Returning home from a late night showing of Man of Steel Friday night, I tried to figure out exactly why I found it to be flat and lifeless. I imagined waking up the next morning and writing a lengthy point-by-point takedown of the film, discussing the implications of the choices that went into this version of the Superman mythos.
Reaching clarity on my second cup of coffee, I realized that not only would it be terrible to read, but more importantly, those changes likely would not have bothered me if Man of Steel were a better film.
The biggest problem with Man of Steel is that Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) has zero depth as a character. Clark Kent especially is never given any sense of self other than the childhood flashbacks, and so he remains just as much a mystery to us as he does to the rest of the world. By making the character a cypher, he becomes a Swiss Army knife of a metaphor for any miracle worker (Jesus most prominently), and thefore he is robbed of his humanity and relatability. While the flashbacks we get in Clark Kent's memories are beautifully shot and evoke the pastoral feeling of Kansas, the film never brings with it the emotional depth needed to carry the story.
Exacerbating that notion, Superman is often presented, as director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer do in this film, as a nature versus nurture study, and asking us to consider how much of the character is truly human or alien. Taken from this film alone, this dichotomy doesn't ring true. Yes, Superman has two dads in Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), and they have opposing views concerning their son's destiny. Pa Kent is protective and wants his son to hide himself away because he is afraid, while his alien father encourages him lead humanity and to "stand in the sun." However, the ultimatum presented by General Zod (Michael Shannon), for Kal-El to reveal himself or let a planet be destroyed, doesn't allow Clark to be the agent of his own destiny. He never truly decides to be Superman on his own.
And that's the inherit problem with Man of Steel. There is no story. Even more glaring than that of the much lambasted Prometheus, there is only plot here. Things happen for sure, but Superman never changes as a character. He doesn't grow or make a truly difficult choice, so the story is "drifter finds spaceship buried in the ice, discovers true heritage, rejects it, destroys city." It's not especially compelling, and remarkably there is more story in the Kryptonian first half hour of the film, 'The Tragedy of Krypton' then there is in the two hours that follow it.
In a lot of ways, Man of Steel feels like a reactionary film to Superman Returns. You complain that Superman doesn't throw a punch? Watch him punch for a half hour. Not enough Christ imagery? Bam! Superman goes to church, Jesus wears a red cape behind him. Although technically this film does also feature a real estate scheme of sorts, making this the third of six films to pull that.
It would not be fair if I didn't enumerate some of the things I liked about the film. A lot of the fine detail I actually quite enjoyed, and this film has many moments I would love to revisit. Hans Zimmer's theme for Superman is fantastic, and the rest of the score would make a decent marching band show. Russell Crowe gives his best performance since Master and Commander, and really the whole cast is excellent (except for Diane Lane, who doesn't succeed in making Ma Kent a hippie). The action was excellent, though again it feels hollow given the lack of story.
I understand why the filmmaking team made a lot of the choices they did, and some of them are very bold. Sometimes they pay off, but mostly they don't work given the lack of substance at the center of the film. Hopefully Snyder and company are able to get it completely right next time.