Reader's Digest demographic. Since then, various comic-book sequences have torn his shirt, corrupted his politics and looked sideways at his sexuality.
Then, in 2006, Warner Brothers reached for the most overused adjective in film marketing. Superman Returns would be "darker". We all know what that means. At some point, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, James Bond or Bridget Jones will be asked to stand in the rain and shout: "Noooooo!" until he or she is hoarse with despair.
Man of Steel's very existence confirms that the earlier effort has now been deemed a failure. In a shameless attempt to hog some of The Dark Knight's shadow, the studio has asked Christopher Nolan, director of that Batman series, to produce and co-write one more attempt at hip reinvention. Zack Snyder, director of the inert Watchmen and the repulsive Sucker Punch, has somehow been entrusted with the megaphone.
Well, the team has certainly taken the call for even greater darkness literally. The opening scenes on Krypton play out in a stygian murk that risks propelling the audience into a premature burst of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Kansas, where the young Superman grows up, has rarely been so clouded over. And what's up with his costume? Oily and grey, it looks as if it has been just plucked from the least inviting dumpster on Skid Row.
The cumulative effect is, however, less to make an existential anti-hero of Superman than to obscure all his key characteristics. Given lifeless life by (I'm guessing here) a former knitting-pattern model named Henry Cavill, the alien-turned-vigilante is in virtually every scene, but somehow contrives to be invisible throughout. For all that remains of the original creation, they may as well have done the dark on Betty Boop.
None of which is to suggest Man of Steel is without merit. Working with David S Goyer, his regular writing partner, Nolan has constructed an ingenious, temporally nested structure for the propulsive story. Many of the details will be familiar from the first two films in the Reeve sequence. Russell Crowe, doing his faux-Shakespearean, brown-voiced thing, turns up as the only wise being on the doomed planet of Krypton (all of whose architecture seems modelled on Philippe Starck orange squeezers). In an effort to preserve the species, he places his only son in a capsule and launches him towards a distant blue planet. At about the same time, the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon doing proper acting) is expelled for launching a coup. Some time later, the child becomes Superman and Zod arrives on Earth to exact revenge.
Goyer and Nolan detail the early life of Clark Kent through a series of economic flashbacks. Kevin Costner and Diane Ladd explore their inner Norman Rockwell to good effect as his adoptive parents. Amy Adams does her best with the always slightly underwhelming Lois Lane who, working for some ancient entity called a "newspaper", finds her investigations into an apparent alien landing nudging
her towards the Kent family of Smalltown, KS.
There are, in short, sufficient narrative diversions to keep the average adult diverted for the first hour and a bit. It's a shame that the supposed Man of Steel seems actually to be made of teak, but the classiness of the supporting cast just about compensates. Then, unfortunately, the film topples
into the usual soupy, computer-
generated morass of apocalyptic chaos. With none of the humour that alleviated similar catastrophes in The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness, the denouement only serves to confirm how unconnected Zack Snyder's work is with the physics of the real world.
And, at the end of it all, Superman still doesn’t seem in the least bit cool. Here’s an idea. Put him in a black suit with pointy ears. Give him a sub-psychotic inner life. Surround him with Gothic battlements. Oh hang on a moment . . .