As the most patently American of all the comic book superheroes — more American, even, than Captain America — Superman offers an interesting opportunity for cultural self-analysis. To wit: Why do Americans like him so much? Is it his integrity? His power? The none-so-subtle swell of patriotic flavor inspired by his humanity-redeeming handiwork?
Or is it his sensitivity? After all, Superman isn’t just impervious; he’s also uncommonly vulnerable — a lovesick, humble, pathologically compassionate man-child forever grappling with twin identities. He might not flinch — even a little! — when a bullet hits him point-blank in the eyeball, but he’ll get all misty over the sight of a sleeping child.
In “Superman Returns” — his thoughtful, oft-times spectacular resurrection of the long-dormant franchise — director Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) conjures the most soulful Man of Steel yet. While lacking certain key endowments as an action epic, the movie does credit to the character in other ways: As a showcase of his unique psychology and as a surrogate statement of the American ideal.
The story picks up after the events in “Superman II” (1980), neatly consigning later, lesser sequels (recall the nonsense with Richard Pryor in “Superman III”) to their own galactic dustbin.
Returning from a five-year sojourn to the remnants of his home world, Krypton, Clark Kent/Superman/Kal-El — played here by newcomer Brandon Routh (“One Life to Live”) — finds himself on Earth in much the same condition as he first arrived: In a cornfield, surrounded by the wreckage of his spaceship, cradled in the arms of his adoptive mother, Martha (Eva Marie Saint).
Whatever Clark was looking for on Krypton, he didn’t find it. In terrestrial terms, he’s like an alienated college grad who returns from a gig in the Peace Corps to find himself just as bitter and disillusioned as he was before he left. Routh — who bears a strong resemblance to the late actor (and former Superman) Christopher Reeve — radiates soul weariness as the ailing superhero. He’s a little more wooden than Reeve, but almost as effective.
Clark’s malaise has much to do with his failed affair with Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth from “Blue Crush”), whose knowledge of his true identity and all memory of their tryst he wiped at the end of “Superman II.” On her own merits, Bosworth is a fine actress, but she seems an odd and callow choice to play a grizzled, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperwoman (she won the award for a piece called “Why We Don’t Need Superman”) — even one who thinks “catastrophe” is spelled with an “f.” (That’s scripters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris trying — and failing — to be funny.)
Returning to the Planet, Clark finds Lois with a new boyfriend (James Marsden from “X-Men”), a young son with an asthma condition (girlfriend should have laid off the Pall-Malls) and her usual dismissive attitude. After coming perilously close to stalking Lois in a semi-creepy eavesdropping scene, the Man of Steel beats back his depression by proactively immersing himself in work: Foiling bank-robbers with armor-piercing machine guns, saving damsels, the usual heroics. Be warned: The scene where Superman saves a plummeting 747 from crashing into Yankee Stadium is a heart-stopper.
There must be something else here we haven’t hit on yet . . . oh, yes: Superman’s follically challenged nemesis, Lex Luthor. He's played by Kevin Spacey (“The Usual Suspects”) as a sort of supervillain Max Bialystock, romancing old ladies out of their fortunes to finance his latest (and undoubtedly doomed) scheme for world dominance. Spacey is excellently vile in the role — as is Parker Posey (“Dazed and Confused”) as Luthor’s much-abused moll — but the character is never satisfyingly integrated into the body of the story. Singer makes us wait until the very last few frames to see Superman and Luthor square off, but it proves deflating. (Despite Singer’s eye-popping high-seas set piece.)
As an homage to the “Superman” canon, Singer’s movie works very nicely. He preserves John Williams’ iconic score and some of Marlon Brando’s archived footage from the original movie and, most importantly, initiates an emotional evolution within the Man of Steel that promises good things to come. In this era of fluctuating American identity, how Superman deals with his own fluctuations makes for a soaring show.
>> Rated PG-13 (some intense action violence), 154 min. Grade: B+