'Superman Returns' an epic, elegant triumph

***1/2

Think what you will about men in tights who fly around beating up bad guys, but superheroes are our modern-day equivalents of ancient Greek Gods. Director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") abandoned the "X-Men" franchise after two movies to take the squarest and ironically most powerful of all the costumed outcasts and revitalize his story like Christopher Nolan did last year with "Batman Begins." By emphasizing Superman's virtual omnipotence and also his sense of eternal heartbreak and loss, Singer's epic and lyrical "Superman Returns" has some of the same poignancy of a classic Greek tragedy.

Superman (Brandon Routh) may care deeply for the flawed people of Earth, but he is not human after all, and the script, penned by Singer with Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, takes great pains to articulate both his "divinity" and the crushing effect on his psyche of a futile search for his past. After returning to his adopted home of Earth after five fruitless years looking for survivors from destroyed home planet Krypton, he realizes now, more than ever, that he is the last remaining being of an extinct alien race.

Alienation is a big theme in "Superman Returns," as a word on a Scrabble board in the home of his Earth mother, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), literally tells us. She welcomes him back with open arms, but it is not long before he leaves the family farm and Superman's reserved alter ego Clark Kent is back at work at the Daily Planet. The return of the Man of Steel isn't that simple for the woman that he has left behind, even after his insanely spectacular mid-air rescue of her plane. Career-minded ex-flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has not only a fiance and a child, but also a Pulitzer Prize for writing an editorial called "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Talk about awkward reunions.

To make matters worse, arch-enemy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from jail because Superman was not around to appear as a witness at his trial. The evil mastermind, played by Spacey with a potent mix of sadism and sarcasm, has not forgotten who put him in prison in the first place.

"Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don't share their power with mankind," he says.

Movie

Superman Returns ** 1/2

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It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a downer. Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh) is the latest superhero given a brooding makeover. The style has been kind to shadowy, self-doubting characters like those of "Batman Begins" or talented director Bryan Singer's own "X-Men." However, this tone rarely complements the invulnerable Boy Scout.

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Like many of the ancient dieties, Superman has another weakness besides his affinity for humans. After a visit to his hidden retreat, the Fortress of Solitude, Luthor learns all of Krypton's secrets from a hologram of his long-departed father Jor-El, played by the late Marlon Brando, in a nimble bit of movie trickery featuring unused dialogue from the 1978 original.

As the spectacle factor continues to increase in modern superhero fantasies, so does the care and respect that some filmmakers as talented as Singer put into preserving the mythos of their main characters. With audiences' easier acceptance of outrageous premises comes the requirement that the superhero's plight be taken absolutely seriously. In a time when any feat of superhuman strength or power can be replicated by ever-advancing CGI graphics, Singer knows that this treatment is the only way that befits the first comic book legend.

One unfortunate casualty of this approach is the old-fashioned slapstick rapport between Clark and Lois that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder shared in the first two "Superman" films. I wonder if this is because Singer thought modern audiences would find the humor too campy and unfairly dismiss the movie as lightweight, or whether whether the actors weren't up to it. Clark and Lois barely share any screen time together in "Superman Returns," and the story's focus on themes of hurt and regret give the movie an overall somber yet appropriate tone.

The elegant look of the film more than makes up for what the script lacks in sparkling wit. It may be the most expensive movie of the year, and every dollar is up on the screen. Amazing images and sumptuous production design populate every single frame. Metropolis obviously resembles New York City, but its buildings and cars run the design gamut from the 1930s up to present-day, like the spinning globe perched on the Daily Planet that recalls the old RKO Studios logo. One scene in particular cleverly blends the new and the old, when a young boy takes a photo of Superman holding a vintage car above his head (like the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938) on his cell phone.

From the most cataclysmic disaster scene (a spreading fault line barreling towards the city) to the subtlest sequence (Lois "floating" to the roof in an elevator as seen through Superman's X-Ray vision), "Superman Returns" is filled with detailed and inspired imagination. It would be a shame if the movie is overlooked come Oscar time for its art design just because of a simple-minded prejudice against superhero fantasies.

Rather than make our hero an indestructible superhuman with no flaws, Singer presents a tortured Man of Steel. The innocent spirit commonly associated with the character becomes something that Superman wishes for but can never achieve. Lying on his back in his childhood bed, he stares at a ceiling full of stickers, little glow-in-the-dark stars that he dreamed about when he was young. Unable to ever truly fit in on Earth, he is more comfortable floating high above the planet with his eyes closed and his cape billowing behind him, listening to all of man's sins and cries for help.

"You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, " he tells Lois, "but every day I hear people crying for one."

Such is the dilemma of a cursed God.

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