[BTW, in the comments there's a lot more discussion of the storytelling, music, action sequences, and what puts the "Dumb" in a Big Dumb Ending, vs. a climactic and apocalyptic ending.]
Like the critics who are throwing a fit over the new Superman movie not having much cheer, joy, humor, or romance, I prefer my kickass summer action movies that way, too. Die Hard perfected this mix in 1988; already by 1994, the romance, humor, and cheer felt more strained in Speed, even if it still felt real enough.
But it's not the '80s anymore, and those emotions have all but evaporated from real life. Mortal actors draw on the range of emotions and motivations that are present in real life, so you can't expect them to convey cheer etc. very convincingly in the '90s or 21st century. Demanding that actors "transcend" their zeitgeist is like asking them to deliver the dialogue impeccably in a foreign language.
We're back to a mood of mass isolation last seen during the mid-century, so good acting and film-making will have to harness that reality to greatest artistic effect. That's why we remember all of those film noir and Hitchcock movies from the mid-century, and not so much the relatively passion-free rom-coms, the airheaded gay musicals, or the bombastic epics. *
In our return to the mid-century zeitgeist, the greatest movies will also have an alienated, noirish feeling to them -- among others, those of Christopher Nolan, who had a fair role in Man of Steel as producer and contributor to the story. Unfortunately Nolan's cinematographer Wally Pfister is not present, leading to disappointment for those who were hoping for the striking visual style of the Dark Knight trilogy or Inception.
But an interesting story, characters, and set of themes can still make the movie enjoyable to watch, as long as the look and feel isn't distractingly bad (and here they were average and competent, not a disaster like most other contemporary movies).
Perhaps the most notable feature of all of the human characters is that not a single one of them is very likable -- not that they're loathsome, but none of them makes you care about them in a way that you'd consider being their friend in real life, dream about having them as your boyfriend or girlfriend, or enjoy working with them at the office.
Well, aside from Clark's Baby Boomer parents, who you might wish to have for your own. But they don't appear to represent the mainstream of American society -- they're fairly cut off from the other families in rural Kansas, let alone from the increasingly urbanized parts of the country.
Lois Lane is introduced as a sassypants who is only defiant because some court order allowed her to backtalk to an Army colonel. She's more pushy and nosy than assertive and feisty (like the original Lois Lane was), in the way that women tend to act in a sheltered and micro-managed office environment. And she never really lets her guard down in an informal, interpersonal context.
Her newspaper editor Perry White, along with all of the military figures, are distant, reserved, and emotionally cold. Even among the military themselves, there's zero camaraderie -- not that they're turning on one another, but simply that their superorganic fellow-feeling has come unglued. Again, even as recently as 1994, camaraderie was still part of everyday life (if in decline) that the key actors on the police force in Speed could make it come to life on the screen.
From what my two brothers have told me about Army life in the 21st century, this is a very realistic portrayal -- the Cold War is done, so there's no felt need to band together as a team against a huge enemy. Even at the end of the movie, when you'd think the whole "invaded and nearly wiped out by aliens" experience might have brought them closer together, they still don't come off as tightly bonded. A little more willing to make jokes, but still not close. Fluke attacks do not leave enduring bonds. It has to be something perceived as a more enduring threat, like Indian raids or Russkie missiles and submarines.
The various office workers are your typical group of inane, self-centered, guard-up, staring-at-their-phones-while-walking kind of drones you're familiar with from real life. The customers in public spaces, such as bars or restaurants, also don't seem very involved in who they're with and where they are. There's no feeling of togetherness in those places, more like people are showing up just avoid hermit life.
Lois Lane's star-blogger friend is a smug, pompous faggot.
And so on. Cast your net at random, and 21st-century Americans don't appear very likable or cohesive, although they're not caricatured or demonized either. And the writers were generous in not portraying the even more deplorable parts of the citizenry: the suburban Supermom with a fake tan and "butt-sculpting" jeans, the People of Wal-Mart, airhead hipsters, and ghetto trash.
Is this really a society worth saving?
Here is where the movie makes good use of our background social mood. If we saw Americans as they were during the late '70s and '80s, the answer is simple. People were more endearing and sympathetic back then, and our hero would not face as dramatic of a choice. And Superman himself was more closely integrated into his host society in the Donner movies, so that gives him an added incentive to fight on their behalf. He's standing up for his own group.
In Man of Steel, however, he's much more of an outcast, although I think that's not the most important part of his characterization. Yes, there's the adolescent theme of, Would you save a group some of whose members have picked on you? This movie goes beyond that in focusing on whether all of those who did not pick on you are still worth saving.
The social climate is not one of tight bonds among the in-group of Americans, while Clark is mercilessly ostracized. None of the other kids seem very close to each other either. There's one scene where a couple of jocks tempt him to fight back, and they're there with a few girls -- presumably their girlfriends, but you couldn't tell from how disconnected everyone is, even within this supposed group of friends. Their blank faces and total lack of touchy-feely behavior, keeping all to themselves, looks pretty accurate for today's young people.
The hero must decide, then, not whether to save a cohesive group that has ostracized him, but one that hardly seems to be hanging together itself. Not a group whose members are likable, yet who have rejected you from playing in all their reindeer games, but who are bland, lifeless, and often irritating toward one another. As the outcast, you'd feel pity and sadness more than anger or envy toward the in-group.
By having Superman act more out of empathy and charity than sympathy or group loyalty, the movie gives us a hero who embodies transcendent values that we haven't seen in a long time. Instead it's General Zod as the tragic anti-hero who loves his fellow Kryptonians enough to revolt against the corrupt and impotent central committee, and risk his life in chasing after Superman to get the material he needs to re-create his race.
I have to repeat that: Superman's is not the adolescent angry/envious motivation, where I'll show those pricks who cast me out -- by saving their asses, and it'll just eat them up inside to have to thank me and beg me to join them, revenge will be so fucking sweet.
America in the 21st century may be socially fragmented and emotionally lifeless, but at least it's not as corrupted and decadent as Krypton was (...yet). Superman makes that clear when General Zod continues his appeal to recreate their society, and Superman emphasizes that "Krypton had its chance." A society that blew itself up is not worth recreating. America is in a murky twilight period, where it's not clear which way they'll go, so they're more worth saving. Sure, they might end up fucking it up just like the Kryptonians, but until there's clearer proof of that, give the unlikable bastards the benefit of the doubt.
The central theme of saving a society that you don't feel connected to and whose members are not particularly likable, because they still aren't rotten enough to deserve destruction, makes the CGI demolition work to its advantage. Normally that fake-looking crap is just off-putting and takes me out of the movie. Here, whether intentionally or not (probably not), it echoes the larger theme -- you don't have to like or feel connected to all of those glass-and-concrete, neo-mid-century big dumb ugly boxes. They still don't deserve to be annihilated in such catastrophic fashion, with all the people still inside.
When King Kong climbs the Empire State Building and starts taking fire from airplanes, the unconscious part of your brain is saying, "Holy shit, they're gonna wreck the Empire State Building!" But some sterile eyesore, some charmless Bauhaus hunk-a junk whose demolition looks like a video game? Well, yeah, I guess it isn't so offensive that it deserves to collapse as part of an indiscriminate and senseless destruction.
Maybe a selective targeting of the oppressive-looking buildings, and hands off of the Art Deco buildings, would have let us feel more comfortable with the demolition of the former. But you know that General Zod had no such motive, so you can't root for their collapse, and are uncomfortably compelled to feel loss when the buildings fall apart -- aside from caring about the human beings inside, of course. I mean even for these hideous carbuncles themselves.
I wonder if the reason that all the critics are so angry at the tone in this movie is because they have no conception of a hero whose motives are more transcendent than personal or group-minded? "OMG, 'nobler virtues' = so 2000-and-late." I also wonder if the typical audience member has totally missed this, and is seeing it primarily through the lens of personal revenge or patriotic duty to one's in-group, only differing with the critics by believing that those are good rather than bad motives.
* Women back then were too fast-talking and wise-cracking to serve as ideals worth putting it all on the line for in a romance movie. The popular musical climate was too subdued for the musicals to really bring the audience alive (unlike, say, Footloose), leaving them with a more superficial and underwhelming feeling. And notwithstanding WWII, mid-century men felt more out-of-place and overwhelmed by mass society, rather than ambitious and heroic, hence the forced quality to a lot of the grand-scale acting in epic movies.