1. On the surface, it seems obvious why you'd attempt to reboot the Superman franchise using the Christopher Nolan-Batman model. Nolan's Dark Knight films are terrific, brooding and powerful, and, oh by the way, they grossed a combined $2.5 billion worldwide. But their trying to make a tortured-superhero Batman movie out of Superman was, frankly, a lousy idea. Batman is a hero, sure, but a twisted, human one; by the end of the second film, you're legitimately wondering, in name of his personal vengeance and obsessions, whether or not Batman is doing more harm than good. That is not who Superman is. Superman is brightness, goodness, a shining example for humanity to aspire to. Superman needs to have a light touch. Man of Steel does not have a light touch. Man of Steel is loud and bludgeoning and exactly the wrong kind of Superman movie to make.
2. The movie starts out promisingly enough, with a vast, lavish destruction-of-Krypton sequence that is impressively imagined and conceived. (It features better sci-fi battles than Star Trek Into Darkness, that's for sure.) And, somewhat surprisingly, it also gets the boy-in-Smallville bits right, with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane quite strong as Pa and Ma Kent, trying to figure out what to do with this god they have living in their house. It casts Lois Lane well too, with Amy Adams a stronger, smarter, more aggressive Lane than the wimpy damsel played by Kate Bosworth in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns.
3. Unfortunately, that's about the only way Man of Steel is better than Superman Returns. This movie doesn't understand Superman at all. There is no wonder here, no awe. In the world of director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), Superman isn't a beacon for mankind; he's a fighting avatar who can fly and do cool shit with his eyes. There is a rather stunning lack of humor or even joy in Man of Steel, no winks at one of America's most iconic figures (a large chunk of the movie takes place in Canada), no Christopher Reeve-esque charm and bumble. Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is certainly muscular and handsome enough for the part, but I'm not sure what the point of having someone just glower and flex. He's Superman. The point is that he doesn't need to look tough. Snyder directs Cavill to act like he's in 300.
4. The movie is so jam-packed and busy that it's essentially an origin story, a coming-of-age story, a science fiction film, a superhero movie, an alien invasion, and a disaster movie all bumping into each other. I'm trying to describe everything going on, and I haven't even had the chance to talk about General Zod yet. Played by the great Michael Shannon in a sadly what-am-I-doing-here-again? performance that will make no one forget Terence Stamp, General Zod is some sort of master-race genocidal lunatic who Shannon tries to make compelling but can't. He sort of pops in whenever the plot needs him to, leading up to an obligatory end-of-world fight scene with Supes that, basically, derails the film.
5. We need to probably finish up with that fight scene. It's impressively directed by Snyder, but, once again, completely misses the point of Superman. As the two fight, they completely level Metropolis, and rarely does Superman stop to save any of the citizens; he barely gives them a second thought, in fact. This is getting Superman completely wrong, using him as a fight avatar rather than a character; the collateral damage those two cause in the closing would be entirely unacceptable for the Superman we know and love. In a moving, damning essay by Mark Waid—author of seminal comic Superman: Birthright from which this film drew inspiration—he details an awful climactic moment that shows just how far away from Superman Snyder has drifted. (You'll know it the second you see it.) Even stranger, Snyder doesn't even seem to recognize the moment; he just has it happen, and then moves on, then Superman's kissing Lois Lane, and all good, sorry Metropolis got destroyed. It's indicative of the constant tonal issues Snyder has; the film just veers from one mood or genre to another, never once showing the directorial discipline of Nolan. Snyder is trying to make a science-fiction action film, but he doesn't realize, jeez, man, he has Superman at the middle of it. The genius of The Dark Knight is that it was basically a Batman movie that wasn't about Batman. That will not work for Superman, and it definitely won't work for a Superman origin story. We really shouldn't have been complaining so much about Superman Returns. It had a much better grasp of this character. Man of Steel is about the strongest man on earth, who can fly and shoot stuff with his eyes. But it ain't about Superman.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.