...and then the fight bell rings, and basically none of it goes anywhere or informs anything that comes after, save for justifying the existence of some mechanized obstacles and the Eugenics/"bred-for-the-job" angle acting as background for Zod's single-minded relentlessness - transforming a huge chunk of earlier exposition into the most convoluted way of saying "because he's just BAD, okay?" ever. It really is just about that jarring: You can almost picture the buzzer going off, the assembled characters standing akwardly mid-sequence, Snyder, Goyer and Nolan striding into frame making the "time out" gesture and declaring: "Okay! Okay, nope, that's enough of that! Everybody whined when he didn't punch anything in the last one of these, so this time we're giving them all the punching! Clark? Zod? Zod's various pals? Start wailin' on eachother and don't stop poundin' until the audience is completely numb to our endless, just shy of tasteless 9-11 allusions!"
As a result, there's not a lot of room for levity, or humor, or the kind of heartfelt awe typically associated with the character. Instead it's a series of fight scenes between beings so indestructible that the damage is almost all collateral. Skyscrapers tumble, whole city blocks are turned to ash, what looks like a big stretch of rural Kansas gets reduced to ruin and - in a development that has sharply divided fans - Superman does precious little rescuing or protecting of anybody amid all the punching and eyeball-lasering.
So yes, it's all quite dark. And angry. And violent. But is it "too dark" for Superman? I'm not really sure.
It's definitely the darkest movie (or TV) version of the character and his world to hit movie screens outside of certain infamous moments from "Superman III." It fits comfortably within the "gritty realism" mold producer Nolan struck for his Batman movies, as well. But it's not exactly "Watchmen," either. In many respects it's a live-action realization of the DC Universe of the 1990s - right down to Jor-El suiting up in bulky powered-armor and swinging around a Liefeldian laser-rifle - with its damaged, angst-ridden heroes and focus on the violence wrought with superhuman powers over the miraculous acts or last-minute rescues.
On the other hand, it's still a relatively bloodless and morally-uncomplicated affair. For all his pouting, Superman's central background is still "good parenting = good superhero." Zod and company are bad because they were (literally) born that way - and quite happy to monologue your ear off about it. It's impossible not to conclude that hundreds of thousands of people were killed amid the chaos of
Goku and Vegeta Superman and Zod throwing eachother around Metropolis, but we don't actually see anybody buy the farm onscreen. "Man of Steel" is thematically grim and implicitly violent, but I'm not convinced that "too dark" is the overriding issue.
Rather, what I'd offer from this less than ideal vantage point is that the lack of "lightness" is far less problematic for the film than the lack of a recognizable Superman, which I think is what a lot of the criticism is reading as "darkness." The stated purpose of this movie was to try and strip out some of the baggage the character had accumulated and find something that might be a better fit for modern audiences, but in doing so one runs the risk of also throwing out something than turns out to be essential. That might be what's happened here.
"Dark" or not, the film is chiefly lacking the sunny disposition and (there's really no other way to say it) child-friendliness that the popular culture has previously always associated with the character. And while the idea of a Superman movie aimed largely at older teenage boys is certainly novel and obviously successful at the current boxoffice, I can't help but wonder what it means in the long term... especially given the film's unexpected (but by no means prohibitive) tumble to third-place in its second week of release - behind the abysmal "World War Z," no less.
What I can say for certain is that I'm glad this particular discussion is happening, even as it eclipses the more immediate questions of whether or not the movie is any good. Hollywood's current fixation on strip-mining geek culture - so much of which is grounded in things that adult fans first encountered as children - for its blockbusters means that the "darkening" of things that may not actually benefit from being darkened is going to be a continuing practice. The discussion about whether or not that's really an appropriate or healthy cultural development is important to have.