More than a character, Superman is a symbol of the power of goodness to ultimately overcome evil. Superman represents a childlike fantasy to have the power to change things in mighty ways. Superman is an imaginative ideal in which one man really can do everything, save the world, and get the girl. And yet, it's hard to identify with a guy whose greatest challenge is an allergy to a rock from an extinct planet. And to some degree, that is where Man of Steel succeeds where no other Superman has.
While it may not be difficult to imagine that a young Clark would have difficulty with the necessity of hiding his abilities from the world, rarely have we seen how Clark is forced into heart-breaking dilemmas right alongside common juvenile temptations. Before Clark is fully realized as the Man of Steel, he has two life-defining moments in which he must make the choice to protect his identity, or let others die while he stands by. Clark responds differently to the two situations, and the outcomes are invariably affected, as is Clark. One situation proves to him that as one who has the ability to save lives, he has the responsibility. The second scenario shows him that while failure to act can (and does) result in someone else's death, he must be able to act without compromising his cover.
Thanks to creative writing and good acting, Clark is finally a fairly sympathetic character. His loneliness is incurable, and his desire for belonging can never be met. As far as Clark knows, he is the last survivor of a world he never even knew, the only son of a family whose love he can never remember. His emptiness is more than just a lack of identity, but a penetrating lonesomeness in every sense, and that is what I found most personable about Clark. It's not that he doesn't fit in because he's hiding who is, he doesn't fit in because he is a stranger in a strange land.
In more technical areas, it should be noted that Man of Steel differs from previous Superman adaptations in some significant ways.
1. No Kryptonite. Clark's only true weakness is that he has adapted a little too much to the atmosphere of earth, which complicates his energy and breathing when he visits General Zod aboard the spacecraft.
2. Krypton's fate is not natural. In other Superman movies, Krypton seems to be the unfortunate recipient of a natural apocalypse. In Man of Steel however, Krypton is reaping the consequences of harvesting the planet core for resources, therefore making the core unstable.
3. No Lois-Clark romance. It's well-known that Lois has complicated feelings for both Superman and Clark, completely oblivious to the fact that they are one in the same. In this version of the story however, Lois never meets Clark as just Clark. She meets him because she knows that he is something different, and he is thus the mysterious man from moment one.
4. Spoiler! Superman kills. That's a spoiler by the way. Though it should be noted that he had no choice, and that he expresses great remorse for it. All the same, this was apparently seen as highly controversial by the purists.
These differences made for interesting viewing, but all in all I would give Man of Steel a seven out of ten, which is far more generous than any adaptation I've ever given any Superman movie previously. I will say without hesitation that this is the finest Superman adaptation I have ever seen, and I thoroughly enjoyed the more in-depth origin story from both the Kryptonian side, as well as the Kansas side. The modified technology that allowed Kal-El (Russell Crowe) to be part of the movie long after his character's demise was a nice variation on Marlon Brando's Fortress of Solitude appearances. Lois Lane finally has some sense, though still remains true to her character by giving in to dangerous curiosity.
So why not a ten out of ten?
Well, the fact is, Superman as a symbol, icon, and superhero is no longer an untold story, and to a large degree there is not much more that can be untold before it strays into the territory of complete rebirth. Yes it's true that Man of Steel delivered a few things we haven't seen before, and General Zod managed to give a few twists, but at it's heart, we know Clark too well. So well in fact that there really can't be very many surprises. Eventually he will always do the right thing, save Lois from an impossibly precarious situation, and then go back to his thankless job as a reporter. And I'm not saying that I would really want to see these vital aspects of Clark's character changed necessarily, because he does embody a goodness that is admirable and seemingly unattainable at times. At times I would like to see him wrestle a little more with the nature of right and wrong, such as his reluctant decision to kill Zod. But therein lies my point: the greatest surprise to his character or to the story in general is that he kills the bad guy.
For Superman, this might be groundbreaking. For a superhero, it's common responsibility.
Man of Steel was thoroughly entertaining and interesting, and it did manage to make things as new and fresh as it possibly could have without reinventing the wheel entirely. For that, I applaud them. Clark, as a thoroughly good and untouchable power may be one of the most difficult alter-egos ever written, yet here he is just about human, and that is a good thing.