This is not a good movie.
It’s not necessarily a bad movie, either. But it’s definitely got mediocrity written all over it.
Chris Sims at Comics Alliance had the particularly keen insight that Superman in Man of Steel only does what other people tell him to do. This is problematic because the movie is ostensibly about Superman being a leader: People in the film keep saying that in different ways over and over and over again. But this contrast between what the movie wants to be and what the movie actually is reveals the fundamentally incoherent storytelling that ultimately renders Man of Steel into nothing but sound and fury.
(It’s very pretty sound and fury, mind you. It has arguably the best aerial superhero fight in film history. The actors give strong performances. There are a lot of really great moments. But it all signifies nothing. And none of it holds together.)
Let’s take a moment to further consider the whole “let’s completely screw up the character of Pa Kent” thing that the film has going on. Pa Kent is supposed to be the guy who teaches Clark Kent how to be Superman. But in this film Pa Kent is the guy who teaches Clark to not help people; to not become Superman. He literally tells him that it’s better to let people die because if he ever reveals himself humanity will turn on him.
Not only is this inherently unethical and immoral and banal; it also turns out that Pa Kent is a moron because that is the exact opposite of what happens.
Whether you like the traditional interpretation of Pa Kent is, of course, a matter of opinion. But on a basic, structural level the film objectively fails on this point: It continues to hold Pa Kent up as a paragon of wisdom and insight, despite the fact that every single action he takes in the film is shown to be the immoral cowardice of a mistaken fool.
(There’s also the fact that the entire first half of the movie seems to be structured around the idea of Clark making a choice to either reveal himself or keep himself hidden. But then, in an astonishing act of deprotagonization, that decision is taken away from him when Zod shows up and outs him to the planet. In fact, the last thing we see in that abandoned arc is Superman convincing Lois to not reveal his presence…. so I guess this is actually the story of how Clark Kent doesn’t become Superman?)
Here’s another deep structural problem with the movie: Massive human casualties with no emotional reaction from Superman. Then, at the end of the film, four people are threatened by Zod’s heat vision and Superman is abruptly forced to kill Zod. Snyder had an opportunity here to tell a coherent story about Superman as a character and as a human being. Instead he just tacked that story onto the end of the film. It’s lazy filmmaking. (And it’s further broken when the film cuts abruptly from the emotional aftermath of Superman’s decision to a cheerful set of mostly comedic interludes.)
I’ve seen some people attempt to defend the movie on this point by claiming that there wasn’t any time for Clark to have a reaction to the casualties. But they’re kidding themselves: There’s time after the battle in Smallville. During the battle with Zod they have a whole conversation. And it’s also a film, which means that you can choose to structure that final battle to show us Superman taking actions to help bystanders or pulling his punches because it would mean innocents getting hurt.
But the most telling moment in Snyder’s failure here is actually the scene immediately preceding the fight with Zod: Superman lands in the middle of horrific devastation…. and has absolutely no reaction to it whatsoever. Instead, he makes out with Lois while standing on the ashes of 10,000 dead.
There are a lot of other nits that could be picked. (You have an entire film built, albeit poorly, around the death of Pa Kent in a tornado. The special effects you use for the erasure and second death of Jor-El resemble a tornado. But you structure you film so that Superman never gets to have a reaction to it? Bizarre. And why does the entire staff of the Daily Planet evacuate the building only to run directly towards the giant machine of death?) But when the entire backbone of the movie is broken in multiple places, the smaller problems are really inconsequential.