One of the most heroic moments in Man of Steel comes when an on-rushing tornado threatens a bunch of cars on the Kansas highway. One man takes it upon himself to rush everyone to safety, and risks his life to save a trapped dog. In perhaps the best example of one of the film’s biggest problems, that man isn’t Superman, but his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent.
Part of the appeal of Superman is his utter selflessness. To quote General Zod from Superman II, “He cares.” In the comics, he died not from the machinations of Lex Luthor or some other vengeful villain, but in a last-ditch effort to protect the people he cared about from destruction. Over the years, he may have switched from truth, justice and the American way to a more general greater good, but Superman has always been one to realize that he’s not better than everyone else, he has a responsibility to everyone else. The very power that sets him apart obligates him to use it for the right reasons, and in so doing, inspire humanity to mirror his example and strive for greatness themselves.
The only thing Superman inspires anyone to in Man of Steel is to check their property insurance. There’s a marked lack of heroism here. Oh, he does all the things that look heroic, like fighting the bad guys and blowing up their death machines, but there’s a narrow-minded focus on those goals as opposed to the consequences of achieving them. This is a Superman who’ll knock down the tree to get the kitten down out of it, and not blink when it falls on someone’s house. So while the sight of Superman and General Zod pummeling each other so hard the shock waves cause buildings to crumble is undeniably epic, the fight feels detached from the very people Superman seeks to protect by engaging in it. Then, by the fourth or fifth time ten stories of skyscraper come tumbling to the ground, you’re just numb to it, every bit as nonchalant about it as Superman seems to be.
The film only underlines this problem by suddenly putting a group of people in danger right at the end of the fight and making it a crucial moment. Now we’re supposed to agonize over how Superman will save this group of people when he barely gave any consideration to the likely tens of thousands he imperiled over the preceding twenty minutes. It’s a completely contrived situation, one whose resolution feels like it should be the end of the second act, not mere minutes away from the end of the film. Superman’s response is so extreme, so upsetting to him, that the breezy scenes that follow it feel grossly out of place. He seems to get over his choice far too quickly, further diminishing its impact. It’s a real lost opportunity.
Further complicating things is the disjointed way Superman’s origin is portrayed. We see the Krypton part of the story in one long sequence at the beginning of the film. And it works like gangbusters. Krypton feels appropriately exotic and alien, Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon do great comic book-y work as Jor-El and Zod, and it feels like a deservedly epic beginning. But instead of then playing out Superman’s childhood in Smallville with the Kents, the film begins jumping back and forth from past to present. So we get scenes where whatever Clark is doing or wherever he is just happens to have a corresponding flashback. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience to make connections to things they saw forty-five minutes or an hour ago, so they clumsily underline the lessons Clark learns as a child by zapping us back to them when they become applicable to what Clark is doing as an adult. As a result, there’s no sense of a growing myth, no sense of a hero’s journey. The format can work, but not the way David S. Goyer and Zack Snyder go about it. Here, it just feels like someone highlighting the important passages in a book.
The way Superman flies in this film is a perfect encapsulation of how I think they missed the point of the character. All too often, he gathers himself, then shoots into the sky in a blinding flash, streaking by as little more than a blur. There’s no sense of grandeur, of majesty, of awe at a man taking to the air. It’s just a cool special effect, one we experience but don’t feel. And Superman should make us feel something. You can take Batman and make him into a brooding, tormented character and he’ll still work. But Superman is hopeful. He’s the Man of Tomorrow, full of promise, and with a certain purity of purpose and action that makes us think everything is going to be all right. He’s bright colors and simple virtues. He makes us want to look up into the sky. Man of Steel would rather just tell us what that sky looks like. We might as well just stay on the ground.