I should preface this by confessing that I am not an avid comic book reader of any kind, and I generally do not have a particular devotion to any one superhero. Having said that, if i did have a preference for one, Superman would be the guy. I grew watching the Christopher Reeve movies, then Lois & Clark, then Smallville, and that's a lot of time with one character if you add up the years. There's something about him that I always gravitated towards and always got excited about- maybe it was the romance, the fantasy, the magic in the idea of this perfect, gorgeous, flying man who will always do the right thing and will always be there to save you- i mean if superheroes are going to exist i'd want him to be mine, wouldn't you?
So, i will admit that i do have my own idea of who Superman is and what he should be, but i tried to toss all that aside as i went into this movie, wanting to be open-minded and willing to accept what i knew would be this new, grittier, version of him. And you know what? It still isn't that great.
It does deviate from most people's expectations of the character- this Clark is a brooding, angsty figure, and leaving aside the common complaint from anyone who knows this character at all (the brooding, dark tone works great for Batman, not so much with the fantastical Superman), i think the biggest problem with the whole screenplay is the decision not to introduce Clark Kent as we know him until the last 30 seconds of the film. Can you do a Superman movie without the Clark Kent side of him? I never considered that question before because no one has ever wanted to try it, and as it turns out, for good reason. Without the mild-mannered reporter, the Daily Planet interaction, the relationship with Lois Lane, all those core elements that make up the mythology, it doesn't feel much like a Superman movie, just half of one.
And that half is not established well either. Zack Snyder is a director most known for CG action spectacles like 300 and Watchmen, and he does a pretty straightforward job here (aside from the maddening and unnecessary Shakicam for scenes where people are walking down halls and sitting in rooms- can we PLEASE, for the love of god, stop doing that and be allowed to see what's happening in a scene for once?), but it's clear that his true passion lies purely in creating visual mayhem. If all you ever wanted was to see Superman knocking down buildings and punching people through the sky, you're going to get a nice, full hour of it. It's relentless, mind-numbing, and feels like a video game, which for me is not a compliment. There are so many scenes of people running through the streets and buildings coming down on top of them (highly evocative 9/11 imagery at that, which was odd), that it becomes noticeable Superman is not only causing this destruction, but pointedly not saving people from it. Which, in a Superman film, is kind of the point, or should be. We don't see him rescuing people from everyday incidents, like accidents or minor crimes, the classic feats of heroism he performs to establish himself as the protector of the "people." His introduction to the citizens of Metropolis in this film is to reign destruction down on their city by battling intruders he himself brought there by mistake. Again, it doesn't feel so much like Superman, just an alien invasion movie with a guy fighting them who happens to be wearing a cape.
The script itself is poorly structured from the beginning, which starts off on Krypton in an overly long, flat sequence that sets up the destruction of the planet and Kal-el being shipped off by his parents, but the entire Krytonian universe is like something out of Thor. There are winged, dinosaur like creatures roaming about and people in elaborate headgear reciting over the top pronouncements of doom with such seriousness that it feels like another movie altogether. When we finally get to Earth, it's clear they tried to deviate from the original film by interspersing Clark's aimless, wandering adult life with non-linear flashbacks to his childhood in Smallville, but these flashbacks are often abrupt and intrusive, interrupting the flow of the film in fits and starts.
The last act is of course, the battle between Superman and General Zod, in what's more or less a remake of Superman II (1981), where the three Kryptonians came down to Earth, but again, without yet establishing him as the hero and protector of humans, the action is just mindless spectacle with no emotional impact. The performances are all fine, and Henry Cavill does have one or two good moments in the suit where you wonder whether he might make a pretty formidable Superman if given the material, but no one, not even him, is given much to work with here as far as a character. Poor Lois Lane is watered down to the point of being the exposition fairy, a far cry from the feisty, funny, troublemaking Lois, one of the few female comic book characters actually known for her personality and importance, only to have it stripped away entirely.
Man of Steel is a messy, poorly structured, unsatisfying film in dire need of script rewrites. Let's hope with the introduction of the Daily Planet setup and Clark's dual identity (which is already guaranteed to change the dynamic) the sequel will have the potential to actually feel like a true Superman movie. For now, this is a shoddy, half-hearted attempt.