The point at which I knew that writer David S. Goyer, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan were doing something very smart and very different with their version of Superman in MAN OF STEEL was early on, when we're having the history (it's not really an origin, in the classic superhero sense) of Kal-El (who will eventually grow up to be Clark Kent when he reaches Earth) revealed to us in flashback. In this version of events, the men and women of Krypton have advanced so far that natural birth is a thing of the past, and every child is genetically engineered for certain functions--leaders, scientists, warriors, etc. Kal-El's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is a scientist, and he and his wife (Ayelet Zurer) decide that their son will have a choice in his destiny, which will not be fulfilled on Krypton, which is a dying planet. They have a natural birth and send their son across the universe to Earth, with the literal future of Krypton resting with him (I won't explain that further).
What's inherently intelligent about this setup is that MAN OF STEEL's "villain" isn't a bad guy at all. General Zod (played with an intensity that seems branded to his face by Michael Shannon). Zod is a man whose entire existence is built around the idea of protecting the Kryptonian people, and when he learns that Kal-El's very being is the only thing standing in the way of him carrying out a function that is literally built into his DNA, he gets... frustrated and a little aggressive.
This aspect to the main storyline is just one of the reasons MAN OF STEEL works so well, and probably will continue to do so upon repeated viewings. There are layers to this that other superhero films have attempted on a much smaller scale, and I'm including Nolan's BATMAN movies, although THE DARK KNIGHT is still a superior film for different reasons.
I also fell hard for the idea that Clark's father (Kevin Costner, who hasn't dug into a role or my heart in this way in quite some time) is so intent on keeping his son safe that he talks young Clark (played at 9 by Cooper Timberline and 13 by Dylan Sprayberry; both do wonderful jobs) into not using his remarkable powers, even if it means saving the lives of dozens of people. There's a powerful moment you may have seen already after Clark saves a school bus filled with his classmates where the boy asks his father, "Should I have let them die?" to with Coster replies, "Maybe." Coster not only sells the line, but he makes us understand the sentiment. Clark's mother (Diane Lane) is largely silent while her husband is still alive, but when we see her in the present, she seems more agreeable to Clark taking on the role of hero.
As an adult, Clark (Henry Cavill from IMMORTALS and Showtime's "The Tudors") wanders the world picking up odd jobs as a laborer, but whenever he is forced to reveal his power to save someone, he immediately hightails it out of there for parts unknown. Aside from being ridiculously handsome, Cavill brings the right sense of torment and brooding to Clark. This is a man who is still haunted by his father's vision of his life of solitude. He also knows he's not of Earth, although I like that he clearly identifies himself as American.
Around the time that Zod and his team discover where Kal-El is residing, a smart veteran reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has caught wind of reports of someone out there exhibiting superhuman abilities in one town, then another, and she basically tracks him (or his mother) down using good, old-fashioned investigative tools. I love this version of Lois Lane. Not only is she a key player in the storyline (still taking orders, but doing so without being klutzy or screaming all the time) but she also makes for a worthy emotional partner for Superman, without stuff getting all mushy.
I can't believe I've made it this far without talking about Snyder's revelatory action sequences. I'm never seen fight scenes done this way, and when Superman and Zod go toe to toe on the streets and between the buildings of Metropolis (pretty much leveling the city--I can't even imagine the death toll), you can feel the screen vibrate with each impact. But as a result, watching the final third of MAN OF STEEL might simply wear you out, but that's hardly a complaint. The filmmakers do a credible job blending vintage characteristics of the Superman legend with some wonderfully modern elements (the sequences on Krypton were so beautiful that I hated to leave them). The changes to the Superman canon aren't anything I think die-hard fans are going to complain about, and even the sometimes corny dialogue that Clark says is pretty charming (remember, he's really just a boy from Kansas at heart).
I know part of the reason MAN OF STEEL was made in the first place is to set up a universe in which other characters from DC Comics can be added to the mix. Not that I'm not curious where these and other characters go from here, but I'm not here to judge this film as a jumping-off point. Simply as a stand-alone work, it's a glowing triumph that is perfectly paced, creatively designed, beautifully acted, and even has room for subtle elements to enhance its big-picture vision. Check out some nice supporting casting choices in Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni and, of course, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White to see what I mean. You may find fault in small corners of this film, but the overall piece has so much going for it and is almost endlessly entertaining.