The opening twenty minutes or so of Man of Steel provide this Summer with its biggest, craziest argument for massive special effects paired with classic comic book weirdness and modern action beats. Zack Snyder's take on Krypton flies by you with an almost Hayao Miyazaki-level disregard for how much new illogical stuff the human mind can make sense of in a small amount of time. It hits with a very real sense that we live in a magical era where the geeks have truly won, and the spoils have arrived in the form of state of the art cosmic world-building the likes of which should never have been allowed to taint a major Summer tentpole release. It is the nerdiest goddamn thing I have ever seen and for this alone Man Of Steel is a must see.
After that, Snyder slows things down to a quiet, emotional crawl in which a beefy, rugged Superman must learn to live life as an Old Spice ad while remembering his childhood as a Smuckers Jam, Jelly, & Preserves ad. It isn't easy for him. He has all the power in the world, but his American-as-humanly-possible father (Kevin Costner) has taught him to be a pacifist. There is something pulling at his heart, however, as if a genetic memory keeps trying to tell him that his dad was a noble, dick-swinging warrior who flew dragons into battle and entertained no hesitation about jumping off tall buildings despite the fact that he had no superpowers.
Then General Zod shows up, forcing Superman to become Superman, at which point the entire film stops being at all interesting and turns into an action spectacle bigger than any we have ever seen. For almost an hour, invincible people punch other invincible people through all manner of buildings without actually getting hurt. Again and again and again and again. Then the film ends.
Man of Steel is a movie you're going to see regardless of what critics say. And you should. The spectacle provided by Zack Snyder is big and well done enough to negate narrative worth. The film's nearly 145 minute running time never feels like a chore to sit through because Snyder always has some crazy stuff going on. This is the kind of movie where a massive, car-flipping tornado is utilized to do the same necessary narrative work a simple, quiet heart attack could have provided.
There are problems. Big ones. Structurally, David S. Goyer's script pulls some neat tricks in its attempt to be and not be an origin story all at the same time. But his dialog is just as putrid and stupid as always. Excluding some of the speechifying offered by Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, no one in this film has anything memorable or interesting to say. Cavill's Superman certainly looks good, but he's less of a character than even Brandon Routh's impression of Christopher Reeve was. That's not really his fault, however. Goyer barely lets him speak, and when he does, very little of it sounds natural or feels charismatic. Superman's story kind of bends around the impression of a character journey enough that we recognize what he needs but never once feel it.
Snyder and Goyer and, I guess, Christopher Nolan actually take a lot of refreshing liberties with the Superman mythos, all of which indicate a truly great Man of Steel 2 in our future. This Superman is not quite as mean a reflection of today's lack of moral character as Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man was, but he comes pretty close. Many have already pointed out the massive death toll Superman fails to prevent in this film. I won't add to the chorus except to note that it is a worthy point to make. This Boy Scout really isn't much of a Boy Scout. It's not that he's bad, either. But this is not a film where Superman makes himself known by joyfully helping people. It's a movie where Superman becomes famous when a guy threatens to blow up the world if he doesn't turn himself in.
Again, that is not necessarily bad; it's just different. As is the notion that Superman does not seem to really have much of a secret identity. And the idea that even if Krypton didn't blow up, Kal-El would have been an outcast thanks to his natural birth, the first in thousands of Kryptonian years. Also: No red undies.
What ruins Man of Steel more than anything is the big fighting stuff at the end. Snyder doesn't so much err with these sequences as he successfully delivers the flawed concept we have all clamored to see. Reports that Man of Steel contains unprecedented superhero action are not in the least big exaggerated. But none of it matters because invincibility lacks drama. Superman's first fight is somewhat interesting because he doesn't know how to kick any ass yet. He has wanted to fight someone his whole life, though, and now he finally gets his chance to be violent without holding back. Unfortunately, the excitement this elicits lasts only a few moments. Watching these Krytonians punch each other over and over again grows tiring with surprising speed. No matter how many buildings fall over or trains get thrown in Man of Steel, the film never comes close to matching the illogical exhilaration of watching the supposedly human Dom Toretto launch himself from a speeding car to catch his asexual life partner mid-air. Man of Steel can't even near the sheer entertainment of Tony Stark's rigged-weapon raid on the Mandarin's Miami compound.
This is not a bad film, but rather a thoroughly disappointing one. It displays the best of Zack Snyder's abilities as a director while also floundering far beneath his talents. When the Justice League movie comes out, it's going to be filled with so many frowning jerks that whoever gets cast as the Flash should probably get paid double.