Superman or Batman?
It's one of those character-defining pop culture questions, like "Beatles or Stones?"
It hasn't been much of a debate lately when it comes to their movie incarnations. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan both launched successful Batman film franchises, while Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" sputtered. And even the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve haven't aged particularly well.
"Man of Steel" is the latest attempt to introduce a new generation to the original superhero and satisfy past generations who have a strong allegiance to the character created 80 years ago in Cleveland by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and first published 75 years ago by DC Comics.
In some ways, it's as flawed as "Superman Returns" with a second half that's too reliant on mindless computer-generated action spectacle and a villain that never becomes a worthy adversary. But it also re-establishes Superman as a character with a future rather than a relic from the past.
Part of that resurrection comes with the help of two men responsible for the latest Batman series. Christopher Nolan, who directed the Dark Knight trilogy, shares a story credit on the film with David S. Goyer, who wrote both "Batman Begins" and "Man of Steel."
WHAT: "Man of Steel"
STARS: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane
STORYLINE: A child is sent to Earth with a precious object, and must defend his new home from General Zod from his home planet of Krypton.
DIRECTOR: Zac Snyder
RATING: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language.
They haven't altered the purity of Superman, but this version of the character is more conflicted than in the past. And Zack Snyder, who directed the slavishly faithful but inert adaptation of Alan Moore's "The Watchmen," handles the origin story aspects of the script particularly well.
Kal-El is sent to Earth by his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) as the only hope to preserve their race as Krypton is about to implode. The infant is found and raised by a Kansas couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), and they encourage the boy they call Clark to keep his special powers hidden.
"People are afraid of what they don't understand," Jonathan tells him.
But young Clark can't stand by and let bad things happen, which calls attention to his uniqueness.
In Goyer's screenplay, Superman (a name the movie avoids) is a Christ figure. "He'll be a god to them," Jor-El says before sending the boy to Earth.
He's the ultimate immigrant, a stranger trying to come to grips with his place in a strange land.
And he's an outsider. Maybe it's just because the movie is coming out during Pride month, but as Clark frets about his otherworldly orientation and questions - "Did God do this to me?" - it feels as if Goyer has turned the character into an allegory for any group or individual who believes they don't fit in to societal norms.
His situation turns Clark into a wanderer, a man who takes jobs where he can blend in until extraordinary situations force him to do something that calls attention to his own extraordinariness. Then he moves on to the next place.
But one of the people he helps is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter named Lois Lane (Amy Adams). That combined with the arrival of General Zod (Michael Shannon), who decides Earth would be good place to resurrect Krypton - without the earthlings - forces Clark to become more open about his superpowers and defend his adopted homeland.
Henry Cavill makes for an appealing Man of Steel. He's earnest and strong and physically imposing, but he also brings a hint of emotional vulnerability and a light touch to the humorous elements (a bit where he wears handcuffs to make his military captors feel more in control is particularly well played).
There also is a spark in his scenes with Adams, who doesn't let Lois become just another damsel in distress for the man of steel to rescue. Clark Kent hasn't become reporter for the Daily Planet yet in this origin story, but Cavill and Adams will make audiences long to see how their working relationship develops.
Those qualities make it that much more frustrating when "Man of Steel" devolves in the second half into a seemingly endless battle of explosions and destruction as Superman and the military face off against General Zod and his minions.
Yes, the buildings blow up real good and the movie's budget (reportedly $200+ million) paid for some state of the art visual effects and deafening audio accompaniment. But it becomes tiresome and repetitive and as soulless as a "Transformers" flick after a while.
Anyone who has seen "Take Shelter" and "Revolutionary Road" knows Shannon is a great actor, one who can bring nuance and humanity to troubled characters. His casting was the main reason I was excited about "Man of Steel"
But his Zod feels like a complete misfire. Granted, there isn't much to the character. But Shannon does little more than clench his jaw and deliver every line with a controlled rage.
Those problems keep "Man of Steel" from being a true success. But it lays the foundation for a franchise that has the potential to be good enough to reignite that "Batman or Superman?" debate.