The distance between artistic merit and enjoyability has always been a really interesting one to cross. For every Tree of Life, there's a Titanic. For every Inception, there's an Avengers. A lot of movies do a great job when it comes to blending emotional significance and spectacle, and a lot of movies don't. This isn't to say that one kind of film should be valued over the other, though. Nor is it to say that a movie can't be enjoyable if it isn't utterly crappy. Or vise versa. Ever see the movie Monster? Excellent. Unflinchingly well-made. I'll never, ever watch it again, though. Much like Closer, Monster was a movie that I thought was wonderful and well-done and deserving of an endless parade of accolades. They were both movies that I'll never watch again. I didn't enjoy either of them, even a little.
I dug Man of Steel quite a lot, but did I think it was good, though? No, not in the least.
Not too long ago, someone whose opinion about movies I respect a great deal told me how much he hates it when people make the distinction between something being a "movie" and a "film." In all honesty, he was responding to me, as I was saying that I thought Avatar was a rad movie but a shit film.
But I feel the exact same way about Man of Steel.
For free, I would have sat down and watched it a second time the very same day I saw it the first time. For another ten bucks, though, I'd rather have had a really good sandwich or something. In just about every way, Man of Steel completely and utterly fails at being a good film. But when it comes to being an awesome movie, Man of Steel is pretty much an unabashed success.
How does this work? Admittedly, in a way that's maybe kind of confusing.
On a broad, pulled-back level, Man of Steel is an absolutely rollicking success. There's a lot that the screenplay (written by the dubiously talented David S. Goyer, based on a story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan) gets right. Superman's origins are tweaked in very interesting ways, and the Krypton prologue is pretty exciting. Clark's childhood and pre-superman years are made interesting and relevant, and manage to convey some pretty legitimate angst without ever falling into outright mopiness.
When you zoom in, though, the script promptly falls apart under its own weight.
For one thing, each character is little more than an information-delivery machine, spouting exposition and moving the story along with dialogue that's flatter than a can of Tab I left sitting on the kitchen counter twenty years ago.
As soon as Zod shows up, though, none of that matters. This is the case for two reasons:
a) Michael Shannon's Zod joins Ledger's Joker, Weaving's Agent Smith, and Defoe's Green Goblin as one of the best super-villain performances ever, and
b) his character is the only one with any interesting, relatable, or understandable motivations.
It's one of the only things holding the movie together, and it's also one of the movie's biggest problems because it points directly at the rest of the movie's gaping flaws, all of which become readily apparent the moment you leave the theater.
Before that, though? You're in for a treat if you've been hoping to see some punching, flying, and knocking down of buildings, because Man of Steel manages to realize these idea in a way that's more effective than anything I've seen committed to screen.
Seriously, if you hate buildings, this is the movie for you. (Man of Steel adopts a squarely "FUCK BUILDINGS" stance in the punch buildings/leave buildings alone debate.)
It's tough to imbue a superhuman fight with the weight it needs while still managing to make the combatants seem the size of normal men. Man of Steel does exactly that. Zod and Superman clash in zoomed-out, widescreen battles where each punch feels like a seismic hit. It's awesome. Shit gets generally fucked up in an all-out kind of way.
Again, one of the movie's hugest strengths becomes one of its biggest problems when the audience is given no choice but to zoom in on the characters and their motivations. SPOILER TIME.
At the film's end Superman makes the jarring choice to go ahead and kill Zod, who's threatening some completely random family with his heat ray vision. Superman opts to kill Zod rather than allow this rando fam to get got...which seems a very odd choice, considering that the two of them were JUST responsible for the death of easily a few hundred thousand people.
And then it all becomes clear...this is a Zach Snyder movie masquerading as a Christopher Nolan one.
The scripts gritty realism works right up until you realize that it's draped over a story lacking any real human element, stylistic or otherwise. The characters are bland and boring, pretty much all across the board (Zod being the notable exception). The story's structure lacks cohesion and is narratively lazy, giving us important flashbacks exactly when they're convenient for us to get them. There are zero emotional stakes.
For some reason Superman feels committed to protecting a planet that he thought would be a total jerk to him for his entire life. When Zod shows up, Clark Kent doesn't decide to become Superman and save the world because he's compelled to do so...he just does.
Awesome superhero battles are why you come, but a good emotional through-line is why you would have stayed. Nolan's presence onboard Man of Steel suggested that we'd get a more grown-up kind of Snyder, but really it just seems like Nolan was brought in to paint over a sculpture that Snyder (and/or Goyer) had already finished carving.
Normally, it'd be tough to ignore a movie with flaws that are so glaring and exist at such a fundamental level. Thankfully enough, Man of Steel gives you plenty with which to keep distracted.