It came so very, very close. When Man of Steel gets the characters right--which is about 90 percent of the time--it gets them exactly right. But when it gets them wrong, it gets them spectacularly wrong.
The first part of the movie seems to be drawing from the animated series origin of Superman, which makes sense: if you're going to steal, steal from the best. I like watching Jor-El as a man of action on Krypton, displaying all the similarities of character that neither father nor son will ever get to see. And I love the idea that Zod is the only other person who sees the danger Krypton is facing.
The cast is perfect from top to bottom. Henry Cavill makes a good Superman, physically imposing but not aggressive. Amy Adams is a great Lois Lane; you can see why the world's most impressive man would be attracted to her equally impressive, equally fearless investigator. And Michael Shannon is fantastic as Zod, easily surpassing Terence Stamp. (That's because the script gives him a lot more to work with, but Shannon manages to wring a note of sympathy out of Super Space Hitler--especially when he says that's what he was designed to be.)
Unfortunately, the movie all but does away with Clark Kent as a secret identity for Superman. Having Lois Lane work it out from the beginning is probably smart--it removes the one thing that's always made her ridiculous in the comics, the idea that the world's greatest reporter is fooled by a pair of glasses. But the trail she follows to figure it out is so broad, with so many signposts, that pretty much any other interested party could also work it out if they wanted to, which means that Clark Kent is less a secret identity than a shared lie. Future movies will have to ignore all that if they want to make Clark work. Based on his limited exposure here, I'm not certain that they will.
The movie has an odd timeline, jumping straight from the destruction of Krypton to the adult Clark and then filling in his Smallville history through flashbacks. I can see how a more linear story would front-load the boring parts of Superman's growth, and force a lot of time jumps in quick succession, but let's face it, this is a Zack Snyder movie--even the boring parts feature a bus crash and a tornado.
Unfortunately, they also feature a very problematic take on Jonathan Kent. His "maybe" (in response to whether young Clark should have let a bus full of his classmates die) is inexcusable. This character is obsessed with maintaining his son's secrecy rather than teaching him to be a good person. That leads him to choose a completely unnecessary death, which might have been more moving if it had been in the service of something other than saving a dog.
Like the ponderous Superman Returns, Man of Steel can't resist the cheap and easy Christ imagery. The subtext isn't helped when the villainous Kryptonian starts talking about how evolution always wins or how morality is an evolutionary weakness. Which I'm pretty sure is not how evolution works, but Snyder made his point.
(The Superman I love the most, the genial scientist and humanist who walked into a golden sunset in 1986 and reappeared for a dozen glorious issues in the mid-2000s, would no doubt respond with some gentle corrective about how morality is humanity's greatest evolutionary adaptation. And then knock Faora into orbit.)
The biggest problem is the sheer scale of destruction as the movie wears on, and Superman's utter inability to stop it--which borders on downright lack of interest. (Mark Waid has an impassioned take on this at his blog.) The movie escalates from destroying a good swath of Smallville to laying half of Metropolis to waste--a sanitized waste, mind you, in which we see falling skyscrapers but not a single body. (Don't worry, I'm sure all the dogs made it out safely.) It's eerily reminiscent of Zack Snyder's similarly antiseptic take on the cataclysm at the end of Watchmen, and like that movie its violence is all the worse for being so clean. It's mass death as spectacle with the human cost politely swept away.
But in one respect it's even worse than Watchmen, because this is a Superman movie--and Superman isn't supposed to let that shit happen on his watch. The script attempts to duck that by contriving to send him around to a boring, pointless fight on the other side of the planet while Metropolis shatters--this is a movie that is actively looking to deliver a massive death toll. Nobody involved seems to have realized how that diminishes its hero, or human life in general.
Because in the most humane interpretations of the character, any death, just one death, is enough to send Superman into paroxysms of grief or self-doubt. It's a reminder that all life, every life, is precious, and not just to him. But as another self-proclaimed man of steel once said, one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.
Unless you don't even count up the million, in which case it's a Hollywood action movie.
get me wrong--I loved 90 percent of this movie. I loved that Superman
actually did heroic things and fought titanic battles instead of just
floating around stalking his ex. I loved that Zod's followers were Super
Space Nazis (and that I could tell the creepy doctor was Jax-Ur even
before the credits rolled). I loved the little heroic moments it gave to
Perry White and Steve Lombard--because you have to see that humanity
is worth saving. Ninety percent of it was a great Superman movie. But the other ten missed one of the most important, fundamental things about him.
Here's a cheat sheet. If you want to have Superman earn that Christ imagery? Try having him save some people.