Please note there will be TONS OF SPOILERS, so do not read this review if you have not yet seen the movie. You have been warned.
Before getting into the actual reasons, I want to reiterate that I thought, as an action movie, Man of Steel worked fairly well. There wasn't much plot, but then there never is in action movies. The explosions looked good. The action sequences were quick and looked reasonably "super-powered." If this movie had been something like "Hancock 2," I'd probably say it was pretty good and just leave it at that.
The problem, however, is that this wasn't "Hancock 2." It was a movie about Superman. And that comes with a certain burden on the part of the creators, and a certain set of criteria that simply must be met. The 1978 movie by Chris Reeve and Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie) absolutely met those criteria. The characters were three-dimensional, and although there were definitely original takes on both Clark and Lois (among other characters like Lex Luthor), all the characters were recognizable in that movie.
In Man of Steel, hardly anyone other than Ma and Pa Kent and Jor-El is remotely recognizable. I thought Amy Adams was a great choice for Lois before seeing the movie, but she's got nothing on Terri Hatcher or Margot Kidder. Her performance is flat and uninspired, though this is not entirely her fault, because her role is so decidedly un-Lois-like. The other actors turn in passable but similarly uninspired performances. I found myself wondering, where was the emotion? The movie had tons of action -- but it had no soul.
To some degree I think all the actors probably had the same issue Adams had -- they were playing characters with the same names we all recognize (Perry White, General Zod, Clark Kent, and so forth), but their lines and characters' actions were not what one would expect for these characters. Some will say that this is "original" on Snyder's part, but I disagree. If he wants to be original, and not follow the expected patterns for Superman characters, then he should have let someone else direct this movie, and he could have directed the sequel to 300 or something.
I could rant about this forever, but I started out saying I would provide 10 reasons why this was not a good Superman movie. So here they are. Again, MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. You've been warned.
The 10 reasons Man of Steel was not a good Superman movie.
- Lois Lane acted more like a military officer than a reporter. Lois starts out great, following Clark where she shouldn’t and getting herself into trouble, and then writing a story about it. This, unfortunately, lasts all of five minutes in the movie. Thereafter, she acts more like an action star than like a reporter. What the hell is Amy Adams doing in a C-117 programming the retaliation weapon against the Kryptonians? She’s completely out of place in scenes like this, and it destroys her credibility as Lois.
- The romance between Superman and Lois is contrived. If you add up how much time Lois and Superman actually spend together the total can’t be more than 10 minutes in the entire movie. And yet by the end of it they are in love? Are we to believe that being in a couple of explosions together is so romantic that now they can't keep their hands off each other? It was totally unbelievable.
- Superman hardly saves anyone. Let’s be fair here... Clark saves a number of people early on, before adopting the Superman identity. But once he’s Superman, other than saving Lois Lane time and again, and a couple of military officers, he never protects or saves anyone. Where is the scene where he steps in front of someone and takes a blast for him? Where’s the scene where he saves the lady with a baby? Rescues the cat out of a tree for a little girl? How can he be Superman if he’s not saving people and doing good deeds?
- Superman has zero regard for property damage. The Superman I grew up loving would not have just blown villains through buildings, parking garages, and grain silos to do some damage to the villain. He would have been concerned about the people and about property damage. Other than telling the people of Smallville to ‘get inside,’ Superman doesn’t seem to care who gets hurt or how much damage is done so long as he beats the villains.
- Where is Jimmy Olsen? What the hell is a Superman movie doing without Jimmy? He’s one of the most important characters in the Superman mythos. Snyder had time to put in some guy named “Lombard” and an intern named “Jenny” at the Daily Planet but not time for Jimmy? Very disappointing.
- Perry White is an afterthought. This part makes no sense to me at all. They cast Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White, which is an inspired choice, and Fishburne proves this in his very first scene berating Lois. But he is utterly wasted in a 2-bit part that seems like it was added as an afterthought (“Whoops! We forgot to put Perry White into this movie -- quick let’s shoot a few pickup scenes with him!”)
- Lois finds out about Clark too early. This part makes no sense at all. One of the most enjoyable facets of Superman is that brilliant, intrepid reporter Lois Lane never puts 2+2 together about Superman and Clark. Snyder doesn’t even bother to try playing this out. He just has Lois figure it out from day 1, which makes it impossible for him to portray some of the most enjoyable aspects of the Superman story.
- Superman is not Clark for enough screen time. The creators of earlier incarnations of Superman, both on TV and in the movies, recognized that you can have too much of a good thing. They were also limited by budget constraints and technology. Those limits were a good thing, because the earlier Superman versions gave us a lot more “Clark time” and only a little “Superman” time. This left us wanting more -- and that’s a good thing. This movie ODs us on Superman, and we get very little Clark time except in flashback. He doesn’t even put on his glasses until the final scene of the movie.
- Superman used hardly any of his powers. Except when he is trying to “adjust” to his powers as a child, Superman hardly uses any of his non-brute-force powers. 99% of his power use is to punch, fly, or be invulnerable. But Superman has lots of powers. Where’s his Super-breath? Not used. Frost-breath? Not used. X-ray vision? Only used once as Superman, for a laugh line. Telescopic vision? Not used. Super hearing? Used once. Even super-speed is given short shrift -- he uses it in the movie, in the sense that he goes fast, but he doesn’t use his super-speed to do anything that couldn’t have been done at normal speed. It’s like Snyder forgot he had all these other things he could do.
- Superman kills. No no no no no. I don’t care what position Zod put Superman in, the Man of Steel never, ever, ever, kills. Period. This is totally unacceptable and at this point if it hadn’t been so obviously close to the end I might well have walked out. I don’t want to hear “Zod left Superman no choice.” The same could be said in Superman II but Superman still only took Zod's powers away and then dumped him into the snow; he didn’t kill him. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of Superman’s character -- he always finds a way to stop people without killing them, no matter how much (like Lex Luthor) they might deserve it.
And there you have it, 10 reasons I thought Man of Steel was a poor excuse for a Superman movie.
I think if you look at the sum total of this list, an obvious pattern emerges. Snyder and company were so focused on explosions and big budget effects that they forgot that all good stories are about characters, and that characters are the ones who make us cheer, clap, laugh, and cry. The guys at Pixar know it. Marvel Studios knows it. But the Man of Steel team don't seem to have any idea that character is what counts.
I went to see this movie on opening weekend at a matinee, in a theater where 12:30 Sunday showings are usually empty even under these conditions. Man of Steel was packed. There was hardly an empty seat in the house. So it clearly drew a large crowd. This is similar, at least on the surface, to my experience 35 years ago, as a child, watching Superman: The Movie the week it opened with a large crowd.
One thing struck me as this movie drew to a close -- other than some occasional muttering from people who apparently were lost by parts of the plot (I'm not sure why -- the plot may have been soulless but it wasn't confusing to me), the theater was absolutely silent for almost all 143 minutes. There weren't many laugh lines in the movie, but the few it had, got barely a few chuckles. Nobody clapped; nobody cheered. The second the screen went dark at the end, people started getting up and walking out. It felt like the movie made no impression on them.
Contrast this with my experience in 1978, when the theater was rocking. People started cheering when the big giant "S" graphic came up. They laughed at the funny lines. They gasped audibly when Pa Kent died of a heart attack. They cheered and clapped when Superman saved Lois from the helicopter. They laughed at Ned Beatty's antics. And when the now much-reviled "turning back the world" scene happened, everyone applauded, even though we knew Superman couldn't time travel -- because we wanted to see him save Lois. The crowd was invested in the movie by then -- they bought that scene hook, line, and sinker. When Superman flew away toward the sun at the end and the ending theme started to play, everyone cheered again, and people stayed in their seats, wanting to listen to the music and just not wanting it to end.
I'm sure lots of people will claim this new Superman is "better" than Richard Donner's version. It's grittier. More realistic. Has better effects. Had tons more action. But the problem is that, despite all of that, Snyder's version has no soul, no heart -- and Donner's version has tons. And that's why the audience whooped and cheered in 1978... and didn't utter a sound this afternoon.