Note: Because this is a movie, and comparing books (or in this case, comic books) to movies is apples and oranges, I will not reference the written source material, but only comment on other live action versions.
Image courtesy of: http://d1fgn7wex1bhjn.cloudfront.net/assets/tarantulaV2/article_images/1360670074_ManOfSteelWallpaper30.jpg
This is without a doubt the best movie version of Superman. But, full disclosure, I never cared for the previous attempts at bringing Superman to the big screen. Superman 1 and 2, although enjoyable movies in themselves, were aimed at children. Therefore, they didn't hold my interest for long. Superman 3 was a Richard Pryor comedy thinly disguised as a Superman movie, one in which Superman is delegated to a supporting role. Superman 4 was a propaganda piece about nuclear weapons, and Superman Returns (Superman 5) bizarrely sought to continue the Richard Donner franchise twenty years after its previous film was dead on arrival.
Superman Returns deserves a special kind of criticism here. That movie did one thing right. It pretended that Superman 3 and 4 never happened. Other than that, it was complete garbage. First, any Superman movie seeking to continue the Richard Donner franchise twenty years after the previous movie (actually twenty-five years after because it pretends 3 and 4 never happened), while acting as if only a few years went by, is a questionable move at best. So, Superman leaves Earth after the events of Superman 2 to find Krypton and comes back to Earth a few years later, only to find that technology has advanced twenty-five years--everyone has a cell phone and phone booths are few and far between--while the people have only aged five years or so. Yeah, makes a lot of sense.
In addition to that, it came out in 2006, at the height of Smallville's popularity. A logical Superman movie at the time would have been a Smallville-related film. Smallville was a good series that went overly long. What should have been five seasons went for ten, and 2006 was when it was in it's fifth season. A smart move would have been to complete the television series that season and put out a Smallville movie in which Tom Welling's Clark Kent finally donned the blue suit and cape. Barring that, they should have abandoned any Superman film ideas until Smallville was off television. Two different Superman TV/film franchises running simultaneously, having nothing to do with each other, is the epitome of stupid. At least the Smallville producers knew such a thing would be a bad idea. They had the sense to abandon plans to include Batman in their series after Batman Begins came out in 2005 for this reason.
Now, Man of Steel...
What did I think of it as a movie in itself? The darker tone is definitely appealing, and I loved the scenes taking place on Krypton. I thought some of it was a little rushed, however, like they were trying to a fit a lot into a short timeframe. In fact, every part of the movie that was about story and character had that feeling, while the action scenes (like the battle with the Kryptonians in Smallville and Superman vs Zod in Metropolis) were over the top and drawn out, taking up two or maybe three times the amount of screen time as they should have. Drawn-out action scenes are forgivable if it is clear the story needed padding, but this one didn't. This had the story, but the most compelling parts of that story were cut short to make room for the special effects extravaganza, which was disappointing. This left the relationship between Lois and Clark only half realized and the fatherly wisdom from Jonathan Kent to come off as hackneyed at best.
With that aside, I have one very serious criticism, and this is related to the all-out action sequences. The fight in Smallville where they demolish the entire town in the process, as well as the fight in Metropolis where Superman willingly fights within the city limits, causing billions of dollars in destruction and, more importantly, what has to be the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocent bystanders really hurts the idea that Superman holds human life sacred. At the end, when Superman is preventing Zod from frying those four (I think it was four) people with his heat vision, resulting in Superman having to kill him (and crying in anguish for being forced to kill), I kept thinking "I don't believe this. You had to have killed so many innocent people during the fight, but this has you screaming?"
Juxtapose the battle scenes I referred to with the scene in which Jonathon Kent is killed. A tornado appears in front of them, causing untold destruction. Clark watches as it wipes his adoptive father off the face of the Earth. Whatever destruction this tornado caused, it was nothing compared to the destructive force of the Kryptonians, and Superman just let it happen. He let them determine the rules and theater of engagement. A logical plot point, and this would have been able to add to Superman's character while providing action, would have been to have Superman working to take over those rules and change the theater. Instead, we got a destructive slugfest that, in my opinion, does not fit with the character and what he supposedly believes in.
With that aside, I loved the new take on Clark Kent. Christopher Reeve played Clark Kent as a bumbling fool, making Clark the disguise while Superman was who he really was; Dean Cain (in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) played Clark Kent straight while Superman was the disguise; Tom Welling's "The Blur" (a precursor to Superman) was an icon while his Clark Kent was the real person. Man of Steel seems to take it somewhere in between. He is both Clark Kent and Superman, one and the same, just doing what he can to avoid alerting the world of the presence of an alien life form. By the end of the movie, when he decides to try to live a normal life but in a way where he can be in the thick of trouble without causing suspicion--i.e. as a news reporter--he finally adopts the glasses, but I never got the impression that he was trying to change who he was, just trying to be a normal person when he isn't flying about, almost no different from how differently someone behaves while they are on the job or not.
Another vast improvement in this film above all other incarnations is that Lois Lane knows from the start that Clark Kent is Superman. You don't have to suspend your disbelief that this Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter is so stupid that she can't see that her partner is also the Man of Steel. Good job on that one. It's about time that storyline was scrapped. When Clark lands the job at the Daily Planet at the end, I got the impression that Lois, in future films in this franchise, will do more to hide the fact that Clark and Superman are one and the same than those glasses do. This makes a little more sense.
An additional thing this movie did well was making the fact that Clark is an alien more realized. You see in detail the world he came from, the culture, and the problems his people suffered. Clark is the first natural birth in generations on Krypton. Everyone else in the previous 100 years was artificially bred to serve a specific purpose in life. Zod, for instance, was bred to ensure the safety of Kryptonians, no matter what the cost, a fact that led to his crazed coup attempt on Krypton and his determination to conquer Earth to build a new Krypton. Clark, being naturally bred, has a more complex character, more compassion, and is not single-minded like other Kryptonians, making him the ideal person to preserve all that was worth preserving from that civilization.
Overall, despite the problems, I loved this movie. I am glad to finally have a movie version of Superman that is worth watching. I would give this 3 out of 4 stars.