Nearly 20 years since the unfortunate Superman IV: The Quest for Peace brought its hit franchise to an embarrassing halt, Warner Bros. has finally resurrected the comics' enduring Man of Steel in high style, thanks largely to the blockbuster smarts of X-Men director Bryan Singer. Newcomer Brandon Routh proves an admirable successor (and bears a strong resemblance) to the late, beloved Christopher Reeve in the title role of Superman Returns, and the 21st-century visual effects improve on the thrills delivered by Richard Donner's 1978 feature and its antic 1980 successor.
Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (X2) clearly have high regard for those earlier hits, since Superman Returns, in tone and content, plays like their long-lost sequel. In this case, it's a mere five years since the last adventure, a period in which Superman has abandoned his earthly duties after astronomers discovered signs of his home planet, Krypton. Following an explosion in space, the former Kal-El crash-lands back at the family farm and reassumes his guise as fumbling Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, startled by the news that his abiding crush, star reporter Lois Lane, is now engaged to editor Perry White's nephew Richard and has a young son. In the meantime, Superman's nemesis, the power-hungry Lex Luthor, has been released from prison because the superhero missed his parole hearing, and has acquired new capital by wooing a dying heiress (a neat cameo by the '50s TV Lois, Noel Neill). Lex finds his way to Superman's fortress of solitude and purloins powerful crystals with the potential to change the topography of the Earth. As is her wont, Lois investigates the strange disruptions Lex's activity has caused and winds up once again in the clutches of the diabolical villain, awaiting rescue from her supernatural savior.
For much of its length, Superman Returns is light on its feet while maintaining an unashamed earnestness about its comic-book mythology. The scenes at the Daily Planet keep a retro feel in a more modern setting and are energized by the presence of Frank Langella as an authoritative but slightly addled Perry and the puppy-dog charm of Sam Huntington as ever-eager young reporter Jimmy Olsen. Kevin Spacey, who won an Oscar in Singer's The Usual Suspects, hams it up brilliantly as Lex, who takes absolute joy in his lethal monomania, and indie queen Parker Posey steals all of her relatively brief screen time as Lex's dizzy and morally vacant moll, Kitty Kowalski.
Singer readily admits that his film is a "chick flick," with its Superman-Lois-Richard triangle, and while that strategy may broaden his demographic, the soap-opera elements are the weakest aspect of the movie and add to its excessive running time. Kate Bosworth (here a brunette) has a patrician beauty as Lois and Routh is model-handsome, but their scenes together are more Aaron Spelling than classic Hollywood. The film is so caught up in the angst of their relationship, it doesn't bring enough fresh twists to the Superman legend, aside from the question of the true paternity of Lois' little boy.
Despite an attenuated finale, Singer has crafted a generally exciting and dazzling entertainment. The best set-piece arrives in the first half-hour, as Lex's experiments create a power outage that wreaks havoc on a space-shuttle launch and Superman races to rescue Lois and the other passengers on the seemingly doomed plane accompanying the shuttle-leading to the most spectacular photo-op any superhero's publicist could wish for. Routh is clearly up to the physical demands of a sequence like this, and he has a disarming comic presence as Clark, very much in the same spirit as Reeve. The kid has charisma, even if he's sometimes made up and lit like a Madame Tussaud's wax figure.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and the visual-effects team all do top-of-the-line work on this consistently lavish production-an auspicious and overdue return for an icon who's been gratifying audiences since 1938.