Superman: Man of Steel or Mr. Sensitive?

Warner Bros. rolls out a whole new Superman on Wednesday — one who doubts himself, ponders his reason for being, leaves his family and might even be gay, if you believe the Internet buzz.

"Superman Returns" takes place between the second and third Christopher Reeve "Superman" films, and tells the story of the crimson-caped hero disappearing from Earth for five years full of self-doubt, even returning to the shattered remains of Krypton to contemplate where he comes from and why he's chosen to spend his life protecting an alien world.

The new character deviates a great deal from how the Man of Steel has been depicted in TV series and movies in the past, and fits with the recent evolution of comic book movie heroes into darker, more complicated characters.

"This has been a basic tendency of comic book heroes for some time, to humanize the heroes," said Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "In several recent comics and graphic novels, Superman goes into retreat, and is portrayed as a more introspective character."

But director Bryan Singer's self-questioning, sensitive Superman is so different from the previous mold that Internet buzz has swirled that the new movie depicts a gay superhero.

With such speculation calling the movie's potential for commercial success into question — gay magazine The Advocate even recently featured a cover story with the headline "How Gay Is Superman?" — Singer took the extreme step of issuing a public denial of rumors of the character's homosexuality.

"[Superman] is probably the most heterosexual character in any movie I've ever made," he said in a statement. "I don't think he's ever been gay."

The denial, coming amid rumors about the sexual orientation of lead actor Brandon Routh, was reportedly spurred by Hollywood bigwigs who feared the anticipated summer blockbuster would suffer among young males.

"Singer has come out so vehemently against this being a gay Superman — while he himself has been out [of the closet] I think since forever — that he must know a gay Superman won't be marketable," said William Luhr, a professor of English and film at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey.

So which Supermen have been marketable?

The last son of Krypton made his giant leap in a single bound from comics to the mass media in the classic 1941 "It's a bird, it's a plane" radio show, with Budd Collyer portraying Superman's voice.

But the superhero gained his greatest early live-action success in the "Adventures of Superman," in which actor George Reeves played a very different Superman than the new "Superman Returns" character promises to be.

"It's a much less vulnerable, all-American portrayal," said Roger Williams, who owns the New York City comic book shop The Time Machine. "It was a very '50s rendering, with no complexities to the character. The later films and TV shows added complexity and depth, making the character more like a real person than a stock comic book character."

The cultural climate of the '50s urged the Superman character into this more simplistic hero, Sharrett said.

"The conservative era after World War II transformed Superman from what he stood for during the Great Depression — a symbol of fighting for the common man — to a hero fighting for truth, justice and the American way," he said. "The character really became one-dimensional, audiences today would never go for it."

Sharrett said the classic Christopher Reeve Superman of late 1970s-80s cinema really just built upon the '50s TV character.

"Reeve's film character was an extension of the TV show white-bread hero, a fairly one-dimensional character with better special effects, a modernized blue long underwear outfit and a very well-redesigned cape," he said. "I don't think the mass media superhero mold had yet transitioned into the darker phase."

The Superman franchise has been carried into the modern day by TV series like "Smallville," which depicts a young Superboy on his foster parents' farm, and "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," which explored Superman's early, passionate romance with Lois Lane in both his identities.

While the latter show explored the Kryptonian hero's romantic complexities, much as Reeve did, it never portrayed him as self-doubting.

So some film critics say that with a character who's basically a big, bullet-proof block of granite, Singer needed to offer modern audiences a more complicated, sensitive Superman — and sensitive doesn't necessarily mean gay.

"One of the problems has always been there's not a lot that's immediately evident in terms of the character's complexity," said Luhr. "Clark Kent adds a shade of complexity, but Superman himself isn't tortured, has no temper tantrums and is so white-bread that you need to do more with the character."

But he is a guy who wears tights ... so you be the judge.