It’s a decent action/sci-fi movie… but Superman doesn’t appear in it.
Man of Steel is a fun picture in many respects; it’s got a nice hook, some very good performances, and some really terrific visual design and special effects. But they’re marketing it as a Superman movie, and I don’t know why. Yes, there’s a super-powered alien raised by Earthlings in it, but he’s not Superman. He’s not even called Superman. The one time someone refers to him as Superman, it’s treated as a joke, as though it’s embarrassing and kind of stupid to call anyone that.
Superman is the original superhero, the prototypical model, and superheroes are often laughed off as mere pubescent power fantasies. Indeed, the boys who first dreamed up Superman were no more than teenagers, but that meant that they had the unfiltered passion of adolescence, and they dreamed a power fantasy that has resonated down all the decades since.
Yes, Superman asks the question “What would it be like if I were so powerful I could do anything I wanted and no one could stop me?” But to end the analysis there is to miss the answer to that question that has always been part of the character, the answer of an idealistic kid: “If I could do anything at all. I would do good. I would be good.”
Superman is, ironically, the retort to Nietzsche, the embodiment of a morality so deeply internalized that when all strictures are removed, he acts out of pure goodness and human decency anyway. He protects the weak, he fights for the powerless, he saves lives and rights wrongs and he never takes a life, because he has that power, but not that right.
That guy does not appear in Man of Steel.
I could list a lot of moments that demonstrate that the hero of Man of Steel is not Superman, but for me it all comes down to one shot. When the baddies throw an eighteen-wheel gasoline truck at the hero in the middle of Metropolis, he uses his flight power to cunningly dodge between the truck’s two sections, landing deftly on the street and walking unruffled toward his enemy, as behind him the truck plows into a presumably-populated building and explodes, demolishing the building. The hero doesn’t even glance back; cool guys don’t look at explosions.
There’s a dozen more moments as callous as that, all reflecting the same problem. Like The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel treats the everyday, ordinary people of the world with something between disregard and open contempt. Which is okay for a lot of movies, just not a Superman movie. Because treating ordinary people with contempt is one of two things Superman never does.
The other thing is, after an obligatory spoiler alert, perhaps the clearest example of how the people who made this movie don’t seem to know who Superman is or why anyone would like him.
Those defending Man of Steel as a Superman movie argue that the killing of General Zod is not out of character, because Superman in the comics executed Zod with Kryptonite. And that’s true. In that storyline, Superman agonized over an impossible decision, and realized that under the circumstances, he had no choice but to violate his absolute code against taking life, in the process wiping out the last members of his own species. That terrible decision nearly broke him, and it was a while before he was himself again.
The guy in Man of Steel also kills Zod, but who cares? He’s got no code against killing. It’s not a moral choice for him. Not for a single second at any point have we seen this guy express compunction about taking a life. So when he acts as though this was a wrenching and terrible decision afterward, it makes no sense. It has no context. It’s some guy we don’t know who basically seems pretty okay with death, and now he’s all upset? Whatever.
Superman in the comics does what his wholesome farm parents taught him growing up: look out for other people before yourself, especially if you’re stronger than they are. The hero of Man of Steel does what his wholesome farm parents taught him growing up: cover your own ass, however many lives it costs.
I can’t imagine why anyone would think those two are the same character, though.