Superman does indeed return, in more ways than one. Bryan Singer's terrific film marks the first return of the Man of Steel to the screen since his appearance -- can it be? -- just shy of 20 years ago when, played by Christopher Reeve, he went up against Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor doing bad things with atoms in Superman IV. In the new film -- which pretends that IV as well as the Luthor-less III never existed -- Superman, played by dashing newcomer Brandon Routh, picks up its story a few years after the cartoonishly enjoyable II. That's the other return. At the start of this story, Superman has been away for five years, checking out a rumor that pieces of Krypton have been found, hoping that something remains of his doomed native world.
But now, disappointed, he's back in Metropolis as, of course, is Clark Kent, who immediately gets his job back at The Daily Planet after having been away "on vacation." Earthlings have missed him, as he was their protector. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, all brunetted up) missed him for a while, but since he split all those years ago without even a goodbye, she's still angry. Oh, and she's engaged to another, less super, but equally nice guy, Richard (James Marsden). And, oops, they've got a little boy. So there's even more for Superman to be disappointed by upon his return. (He's always had a little thing for Lois.)
That's what's at the heart of Singer's take on the continuing saga of Superman, and an emotional triangle remains at the center of the film. But of equal importance in the script is the villainy of Luthor (a part absolutely nailed by Kevin Spacey), who is played, in similar fashion to the comedic approach taken by Hackman, but with a far more evil edge emerging. As usual, the character is all about capitalism and power, but Spacey makes him much more frightening than has been seen before.
The choice of Routh (rhymes with "south") was a good one, as he fits the bill both as the personification of a decent man -- in Clark as well as Superman -- and he carries the look that Reeve made famous. In fact, he eerily looks a little too much like him when he's wearing glasses and being clumsy.
There have been some complaints about that part -- that whoever played the role should have looked at least a little different -- but I think it works fine. Where Singer does falter is in his choice to be so faithful to the original Richard Donner Superman film that he repeats a couple of scenes and retains at least one unnecessary character. Having a Superman-Lois Lane flying sequence in this one is definitely romantic (and done to special-effects perfection), but thinking about the scene in the original, the new one is comparable to Woody Allen's character trying to recreate the lobster scene late in Annie Hall. The charm is gone. Far worse, though -- and the only real complaint I have with the film -- is the inclusion of the character of Kitty Koslowski (Parker Posey) as Luthor's companion. She's merely a carbon copy of Valerie Perrine's annoying Miss Teschmacher from the earlier films. Lex Luthor never needed a companion; nasty henchmen would have served just fine. (Thank goodness there's no Otis in this one.)
Singer does, however, provide some nice throwbacks to earlier versions of stories about the iconic character. Although most of the music in the film is by Singer regular John Ottman, the opening theme is the familiar John Williams piece. And the cameos are brilliantly conceived. There's some well-placed old footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El. But the two helpings of icing on the cake are the opening scene of the old dying woman Gertrude, played by Noel Neill (Lois Lane on the original TV series), and the part where Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Clark go out for a beer and are served by a bartender played by Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen on the TV series).
The film excels in visual effects, from a flashback to joyous times on the Kent farm, when young Clark (Stephan Bender) is running and leaping through endless corn fields, to a stunning airplane-space shuttle sequence that guarantees Superman Returns will never be shown as an in-flight movie.
There are some outstanding twists that give the story a great deal of dimensionality and lead to an ending that closes things off in fine form while still leaving several plot doors wide open. Here are two predictions: Superman Returns is going to make gobs of money, much of it from repeat viewings (some of them in eye-popping IMAX 3-D). And there will be more than one sequel.
Superman Returns; Rated: PG-13; Directed by Bryan Singer; Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey; Opens Wednesday, June 28