Examining Man of Steel through any sort of relevant cultural lens requires giving the film more credit than it deserves. It's a movie that foregoes any sort of a meaningful, message-based narrative in favor of pure spectacle. If there is any lasting impression it hopes to leave the audience with, it's, "Check out all this cool shit we can do with CG effects!"
Regardless of its lack of depth or insight, it is a film that depicts some of the most iconic figures in American mythology, and as such, it calls for a closer look. The character of Superman fundamentally represents the ideals of humanity. It's an objectionable notion that the ideal of humanity is supposedly best personified by a heterosexual white man, but through his history, Superman has been intended to represent a symbol of hope and universal aspiration.
[Mild spoilers ahead!]
Man of Steel portrays a Superman who is trying to find himself amidst a trio of inherited identities. Raised as Clark Kent by simple farmers in Kansas, he grows up to discover that he was born Kal-El, the last son of a dying planet. While trying to come to terms with these disparate elements, he has to learn to become Superman, the manifestation of the strength and ideals that he's called upon to represent. Although this concept drives the narrative, there's very little that represents these different aspects of the character other than the fact that the mantle of Superman requires a skintight uniform that shows off his super sweet abs.
Guiding Superman on his quest towards manhood are his two father figures: his adopted father Pa Kent and Jor-El, his deceased biological father who is conveniently able to interact with him via some sort of Kryptonian technology (like most aspects of the film, it works a lot better if you don't really think about it). Pa Kent seems to represent the folly of humanity. After years of discouraging young Clark from exploring the potential of his abilities, he kicks the bucket in what may be the most frivolous chivalrous death in the history of cinema.
After Pa Kent's ridiculous demise, Clark travels the world in search of purpose and eventually finds an ancient spaceship from his home world where he's able to upload the Kryptonian flashdrive from his space crib that allows him to come face to face with a fancy projection of his biological poppa. Jor-El lays out Superman's origins and reason for being and then goes on to encourage him to realize his full potential, taking all of 2 minutes to become a way better dad than Pa Kent ever was. This almost seemed like a statement about why biological fathers are better than adopted ones, or how searching ones genealogy might unveil a guideline for ones personal path but, again, it's probably not intentional and is best viewed as just a bunch of stuff that happens. Jor-El's genealogy lesson does have some pretty sweet digital effects in it, though.
Superman's two moms are present in the film but occupy much less screen time. His space mom, Lara, serves virtually no purpose other than setting the coordinates for Superbaby's space crib while her husband fights off the bad guys. Ma Kent gets a lot more screen time but doesn't have much of a presence outside of being a benevolent, supportive mom. She's even totally cool with it when aliens blow the shit out of her house. Her status as the last parent standing is hardly grounds for a matriarchy. It feels more like they just needed to keep at least one parent around to bump off in the sequel.
While Superman is an archetype representing a seemingly unachievable ideal for humanity, Lois Lane portrays a more grounded vision of a woman who can keep up with him. When the savvy, proactive Lois Lane was first conceived of in the '30s, she may have been ahead of her time. But as culture has evolved, Lois Lane, apparently, hasn't kept up. Lois has always had the intrepid initiative to get herself into countless compromising situations in the selfless spirit of investigative journalism, but she also always relied on Superman to bail her out. She exists in history as one of the first female characters to be featured in her very own comic book back in the 50's, but while most title characters names are prefaced with adjectives like "Amazing" or "Uncanny," hers was "Superman's Girlfriend." In Man of Steel, Lois manages to be more than a damsel in distress, but not much more. In the film, she has virtually no role beyond her relationship to Superman. She may not be helpless, and even occasionally qualifies as helpful, but she's hardly her own woman.
Superman's famous pal, Jimmy Olsen, has been gender-swapped in the film. The Daily Planet staffer is now known as Jenny. This seemed like a potentially bold move, but the character has so little screen time that the opportunity is wasted. As evil Kryptonians blow the shit out of Metropolis in the films third act, the staff of the Daily Planet, Jenny included, are shown running in fear as a means of connecting the audience with the civilian experience during these cataclysmic events. Unfortunately, these characters are portrayed so briefly and peripherally throughout the earlier portions of the film that seeing them in peril is hardly more effective than if they were any other anonymous people. As Jenny dodges falling buildings in the streets of Metropolis, you may find yourself struggling to remember if you've even seen this character before. What seemed like an innovative concept essentially boils down to how important it is whether "Daily Planet Employee #3" is cast as male or female.
Ultimately, all of the characters in Man of Steel are little more than supportive fodder for Superman, a character who himself fails to make much impression outside of his CG feats of fancy. The plot merely fills time in between a lot of rad explosions and space ships and flying around and stuff. Certain elements seem like a moderately progressive update to the story—like that the main antagonist General Zod's right-hand-villain is a woman who's tough as nails—it all tends to fall away in moments like when a female soldier describes Superman as "pretty hot." However, that trite phrase might also be the most astute observation of how vain the whole movie really is.
All drawings by Ryan Alexander-Tanner.