Man of Steel has the form of a Superman story, but none of the substance. The film is disorganized, emotionless, and fundamentally changes the character of Superman for no reason other than it can.
The fundamental fault of the movie is its complete lack of dramatic weight. Instead of following a linear path, the story flips between Young Clark and Old Clark in an apparent attempt to economically cover Superman’s backstory, but the cumulative result is a profound soulless-ness that pervades the entire film.
Director Zack Snyder doesn’t let a moment settle or allow tension to build, either within a scene or through the course of the film. It’s like he feels that once the exposition is covered and the main points are hit, it’s time to jump cut to the next scene.
Snyder is either afraid or incapable of letting the emotional weight of a scene land, and it becomes more infuriating as the film progresses, because moments that should have a strong impact lack any actual resonance.
For example, Jor-El launches his only son toward an uncertain future from a doomed world. His mother resists letting him go, but she knows that this is the only hope for her son and her people. Nearly every version of the Superman mythos clearly communicates the uncertainty, danger, and sadness of this moment, yet Man of Steel does the impossible and actually sucks the life from this sequence and transforms it into a mechanical series of events that you ultimately care nothing about.
Welp, Zod killed the Council/Welp, Jor-El was in CGI peril/Welp, Jor-El’s CGI thing died/Welp, Jor-El’s dead/Welp, there goes the baby in the Spaceship/Welp, Zod’s sent to the Phantom Zone/Welp, there’s Clark on a crab boat.
The entire movie is like this. Just as something approaching human emotion appears, it jump-cuts to something else, as if it’s afraid it’ll catch cooties or something. When the time comes for Clark’s father to die, I thought for sure that this pivotal moment in the Superman mythos would portray actual feeling and depth, but nope, Pa Kent dies and we jump-cut to another scene. I felt like Charlie Brown after Lucy yanked the football away yet again.
This movie is the equivalent to listening to a computer program play Beethoven: technically sound, but incapable of moving the listener.
By the time the inevitable CGI battle portion of the movie began, I really didn’t care about any of the characters and actually started rooting for the villains. Hell, even the US military is shooting at Superman, because he’s causing as much property damage and displaying a complete disregard for human life as the supposed villains at this point. Later on, he’ll do his part to destroy half of Metropolis, and not care a single whit for the people in the buildings that he’s throwing things into.
What’s also puzzling is that there is one kernel of a sub-plot that could’ve been exploited to provide at least one emotional payoff in this movie, but it’s never used. We’re shown that Clark is often bullied, but can’t fight back due to his powers. He’s isolated, alone, and feels like a freak. He’s spent his entire life swallowing his pride and allowing himself to be humiliated by barely-civilized talking apes whom he could easily kill with the slightest flick of his wrist.
Once he’s presented with beings who cannot be so easily killed, you’d think the movie would allow Superman to unleash all that pent-up rage and almost joyously beat the ever-loving crap out of them. At least for a moment, let him know what it feels like to fight back and then let him realize whether it actually makes him feel good, or understand that it’s ultimately pointless and dissatisfying. Either way, let him learn something. Let him grow as a character. But no, the movie treats his fights with the other Kryptonians as rote CGI battles with no emotional or psychological depth. The battles only serve as spectacle, nothing more.
Still, this whole mess was just a mediocre Superman movie until Superman straight-up kills a guy, at which point it ceases being a Superman movie, because SUPERMAN. DOES. NOT. KILL.
Many of the creatives working on this movie are the same people who made the new Batman films and they made it a point to ensure that Batman’s moral code remains intact, yet the superhero who’s specifically known for his unerring regard for life is the one you choose to deliberately snap someone’s neck? Oh sure, let’s have the demigod be the one who decides to kill when things get a little too difficult. Let’s have the hero with the ability to completely subjugate humanity on a whim be the one with a gray moral area. That makes a lot of sense.
Superman is supposed to be smart. He’s supposed to devise clever solutions to seemingly intractable problems, but in this movie he’s got all the intelligence and moral fortitude of George W. Bush or a 12 year old playing Call of Duty on the Xbox.
Welp, this is too hard, I guess I better kill this guy…and destroy half of Smallville and Metropolis in the process, not to mention the tens of thousands of people killed while I duke it out with another demigod. It’s collateral damage, but it’s for a good cause.
The entire second half of this movie is a visual adaptation of the adage: When elephants fight, only the grass suffers.
If the movie had earned that moment, then maybe — maybe — this fundamental betrayal of the character would be tolerable, but it doesn’t and it isn’t.
In the end, I suppose the best thing I can say about Man of Steel is that it makes Superman Returns look really good.