Man of Steel is bursting with good ideas. It asks complex questions about Superman both as a character and as a mythological giant. How would the world react to a humanoid alien with superhuman abilities? If given the opportunity, would Superman choose to be Clark Kent or Kal-El? Maybe it is because the film attempts to juggle these and other labyrinthine questions that it fails at being anything more than another summer action flick.
This will be a spoiler-free review, but it is challenging to discuss the unforgiveable aspects of the movie without revealing plot. Essentially, it is clear Man of Steel is meant to be a dark and gritty Superman story. Unfortunately, this directly leads to a misreading of the character, and even of the secondary characters like Pa Kent.
Yes, the film is more than allowed to take liberties with established characters. Tweaking them in a novel manner could shed a new light on said characters and enrich them as a result. But it has to be earned. It has to establish from the ground-up that this is a different Superman. This film does not do this. Nothing significant is changed in backstory, yet the film feels free to eradicate the core tenets of Superman.
The actors do the best they can with the material given to them. Henry Cavill (The Tudors) is a good Superman and the sole reason there is any warmth in the character. Many fans were upset with casting Amy Adams (Junebug) as Lois Lane, but she is a talented actress and works well in her role as the tough journalist. These two have some chemistry together, but there is no backing from the script to make the romance believable. Their first kiss may in fact be the most awkward and forced locking of lips in a summer movie.
Protagonists are only as interesting as their antagonists, and this especially holds true for superheroes. But General Zod (Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road) is a boring antagonist. There were, again, good ideas behind the character. But in the end his personality can be described as “screaming” and his motivations as “because Krypton and stuff.”
The script is simply lacking. None of the characters have real personality, plot holes abound and the jokes fall flat. Ancillary characters like Perry White and the other journalists are merely there to fill time. The first twenty minutes of the movie are spent as prologue and exposition. Ten minutes later that prologue is literally re-told to Clark Kent and the audience. So there are actually two expositions, the latter one blatantly so without adding anything new. The last thirty minutes are continual shots from a disaster flick with some punches added to spice up all the collapsing buildings.
The logic of the movie falters at key moments. Things happen because plot needs to keep happening so forget what was said earlier. There are toss-away lines to explain how bad guys know key facts, pseudo-science is bumbled and the movie keeps forgetting how Superman gets his powers.
It is baffling that “modern” in regards to superhero stories and films has become synonymous with “grim” and “dark.” This tone is a core reason why the film has no emotional connection. Superman does not come across as the symbol of hope and peace; he is just a guy who can punch really hard. All philosophical quandaries never receive more than cursory attention. But the film does have good fight scenes.
Our Take: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆