Man of Steel is not just a lousy movie; it is the lousiest Superman movie that's ever been made. Don't get me wrong: there are certainly things I liked about it. The dystopian Krypton sequence that begins the film is a film unto itself, with Russell Crowe providing a brawny, muscular, but appropriately clinical take on Jor-El. Young Clark being overwhelmed by his powers (and the film's villains having the same problem later on) is just the sort of detail I like in my superhero fiction. Lois Lane coming into Superman's circle of trust from the beginning makes a lot of sense. The performances are strong across the board (particularly Michael Shannon).
But that doesn't make it a good movie, or a good Superman movie. I mean, there were things I liked about Superman IV (well, okay, just Mariel Hemingway). But I'd rather suffer through that again before I'd submit to another whirl at Man of Steel.
I could go on a harangue about how the film completely misunderstands key elements of its central character and his mythos, but, c'mon, that's just going to sound like another comic book nerd losing his shit because Spider-Man has organic web-shooters. Things get changed, lost, and made more accessible in the act of adaptation. And that's understandable. I mean, my ideal Superman movie would have Red Kryptonite, the Bottle City of Kandor, and the Giant Fricking Key to the Fortress of Solitude. And I know that's sure as hell never going to happen. If I expected every 150 million dollar movie to adhere to my tastes and proclivities, I would never enjoy anything, ever. And I sure as heck wouldn't shell out the cash to go see a movie I didn't fully intend on enjoying.
I went into this movie wanting to like it. And ultimately, what I didn't like about it-- the things that made it lousy-- had little to do with how they adapted the character, but how they failed to deliver on the premises of their adaptation.
Time and again, characters in the film talk about how the "S" stands for hope. How Superman represents hope. How he must, should, and can inspire the people of Earth to be better than they are. And that is, at its core, a big part of what Superman is about. They pay a lot of lip-service to this concept.
But that's all it is. Nothing Superman does in the film is particularly inspiring or hopeful. Mostly he punches the bad guys through buildings and gas stations, causing massive explosions.
And boy, are there explosions. There is devastation and property damage and implied carnage on a scale that I've never before seen in a superhero movie. A death toll is never given, but let's not kid ourselves: probably thousands of people die during the film's last climactic seven-and-a-half hours of buildings toppling over. It's a very dark, unsettling, disturbing vision. And actually it kind of makes sense.
It makes sense because superheroes, and that goes double for superhero movies, are products of their times, Zeitgeist with a capital Z (the same goes for zombies, but that's an essay for another time). It makes sense to dramatize the things we're afraid of, and to reflect the times in the film. It sets up a world that desperately needs inspiration. That needs hope. That needs Superman. And I think the filmmakers were acutely aware of this.
I like the idea a lot, and was ready to respond it. Unfortunately, as I said, he doesn't really do anything other than punch the bad guys and crash through buildings. At least until the end, when (spoiler alert) he snaps Zod's neck and then cries about it. I'm not going to get into everything that's completely wrong, from a true-meaning-of-Superman perspective, with this scene (again, trying to keep my inner comics-nerd at bay). But taking the film on its own terms, this act wouldn't inspire anything other than terror and distrust.
The Superman of Man of Steel is a really terrifying and alien thing. The film plays up this angle, that people will be scared of him and that it will take time for people to trust him and thus be inspired. But it sets it up in such a way where the onus is on the character, by his actions, to overcome those fears. Instead all of his actions simply confirm them.
Nor do we see what would be the logical extension of the inspiration premise: that is, seeing the people of Earth following in his example. In fact, the closest thing we get is a scene in which Perry White and another Daily Planet reporter try to save a third trapped under a pile of rubble. It's a very good scene, and there's a lovely quiet moment in which White holds the trapped woman's hand as they wait for what they assume will be their end. But it's a scene that says something about the basic decency of Perry White, and of people in general.
I would say perhaps that that scene even refutes the premise that people need Superman to give them hope. The movie as a whole seems to refute the premise that we could be inspired by anything so alien. There is no denouement to suggest otherwise.
The conclusion we are given is committed to putting the last bits of mythology in place. The closing minutes are focused so intensely and myopically on Superman, on Clark Kent, and not on the impact, if any, he has had on our world. This might be part of my problem with the film as a whole. The Donner Superman, the first half of which might be the closest thing we'll ever get to a perfect Superman movie, was bigger than the character. It had room for many things, people, and wonders within its epic sweep. This film by contrast feels quite small, and there's no room for wonder in its dusty dark world. No room, in fact, for hope.