BIG FUCKING SPOILER ALERT
Go watch the movie first if you care.
END BIG FUCKING SPOILER ALERT
I was worried about Man of Steel before I went in. I was worried because Zack Snyder was attached. I was worried because it looked like it was trying to be "gritty and realistic." I was worried because there hasn't been a good Superman movie since the 70s, and not for a lack of trying. I knew I was going to see it, but I was worried that it wouldn't live up to the Superman legend.
All my worries were entirely justified.
I wanted to like Man of Steel. Mainly for entirely selfish reasons. If I express worry before seeing a movie and then come out saying it was bad, then it's easy to dismiss the opinion as preconceived bias. I almost always want to be wrong in those situations. As the movie wore on, though, it became abundantly clear that it had no intention of living up to the inspirational heights of its predecessors.
For starters, the movie begins with around 20 minutes or so of the destruction of Krypton. I can't really fault a reboot for being an origin story. While it doesn't have to be so (The Incredible Hulk, for example, took a half-reboot approach), the two do go kind of hand-in-hand. However, the purpose of this sequence seemed to center much more on re-imagining Krypton than it did on establishing a plot. There are extensive, indulgent shots of giant dragonflies, weird pewter hologram thingies, and a cityscape that screams, as loudly as possible, "DO YOU NOTICE THAT WE ARE NOT GOING FOR THE CRYSTAL MOTIF? HAVE YOU PICKED UP ON IT? OKAY, GOOD, JUST WANTED TO MAKE SURE WE'RE ON THE SAME NON-CRYSTAL PAGE."
There's also a huge subplot that involves a "codex." Which, in Zack Snyder's mind means "floating piece of a skull that hangs out in a compartment underneath a Matrix-like baby-making machine." If you don't quite grasp what a codex is or why it's important for Russell Crowe to find it before the planet explodes, don't worry. The plot doesn't either. It's sole purpose in the movie is to give General Zod a reason to chase Kal-El across the universe besides "RAWR. I dislike the El family!!1one"
That could all be forgiven, though. We're trying to set up a new take on an old universe, right? Who cares if it feels like Krypton is now a more stylized version of Mars from John Carter? It looks neat and we get to see some stuff blow up before we get to the real characters.
The trouble is, as soon as we get to Earth, things start to break down. For starters, since the movie begins with the destruction of a planet, it feels the need to keep us entertained with constant explosions every few minutes. In the first terrestrial scene, we find Clark Kent on a fishing boat. Nearby a platform of some kind is exploding because we need to see something blow up. Clark goes to help people. No one on the boat or the platform is ever heard from or seen again. It's never explained why Superman was there or how he gets to the next place he's at.
I say "the next place he's at" instead of naming the place because constant flashbacks interrupt the flow of the movie to the point where it becomes difficult to tell which part comes when chronologically without watching it again. At one point, Clark is in a diner where he defends the honor of a young waitress before nobly walking away from the troublesome customer (though later, he shoves telephone poles through his truck, absolving him of all respectability). At another point, he's in the arctic because I guess he needs to be in the arctic. By the way, Lois is there, too. She's the sole reporter that's been allowed to cover a secret government installation that's uncovered an alien oh god I've already lost track of what the hell is happening.
Interspersed with the various action scenes that are meant almost solely to be jingly keys in front of the short attention span of the blockbuster moviegoer, are flashbacks to Kansas. These are meant to serve as the moral center of Superman. Brief glimpses in to his wholesome upbringing demonstrate why he deserves to be the inspiration of mankind and how he came to believe in justice and standing up for the weak. No, wait, that's all the other Superman stories. These flashbacks show his father telling him to "maybe" let children die to protect his secret, his mother dealing with all of the many, many, many teachers and parents who notice the unbelievable things Clark can do, and the single most important dog in the world.
Why is it the most important dog in the world? Because Pa Kent decides that he must sacrifice his life in a tornado to save this dog. In this scene, the Kent family, along with many other citizens of Smallville are caught in traffic as a gigantic fucking twister starts tearing shit up. As everyone flees, Clark very nearly goes back to save the dog. Pa Kent insists that Clark should keep his mother safe (here meaning "stand about fifty feet over there"), and goes back towards the tornado himself to save the animal. The pup gets away, but Jonathan hurts his leg and starts limping. Clearly this means he must give up and die. Clark Kent stands there and watches as his father poses before getting whisked away by the tornado.
This death will be featured in a Cracked article of stupidest movie deaths within a year.
What's worse is that the point of this scene is to demonstrate Clark's commitment to keeping his alien nature a secret. You see, mankind "isn't ready" and showing them that aliens exist is a bad idea. So bad that it doesn't matter how many people have to die. Oh, and he's horrible at keeping this commitment even before Zod shows up. And after that point, his secret is already out whether he wants it or not. The mental torment should be over, yet he dawdles. One is almost led to believe that keeping his secret to protect mankind's fragile psyche from the dangerous implications of alien life is just a ruse. That, in fact, he keeps his secret because, like his father, he's just afraid.
This is in keeping with a more fundamental flaw in the movie itself: Snyder seems to believe that stating an idea is sufficient to demonstrate said idea. For example, "You will be an inspiration to the world." Great. Superman should be inspiring. However, Superman just isn't very inspiring in this movie. Perhaps the argument could be made that the few people he helped at the diner or on the fishing boat are touched. However, the citizens of Manhattan that just saw two super beings duking it out while knocking down dozens of skyscrapers probably aren't feeling too inspired.
Plenty of people have an issue with Superman killing Zod in the end. To a certain extent, I can understand that qualm. However, if we're going to go gritty and realistic for the character, that feels like the least that should be done. My bigger issue is that he didn't do it sooner. It may just be me, because many people don't seem to have this reaction, but every time a building collapses in an action movie, I mentally equate it to a 9/11 event. It's mind-boggling how much destruction that is and we know first-hand what the effects feel like. Watching twelve of them happen in a row feels like it needs a justification beyond "it's a popcorn flick." You have to have a character- or plot-driven reason to blow up that much shit.
However, in the end, there was nothing particularly compromising about the position Zod was in. No critical error he made, Superman didn't outsmart him. He just had Zod in a headlock. Zod used his laser vision to ever so slowly get closer to incinerating a family (which is the most contrived tension of the movie), and only at this point does Supes figure out that Zod won't stop. How many people lost their lives because Superman didn't just do this exact same thing several scenes earlier? This is lazy writing. It's action for the sake of action, style for the sake of style, and it doesn't even have the racist comedy of Michael Bay's supporting cast to lighten the mood.
One might want to believe that the script isn't really that lazy. After all, it looks amazing. Surely the production team that is so dedicated to such incredible visuals (and they are stunning) wouldn't almost completely ignore the script, right? Well, to that, I have but one thing to say in response: "It's coming through the RSS feeds."
Ultimately, Man of Steel mostly only brings some action. That's it. It's pretty good action, don't get me wrong. However, Superman doesn't make an appearance. This is just a generic superhero that is a colossal dick to the military—at one point, Superman destroys a surveillance drone that cost millions of taxpayer dollars just to make a point to one officer—dismissive of human life, self-absorbed to the point of endangering Earth, and just not very compelling. Henry Cavill did a good job acting the part, but he can only do so much with the script he's given. And unfortunately, this script gives us a character that hides from his potential, helps destroy half of Manhattan, gives a five minute interview to one reporter, tells the military that it's his way or the highway, and asks us to trust him when he says it's for the best. That's just not Superman.