Brandon Routh in Superman Returns

Superman is back with a vengeance in 'Superman Returns,'Bryan Singer's retina-singeing reinvigoration of the once mighty franchise. Like last summer's 'Batman Begins,' this Supes flick breathes new life into a superhero whose big-screen power was all but extinguished by the Kryptonite of cheesy and inferior sequels (aka all the 'Batman' movies minus the original, and the please-tell-me-you're-joking debacles that are 'Superman III' and 'IV'). Unlike 'Batman Begins,' however, 'Superman Returns' does not seek to completely torch the memory of its predecessors. While it does thankfully ignore 'III' and 'IV,' Singer's film clearly does inhabit the same universe constructed by director Richard Donner in the original 1978 'Superman.' Right from the beginning, this intention is indubitably clear. A voiceover by Marlon Brando (the original Jor-El) immediately segues into -- homage alert! -- John Williams' incendiary original score and credits that explode towards the screen leaving a trail of blue cosmic dust in their wake.

And the similarities do not end there. Newcomer Brandon Routh steps into the blue spandex and red cape once inhabited by Christopher Reeve -- and it's uncanny how much he looks, sounds and acts exactly like the late actor. Routh's performance as the Man of Steel oozes effortlessness: When he tears off his suit and glasses and takes to the skies, one gets the unshakable sense that he owns the role. Routh's portrayal of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is equally adept, infused with aww-shucks innocence and impressive comic timing.

But Singer's film isn't just one long tip of the cape to Donner's vision. There's plenty of originality to be had here, starting with the story. After a five-year absence from Earth -- during which time Supes was trolling the depths of the solar system in search of Krypton -- the Man of Steel returns home to find that things have changed quite a bit. His former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved on: She's dating all-American guy Richard White (James Marsden), she's won a Pulitzer for an editorial entitled 'Why the World Doesn't Need Superman' (ouch, hell really does have no fury like a woman scorned), and -- oh yeah -- she has a five-year-old son who mayor may not be Superspawn. As fate would have it, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) -- fresh out of jail and in possession of Superman's Fortress of Solitude crystals -- has just put in motion his vilest scheme to date, and billions of lives hang in the balance. Brandon Routh in Superman Returns

Raising the stakes in the Superman vs. Lex conflict is Spacey's portrayal of the self-proclaimed "greatest criminal mind of all time." Now Gene Hackman's turn as Lex in the original 'Superman' movies was phenomenal -- full of wit and humor. It's just that I often got the sense that he and Supes weren't so much mortal enemies as guys who were a couple beers away from being poker buddies. Spacey's Lex, on the other hand, is evil incarnate. He loathes Superman and doesn't blink at killing billions. So when he and the Man of Steel lock horns, there's a lot more venom being spewed -- and a hell of a lot more at stake.

As for Kate Bosworth, she's no Margot Kidder -- and I mean that in a good way. Bosworth has come under fire from some other critics for sucking the fun out of Lois Lane. But in this story, Lois is the jilted lover, abandoned by Superman without explanantion. So excuse her if she's not all coy and kooky around the man who crushed her. Even so, Bosworth is luminous each and every time she's on the screen, and it's very easy to see why Supes is so smitten. She captures both the pain and confusion of confronting "the one that got away," adding a dose of the real to a story that is very surreal.

Finally, it needs to be said that Bryan Singer has made one of the most visually spectacular movies in recent memory. Whether Superman is taking a barrage of bullets to the chest (and eye) or hurtling through the atmosphere in pursuit of a plummeting plane, it would take the Man of Steel himself to tear a viewer's eyes from the screen for even a single moment.

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Tags:Superman, Superman Returns, Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Summer Movies

categories Features, Cinematical