There was headscratching and second-guessing when director Bryan Singer announced he was abandoning his wildly popular "X-Men" franchise to make "Superman Returns." Would the Man of Steel fly for a new generation of moviegoers? Could Singer resurrect the series Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve revitalized in 1978, which sputtered out in 1987, three sequels later?
Singer did the right thing. From the start of this gorgeously crafted epic, you can feel that Singer has real love and respect for the most foursquare comics superhero of them all, as well as a reverence for the Donner version, which serves as his visual and emotional template. In "Superman Returns" (written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris from a story they cooked up with Singer), the caped crusader for truth, justice, etc. (Brandon Routh) returns to crime-ridden Earth after a five-year detour amid the remains of his home planet. Back in Metropolis--where, as Clark Kent, he gets his old Daily Planet job back--he learns that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a nice, good-looking live-in boyfriend (James Marsden) and a son, and, to add insult to heartbreak, has won a Pulitzer Prize for her article "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Also back from a stint behind bars is master criminal Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) with heinous plans to create a new continent (don't ask) at the expense of several million lives.
Singer aroused a feeling that I, as a victim of Chronic Summer Superhero Fatigue Syndrome, wasn't expecting: I felt happy to have Superman back, as if I'd actually missed the guy. You know that you are in the presence of kitsch of a very high order when a comic-book romance can actually produce a lump in your throat. Newcomer Routh may or may not be a real actor, but he effortlessly lays claim to the iconic role, just as Reeve did. Indeed, he virtually duplicates Reeve in the way he plays Kent as a diffident, awkward Midwestern colt. Singer cleverly doles out his hero in small portions, so that we're left, like all those awestruck admirers in Metropolis, wanting more glimpses of him than we get.
The movie follows form by making Lex Luthor a comic menace. Spacey, who can do ironic megalomania in his sleep, has a decidedly lighter touch than Gene Hackman. Both he, and Parker Posey as his moll, are great fun to watch. But Luthor's evil schemes are the most nonsensical and forgettable aspects of the movie. Singer's real forte is lyricism. This "Superman," which infuses its action with poetry, soars as a love story filled with epic yearnings, thwarted desires and breathtaking imagery: Lois, spied on with her lover's X-ray vision, ascending in a skyscraper's elevator; Superman, zapped with kryptonite, descending silently and helplessly through space. (If Jean Cocteau had directed $200 million action movies, they might have looked a little like this.) Next to Singer's champagne, most recent superhero adventure movies are barely sparkling cider.