Disclaimer: this review does contain a few mild spoilers, and a major one halfway through.
Make no mistake, Man Of Steel is great entertainment. But I'm not sure it's Superman. It's the first of the big comic heroes to lose the plot in a major way, and here I'm comparing Man Of Steel unfavorably to the likes of Ironman, Thor, The Avengers and The Dark Knight trilogy. But while Green Lantern was a bad deviation, this at least is a good one.
Kal-El's dads - for my money - steal the show. Nice work Russell Crowe as Jor-El, we're treated to an extended alternate universe on Supes' dad, and we get to see some of gadgets, tech and even the critters on Krypton. A worn-out looking Kevin Costner also does well as Clark's Kansas'styled human papaw; actually almost all Costner's scenes as a down to earthy Jonathan Kent are deeply moving. But I couldn't help seeing a touch too much of Avatar in Krypton's flying locust-dog thing, and the Matrix in quite a number of permutations (including and especially the appearance of Harry Lanix and Laurence Fishburne...Commander Lock and Morpheus respectively).
Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel is both grittier and shakier than any Superman movie we've ever seen. Some of it is fresh and strong, brave and...on spec. I like how he does Superman's heat vision. But he seems to become overwhelmed by his muse in this flick. He loses his handle on the material and ultimately goes Michael Bay - big on spectacle and explosions, low on character and credibility, but I can see where there might be a great Superman vs Kryptonians game spinoff.
Where we were once convinced we'd believe a man can fly, here we're asked whether the world can accept someone Other...who later goes on an extended (but apparently ineffectual) smashathon...but the problem is we're never really given an answer to that question. I'm not sure I even like Snyder as a director. He was great with 300 and Watchmen, but horrible with Sucker Punch and whatever else he seems to have done...wasn't there a movie about animated owls? The camera-work is too intrusive, too overly understated...I don't think the blurry, soft focus technique works when Superman flies either...and the emphasis on CGI isn't balanced (as in The Avengers) but overloaded...so much so that one fails to connect as deeply with the characters as one would expect to...especially given the deep themes revealed in the opening act. It's possible that Henry Cavill is perfectly cast as the Man of Steel, but since the camera is bobbing around so much that you never really see him, well, it's difficult to say.
Like the Superman costume (which looks like its been dunked in a drum of car grease), the movie tries to distance itself from even mentioning the word 'Superman'. And this is probably the problem with it - it lacks a real and cohesive identity. It's trying too hard and it takes too much too seriously. One moment of levity comes far too late - where the triumphant hero kisses Lois and she says, "They say it's all downhill after the first kiss."
Another problem, which is also a compliment of sorts, is that the villains, especially Faora Hu-Ul (see left, right and below) are so cool, their gadgets too, that it's hard not to root for them a little. The same can't be said for Michael Shannon (you might, or you might not remember him from Revolutionary Road), who plays the
I liked Diane Lane's Martha Kent and Amy Adams grows on you as the ballsy Lois Lane, but a black Fishburne doesn't fly as Perry White, and it's odd seeing a grown Superman not only struggling to fly (at one point he hits a mountain by mistake)but also [major spoiler:] breaking his cardinal rule - he kills General Zod after doing some very Neo-Agent Smith aerial combat.
I'm also not sure whether one can buy Superman growing vulnerable in the same 'atmospheric' conditions as Krypton, which happens on Zod's spaceship. These are some major problems, major departures from the original mythos.
There are also sone interesting touches, Jor-Els resurrected consciousness interacting with Lois, the scene where Clark goes into a church for some council with a pastor, and the handcuffed scene with Lois Lane in the interrogation room.
But none of it really feels like Superman. Smallville to my mind does a better job of dealing with the intricasies of special abilities, keeping secrets and alienation. Superman doesn't work as a dark gritty figure because the whole point of the franchise is to be vigorous, obvious and its colors clearly defined. Snyder may have negotiated some interesting new ground, but he gets lost in the CGI and ambition of his film, and at the same time loses the personal threads that knit together the fabric of the Superman brand.
In the end, it's a spectacular failure and one well worth watching.