Everyone knows the Superman story - it's one that's seemingly burned into the subconscious from birth. So clearly and definitively rendered was this comic tale in Christopher Reeve's 1978 blockbuster that the last filmmaker to tackle the character (X-Men's Bryan Singer) lifted its iconography wholesale for 2006 misfire Superman Returns.
That film was hamstrung by nostalgia and left audiences nonplussed, so the latest big-screen version is understandably a clean break from the past with Dark Knight duo Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer hatching a story to re-invent DC Comics' flagship hero.
Man of Steel begins on Krypton as Lara (Ayelet Zurer) and Jor-El (Russell Crowe) welcome the planet's first natural birth in centuries. Their people, once ambitious intergalactic explorers, genetically engineer newborns to serve in pre-determined roles. With the planet's natural resources exhausted and Krypton in its final days, Jor-El rockets his son to safety as military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) stages a last-minute coup with designs on purifying the race and starting over. He's banished to the Phantom Zone, but only after vowing to find Kal-El.
Director Zack Snyder then makes a daring cut from Kal's plummeting rocket to a fishing trawler carrying a bearded Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), wandering the globe looking to help those in need. In a neat structural trick similar to the one employed in Batman Begins, we flash back to see a younger Clark struggling through adolescence due to his nascent superpowers. In the present day, a spaceship buried deep in the Arctic Circle points Clark in the direction of his destiny, while also putting him on a collision course with a Zod hellbent on resurrecting his obliterated homeworld.
Screenwriter Goyer cleverly plays out this thematic thread between Clark, the Kents and Jor-El ('alive' as an echo of his preserved consciousness), while also keeping it a key component to Zod's masterplan (and thus a way to conjure up jaw-dropping spectacle).
Snyder's instincts as an action director quickly come to the fore as he marshals skirmishes on Krypton, a huge-scale battle in Smallville and a Metropolis smack-about that sends Superman and Zod careening through skyscrapers. With the latest digital tools at its disposal, Man of Steel is easily the most exhilarating and arresting interpretation of Superman yet. When Cavill's predecessors took flight it all seemed so leisurely. Here, his lift-offs are positively supersonic.
The Brit actor cuts an impressive figure both in and out of the red and blue. He tackles the role without a trace of irony, meaning he's in keeping with the straight-arrow seriousness of the film but perhaps lacking the immediate charm of Reeve's Superman. When it comes to sheer physicality, though, he's far more dynamic and intimidating than any of his predecessors. Snyder and co have gone to great lengths to ditch the boy scout label.
Man of Steel's supporting players, a veritable who's who of A-list talent, are all excellent in their limited screen time. Daily Planet chief Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) acts as a nice counterweight to Lois's early eagerness to expose Clark's anonymous do-goodery, while Shannon is chilling in his dogged commitment to duty.
Costner and Crowe both crucially find emotional poignancy as the guiding lights who help Clark on his way to greatness. They're helped in part by a great score by Hans Zimmer, who hits upon a motif that can be tinkled quietly on the piano or blasted out by an orchestra.
Impressive as all this is, Man of Steel is not quite the perfect movie. Snyder's deployment of handheld camerawork works to create an intimacy between viewer and action, but this aesthetic jars horrendously with the 3D conversion (see in 2D if you can). Character loses focus in favour of action in the final third and there are also shades of Clark's character that go unexplored (for instance his split identity and deeper relationship with Lois). These threads are left tantalisingly open for a sequel, though. The foundations are firmly in place for what could be exciting further adventures of Superman.