Which, really, is not to damn Bryan Singer's switch to DC Comics' toy box after years of fussing about with Marvel's X-Men. It delivers what its title promises: the return of a hero humiliated into big-screen retirement. Superman Returns takes place some five years after the action of Superman II, with the Man of Steel returning to Earth after wandering the universe looking for Krypton, which astronomers insisted hadn't blown up after all. But it's as though no time has passed: Superman still tries to win Lois Lane's (now broken) heart when not saving the world or spouting Boy Scout truisms, while Lex Luthor still hatches nefarious real-estate transactions that would involve the deaths of innocent billions (the millions have been adjusted for inflation). And Marlon Brando's still speaking through crystal chandeliers hanging from the great bank vault in the sky.
This time around, Singer and his X2 cohorts, screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, threw in a few alterations: Lois (Kate Bosworth) now has a 5-year-old child and is engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), the nephew of a sleeker, tanner Perry White (played by Frank Langella). And instead of having the pin-up Miss Teschmacher and dumbed-down Otis by his side, Lex (Kevin Spacey) now hangs with the frizzier, feistier Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) and a band of brainiacs and bullies. While Gene Hackman played the part like he was spending six months at sleepover theater camp, Spacey is a nasty, mordant bit of work.
But Superman is the same as he's been since he softened in the post-World War II years: a drip who takes a break from the love story every so often to put out a fire, rescue a kitty, save a plane or, just maybe, keep an evil megalomaniac from destroying the planet. Brandon Routh is no Christopher Reeve, who possessed more warmth, humor and gravitas. There's no man at the core of Superman.
But here's the rub: The fanboy in me loves it, being wrapped in the warm projected glow of nostalgia for a movie I've memorized since age 9, right from the blare of "Sup-er-man" over the whoosh of the opening credits. The fanboy forgives Routh's cutout performance. But soon, this feeling began to set in: I've seen this before. I expected more than just computer-generated whiz-bang for the ever-diminishing buck.
Perhaps at this late date, it's impossible for a Superman movie to appease its two audiences: the moviegoer with only scant knowledge of his weighty mythology and the comic-book reader for whom the movies are but a distraction from the more knotty plotlines. At this very moment in the comics, Superman's been without his powers for a year, married to Lois and learning to adjust to the realization that Clark Kent is who he is while Superman is what he does. At long last, the comics have made him as captivating as the costume he wears the movies, not so much.