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Man Of Zeal

Exciting super-saga flies high

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In Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise had Renee Zellweger at hello. With Superman Returns, Bryan Singer had me at the opening Warner Bros. logo.

Beginning with 2000's X-Men and aided by such works as Spider-Man and Batman Begins, the superhero flick has emerged as Hollywood's latest bread and butter. Yet a viewer would have to go back approximately three decades -- yes, even earlier than Tim Burton's Batman of 1989 -- to find the motion picture that still ranks as the finest superhero movie ever made. Today, the 1978 film version of Superman (directed by Richard Donner) may look primitive to young eyes weaned on PlayStation 2 and new-and-improved Tolkien tales, but it still holds up beautifully, with dazzling special effects, plenty of heart and spunk, and career performances by Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder as Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane, respectively.

Director Bryan Singer, the X-Men and X2 helmer who jumped ship to steer this franchise, has a great affinity for Superman (as well as its first sequel, 1981's slam-bang Superman II), and working with co-scripters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, he chose to take the road less traveled. His movie is neither a remake of the 1978 staple nor a direct repudiation of it; instead, he imagined Superman Returns as a continuation of the original saga, a chance to advance the story without radically altering it or denigrating it in any way.

For fans of Donner's 1978 model, the pleasures begin immediately with a triple play. First, those cool opening credits (the ones that swoosh this way and that) are back. Second, they're accompanied by the familiar chords of John Williams' score, which remains one of the best soundtracks ever produced by this prolific composer (John Ottman receives credit for original music, but so much of Williams' classic piece is employed that new themes were hardly needed). Finally, Singer made the decision to borrow 1978 footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El (the Man of Steel's father) and use it at the beginning of his new picture, in effect energizing the faithful while also coaxing newcomers into the fold.

With the audience snugly in his pocket, Singer makes sure not to let them slip away by presenting a Superman movie that often soars as high as its hero. Like Christopher Nolan with last summer's Batman Begins, Singer has elected to add dramatic heft to a deceptively simple comic-book framework, by spending as much screen time on the characters' mental battles as on the gee-whiz theatrics of Superman's crime-fighting prowess. And for those who want to dig especially deep, there are reams of subtext exploring the notion of Superman as a Christ figure for a new age. Just witness the frequent talks about fathers and sons as well as the subtle suggestion that Superman may have to sacrifice himself so that we earthlings can be saved -- heck, even the movie's poster features the caped hero in crucifix mode, with feet together and arms outstretched. (And while the film doesn't quite give us nails through the palms, we do receive a close-up of his scraped, bloody knuckles, as well as a bodily piercing as potentially fatal as the Sword of Destiny being thrust into Christ.)

As the film opens, it's revealed that Superman (Brandon Routh) isn't just returning to our multiplexes but to Earth itself, having been gone for five years on a personal mission involving his home planet of Krypton. Once again donning his human disguise as bumbling news reporter Clark Kent, he's able to get his old job back at the Daily Planet, but other chapters of his life have been irrevocably affected. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), now a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (for an essay titled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman"), has tried to suppress her love for Superman: Having moved forward, she now has a young son (Tristan Leabu) and a fiancé (James Marsden, Cyclops in the X-Men trilogy). Meanwhile, Superman's arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is back in play and (aping the plotline of the 1978 film) has ideas on how to assert his authority through unusual real estate ventures while also acquiring a chunk of kryptonite to put the Man of Steel out of business.

Singer has some problems with rhythm and pacing -- the 150-minute running time eventually makes its presence known, and the movie has at least one ending too many -- while Bosworth appears too young and delicate to be playing a tough, award-winning journalist. Yet in the central role, Routh manages to command our attention: He's not nearly as memorable as Reeve, but he's easily able to hop between his hunky Superman persona and his goofy Clark Kent shtick while making both characterizations believable. Spacey appears to be having a ball as Lex Luthor, and the movie's flashes of nasty humor (including a pitch-black gag involving a pair of Pomeranians) generally can be found in scenes involving his character.

The script's mixture of melodrama and mirth seems just right, and despite the emphasis on feelings and relationships and all that yucky grown-up stuff, kids are sure to respond to the lightning-charged action sequences, including Superman's tangle with a wayward airplane. Even the saga's clichés are brought in for some gentle chiding. True, there's probably nothing here as funny as Christopher Reeve's search for an old-fashioned telephone booth in which to change from man to Superman. But when even the tried-and-true "It's a bird! It's a plane!" routine can be milked for a laugh, it's clear that when it comes to reinvigorating a dormant franchise, the sky's the limit.

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