For years, continuing on the legacy Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began in 1938 has been a tricky matter. While the tagline for the first big movie based on their work asserted we would believe a man can fly, another kind of misgiving lingers for the new generation of their fans. Even so, with Man of Steel, you will believe that a sequel of equal or greater quality is possible.

For his entire life, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) has never quite felt at home. Forced throughout his childhood to hide his latent strength, durability and other unusual abilities, he’s always felt different from everyone he’s known despite the acceptance of his adoptive parents (Diane Lane, Kevin Costner). After years of having his true identity shrouded in mystery, he has finally discovered who he is and what brought him here. Born Kal-El, the last child of the doomed planet Krypton, he was sent to Earth in his infancy by his biological father and mother (Russell Crowe, Ayelet Zurer) in the hopes of preserving their race and simultaneously giving our planet a super-powered protector. Still unsure if he wants to claim the fate that has been laid in front of him, the conflicted young man is already pressured by a persistent reporter (Amy Adams) poking into his past to expose his secrets to the world, but an even greater threat arises when a squadron of exiled Kryptonian soldiers learns of his presence on Earth. And, unlike him, they don’t come in peace.

There are only a handful of characters so ingrained in pop culture that to stray from their traditional look would be tantamount to treason, and this guy is definitely among those few. His teeth may be crooked and he may not wear the trademark spit curl, but Cavill’s got the appearance of a hero in the making, carrying himself with the kind of uncertainty of someone whose sense of self has always been rocky but wants to do some good in a world that has never fully accepted him and never may. There’s no clear distinction where Clark Kent ends and Kal-El begins with the actor, but without his character even having settled on a prestigious title to go along with his newfound status nor a position at The Daily Planet, he can be forgiven. Speaking of the journalistic hub, Adams is superb, if not unusual, as newshound Lois Lane, and yes, the traditional brunette has been a redhead from time to time. Adams has all of Lois’s spunk without resorting to being a damsel in distress, and you can see the sparks start to fly with these two as they begin one of the all-time great romances.

Crowe is a quiet wonder as Jor-El, Krypton’s foremost scientist who believes his son could be the savior that could keep Earth from falling prey to the same kind of destruction of their home world, a major juxtaposition from Costner’s cautious Jonathan Kent, who believes the kid he raised as his own needs to keep a low profile. Of course, Lane’s Ma Kent loves her boy either way, whether he stays on the family farm or faces off against all the evils of the big wide world outside Smallville, Kan. Some of those threats come well beyond our own galaxy, and Michael Shannon’s wild-eyed warmonger General Zod — who should really have “For the Greater Good” tattooed across his chest — would be a menace to any planet, spending decades searching out the child of his greatest nemesis and ready with the proposition that Kal-El either join his forces or see his refuge go up in flames. Now seems like the perfect time to say, “This looks like a job for…”

The lack of the classic image of the shirt torn open to reveal an S — sorry, the Kryptonian symbol for hope — isn’t the only change here from the Superman films. There’s the lack of red man-panties from his costume, Laurence Fishburne as the first black Perry White, and perhaps most noticeable, Cavill as the first Brit to play the all-American icon. Well, if Christian Bale can do it… Zack Snyder’s entire approach to making this movie is to follow the cues of Christopher Nolan’s example in reinventing Batman, completely ignoring Bryan Singer’s love-it-or-hate-it Superman Returns to give us a whole new look at arguably the first superhero ever conceived, who’s celebrating his 75th anniversary this year. In 1989, Tim Burton had to convince audiences that were used to a hero in a blue and red outfit that one swathed in black could be just as compelling, and now Snyder has the opposite burden. In a post-9/11 society, we like our defenders to be on the same level as us, a trait that may explain why Singer’s film received less acclaim than it should have, and that’s what director Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer attempt to combat with some story assistance from Nolan. Ask any Batman fan why they prefer the Dark Knight to Big Blue, and the answer nine times out of 10 will be that Supes is just too perfect unless you have a glowing green rock handy. Goyer’s flashback-heavy script shows us a Superman who’s not quite ready to wear a cape and save the day, frequently questioning if his invincibility, heat vision and super-speed are a blessing or a curse, an astute observation Cavill might want to keep in mind considering the long list of live-action Supermen whose careers plunged after taking on the mantle of Clark Kent and his alter ego, most tragically the late Christopher Reeve in one of the cruelest cases of irony the world has ever seen by putting someone who had once soared in a chair for the rest of his life.

As opposed to Richard Donner’s landmark 1978 film and those that followed, Snyder shows us a more believable evolution of Kryptonians on Earth, taking time growing into and adjusting to demigod powers under our yellow sun rather than presenting us with a foundling toddler who can lift a car seconds after being found in a Kansas field. The sensory overload of sight and sound seems to be the hardest to get used to, but the progression from jumping great distances to flat-out flying is especially befitting a hero who went from leaping tall buildings in a single bound to having his arms outstretched with pride as he shoots up, up and away. All the great tellings of Superman lore have touched on his Christ-like qualities, an allusion Snyder uses delicately by having Jor-El store a little something extra in his newborn before sending him on his way and Clark’s Earth age of 33, once he steps up to meet his ultimate destiny.

There are plenty of references mined from the DC Comics mythos, but some work better than others, like the detail that Kryptonians’ genetic reproduction is a cold, laboratory-induced process, which feels more fitting for generic science fiction. Snyder also does himself a disservice by trying to keep his hero too grounded, more morally ambiguous and a touch too cynical. Some decidedly unwelcome language and extended violence shows Snyder is still the man behind 300 and Watchmen, while Hans Zimmer’s musical score never offers the grandeur that John Williams created and only serves to remind us that Warner Bros. desperately wants to create a franchise that’s as successful as Nolan’s Caped Crusader trilogy, even if it means borrowing too freely from those movies. Cavill is faced with different challenges than film predecessors Reeve and Brandon Routh — who were always overshadowed by either a scenery-chewing Marlon Brando, a horribly miscast Richard Pryor or a bald billionaire with a severe case of xenophobia — but is somehow measured up to Bale’s benchmark more than anyone, unjustly so. Let’s be clear: Batman is who we are, Superman is who we strive to be, and the men playing Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent just can’t be compared. Still, one thing Cavill has in common with Bale is that both are unable to hold up an entire movie by themselves yet are graceful enough not to hog the spotlight given the opportunity.

Across the spectrum of Superman movies, Man of Steel stands as a lesser achievement than Reeve’s first two outings, immensely superior to his second two, and a better jumping-off point for the future than the film that failed to make Routh a star. Still, like its fledgling protagonist taking his first steps into greatness, it’s less about what it is than what it could be. While it lacks the spectacle and sincere goodness we demand of the greatest superhero ever, it sets the stage for more adventures to come with a definite sequel on the way and the hazy possibility of a Justice League feature becoming a little more tangible. Case in point — some people weren’t sure what to make of Batman Begins, and you don’t need X-ray vision to see how that turned out.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“Man of Steel” opened nationwide on June 14, 2013.

Trailer Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Featured image: Henry Cavill as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Man of Steel,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Clay Enos/© 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding, LLC.

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