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June 28-July 4, 2006

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'Superman Returns'

Up, Up and Away: Brandon Routh dons the famous tights of his fore-heroes in 'Superman Returns.'

Baby Routh's Clark Bar

Is Lois Lane right? Maybe the world is better off without another 'Superman' movie.

By Richard von Busack

EVERY ERA gets the Superman it deserves. Older readers will feel tenderness toward the beefy, paternal George Reeves from TV's Adventures of Superman if they stop to remember him at all. Rewatching the four Superman movies made from 1978 to 1987, the special effects do look shoddy—as if, now, then or at any other time in the history of cinema, special effects meant all that much in the scheme of things.

In retrospect, Christopher Reeve seems better than he did back in the 1980s. When he went bad—Kryptonite-poisoned in Superman III—Reeve proved he could play what Bernie Mac called "a sexual being." Being the butt of coarse human jokes, Reeve's Superman kept his dignity. He didn't mind looking like a square, and he was always in touch with human-size feelings in a movie about a god.

And now we have Brandon Routh, who at 27 is youthfully perfect, or rather pretty, with a penumbra of self-fancy that's more distracting than the glowing blue line that used to surround Reeve and Reeves as they flew.

The premise in Superman Returns is that Superman left the world five years ago, on a pilgrimage to find the relics of Krypton. In the meantime, Lois Lane has engaged herself to the blandly perfect nephew, Richard White (James Marsden), of editor Perry White (Frank Langella). Thwarted in his search for his home planet, Superman returns to find Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) rich, free and scheming on megamurder. Superman's love life is also in trouble: Lois has an illegitimate son that might be part extraterrestrial.

Except in the matter of violence, director Bryan Singer creates a family-friendly, serious tone; the film is never cheap or glib. If there is a spot of product placement, I didn't see it, and similarly the soundtrack doesn't push contemporary pop at the expense of the film's mood. The wordless flashback of Clark remembering the day he learned to fly is exquisitely done, full of running jumps that go higher and higher, until he crashes through the roof of a barn, willing himself to hover, rather than crash.

But because of all of this preparation, the villain and the hero hardly get a chance to exchange a word when they finally meet an hour and a half later. This Lex Luthor-Superman feud goes back 65 years, and it seems as if the two ought to have something to say to one another.

When a Kryptonite-weakened Superman takes a savage beating and knifing, Superman Returns introduces ugly modern violence that's more realistic. But it's realism in the sense that the ultracrucifixion in The Passion of the Christ was realistic—depressingly literal, alienating.

As a rule, an archvillain ought to be responsible for every crime in a movie, even if it's just a kid jaywalking. Still, two of the showstopper sequences—Superman rescuing the cabin of a flaming jetliner and Superman walking into the flaming spray of an anti-aircraft gun—apparently have nothing to do with Luthor's master plan.

The plane sequence is a marvel of speed and action: John Ottman and Elliot Graham's film editing breaks the ordeal with lucid, hallucinatory moments—an instant of weightlessness before gravity kicks in again, during which Lois is perplexed by the sight of her pen floating in air. A few days after the rescue, Superman takes Lois for a waltz 10,000 feet in the sky. Before she's lifted up, she takes off her shoes and stands on Superman's feet. She says, "I'd forgotten how warm you are." That's intriguing: Is the solar-powered hero being a few degrees hotter than mere mortals? But the film doesn't cast nearly enough light on the "women are from Venus, men are from Krypton" botched relationship of these two.

Superman Returns has a plot point that tells us that Lois finally won her Pulitzer. It was with a scorned-woman editorial about why the world is better off without Superman. The piece deserved to win the prize for Most Horrendous Violation of Journalistic Ethics, and such an essay doesn't make Lois any more attractive as a person. And Kate Bosworth—wickedly miscast as Lane—doesn't deepen what the script can't fix.

What did she actually write, though? What was her tremendously convincing argument against Superman? Aside from the personal grievance, Luthor's quarrel against Superman doesn't get explained, either. The villain compares himself to Prometheus, taking on a god—but it turns out to be just rhetoric. Lex's argument on TV's Smallville is a little brainier: Isn't humanity at the mercy of this possibly dangerous alien?

Just as only the best acting can make special effects real, only the deeper meanings can shed light on the hero. When retelling a story the world knows too well, we need more than his 12 (or more) labors, his rise to the heavens, his fall to earth and his ultimate resurrection. Superman Returns has plenty of sentiment but not a deeper core. It entertains, but it doesn't disturb those inchoate, troubling feelings about this most fantastic of savior myths.

Movie Times Superman Returns (PG-13; 157 min.), directed by Bryan Singer, written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and Singer, photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel and starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey, plays valleywide.

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