2½ stars (out of four)
"Superman Returns" is a pretty decent comic book movie. For $200 million it should be. God (or Jor-El) knows director Bryan Singer hasn't succumbed to sardonic tomfoolery, even with Kevin Spacey taking the role of evil genius Lex Luthor. Singer, who made superhero hay directing the first two "X-Men" pictures, treats the mythos of the original 1938 "Superman" comic book by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (developed in bits and pieces a few years earlier) as seriously as a filmmaker can without the celluloid turning to bronze.
If that sounds like qualified praise, it's because "Superman Returns" has everything going for it except surprise. A little velocity wouldn't have hurt, either. Singer, who broke through with his twisty crime affair "The Usual Suspects," thinks in terms of individual images and faces rather than images in hurtling, rhythmic sequence. "Superman Returns," a full 2-1/2 hours in length, is full of things to look at without those things making the jump into memorable or fully shaped vignettes. The film doesn't quite do for Superman what last summer's "Batman Begins" did for Batman: invest a familiar pop myth with a sense of vivid rediscovery, or what actors call the illusion of the first time.
It's certainly not short on heart. If Singer's franchise jump-starter becomes as big a hit as Warner Bros. hopes for, it'll be because of the central romantic triangle within the triangle that frames the world's most famous "S." The triangle involves the savior from Krypton; reporter Lois Lane; and Lane's affable blank of a boyfriend, father of Lane's little boy. Or is he?
As a teenager Singer had big love for the 1978 "Superman," and by the time he made "Superman Returns" he was in a position to express it. His film opens with credits designed in the '78 version's space-whoosh style, scored to the original John Williams theme. The late Marlon Brando returns as well, in a few clips from Richard Donner's film. The new Superman, played by Brandon Routh, looks and sounds enough like the late Christopher Reeve -- with a crucial difference we'll get to in a minute -- you may wonder if Reeve has somehow returned as well.
Also known as the god Kal-El, Superman has left Earth to check out rumors regarding the state of his old planet, presumed destroyed. A few years later, in his Clark Kent guise, he returns to his old job at the Daily Planet. (They held the position open for him -- talk about science fiction.) Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) left in love's cruel lurch by her gadabout man of steel, has recently won a Pulitzer for a story called "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Luthor, meantime, has been sprung from prison and has a nefarious plan (akin to that of the '78 film) to create a continent in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris take all of this very seriously, which is better than taking none of it seriously enough. The '78 film was very different in tone, half-serious, half-wisenheimer. (Two of its screenwriters wrote the libretto for the 1966 Broadway musical "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman.") Here the derring-do carries an edge. When, thanks to Luthor, a space shuttle with Lois on board plummets toward the ground, the intensity hews more closely to "United 93" than anything from the old television series or its progeny, "Lois & Clark" and "Smallville."
Routh's Superman is a lot like Reeve's, except he's not funny. He's not required to be, but still. Reeve's Clark Kent lightened the load of the '78 film and its excellent sequel, "Superman II." With Routh up against James Marsden's bland Richard White, Singer's version lacks formidable screen personalities. Spacey's Luthor has presence, certainly, but if anything the actor is allowed too much screen time, in protracted scheming sessions aboard Luthor's tricked-out evil yacht or, later, atop his newly created evil continent, an ashen-gray variation on Superman's Fortress of Solitude.
Singer has a knack for iconic imagery: When, Christ-like, Superman floats above his adoptive planet and listens to the millions of voices below, you're seeing something new and arresting.
My favorite shot is a simple, beautiful nighttime close-up of Eva Marie Saint's Martha Kent gazing out of her kitchen window after her adopted son returns home from his interstellar trip. In such isolated moments Singer honors the myth and finds a fresh way to dramatize it. The director is scheduled to do a sequel, to be released in 2009. Maybe in that one we'll get more magic along with the reverence.
Directed by Bryan Singer; screenplay by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris; cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by John Ottman and Elliot Graham; production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas; music by Ottman; produced by Singer, Jon Peters and Gilbert Adler. A Warner Bros Pictures release; opens 10 p.m. Tuesday, June 27, in some locations, opens wide Wednesday, June 28. Running time: 2:34.