The action picks up after a five-year hiatus in which Superman (Brandon Routh) has journeyed to his home planet of Krypton and back. He has discovered that there is indeed nothing left, a realization that only further alienates him from the humans he is sworn to protect and lead by example. Upon his return, however, he learns that Earth has moved on without him. "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" reads a Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed by gutsy newspaper reporter -- and the Man of Steel's love interest -- Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, who eschews the silly slapstick of previous incarnations for a tough veneer masking vulnerability and hurt). Lois certainly seems to have gotten over the Metropolis Marvel: She's engaged now to her editor's nephew Richard White (James Marsden, of the "X-Men" series, in yet another solid turn as the foil for a woman's affections in a superhero movie) and has a young son. Meanwhile, alter-ego Clark Kent has been traveling the world to indeterminate destinations and been apparently missed by no one other than his mother, Martha Kent (Eva Marie Saint), and Daily Planet photog Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington).
Superman's return throws a wrench in a plot hatched by Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), however, to use Kryptonian crystal technology in the construction of his latest real-estate development. Backed by a crew of cronies including Kitty Kowalski (the hilariously acerbic yet conscience-stricken Parker Posey), Spacey's Luthor, who at times remarkably resembles his predecessor in the role, Gene Hackman, retains a sophisticated wit amid criminal cunning without the camp that characterized earlier takes on the role.
But it's the casting of newcomer Routh that makes or breaks the movie, and it's here that Bryan Singer (the first two "X-Men" movies) has struck gold. The director mines not only the actor's physicality -- with his square jaw, broad shoulders and mop of thick brown hair, Routh looks like he could have walked off the pages of a comic book -- but his uncanny ability to at once channel Christopher Reeve (to whom, along with his wife Dana, the film is dedicated), and make the role his own. Routh has struck a perfect balance between the awkward humility of Clark Kent and the strength and radiant goodness of Superman while infusing just a little bit of emotional complexity -- a hint of reluctance to return to the life of a superhero. If there is a departure in this rendition of the character, it's that there's no masquerade. It's not that he's not pretending to be Clark Kent by day while donning the red cape by night. It's that he is Clark Kent, just as he is Superman, just as he is Kal-El. Per the mythology, Superman never lies.
Posed with the balletic grace of a Greek god, Routh is photographed against the backdrop of Newton Thomas Sigel's stunning cinematography ranging from the violent upheavals in the outer reaches of space to the tranquil beauty of a Kansas cornfield to the throbbing energy of the streets of Metropolis -- all captured with the digital Genesis camera system. Like the Daily Planet's art deco facade housing an ultramodern newsroom of networked computers and plasma television screens, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and costumes designer Louise Mingenbach have seamlessly blended contemporary and classic design elements for a timeless look. And, working from John Williams' original theme, John Ottman has composed a commanding operatic score at its most effective when it underplays climactic moments with ethereal chorale music. (Each of these behind-the-scenes artists worked with Singer previously on the "X-Men" franchise.)
All of these elements -- the casting, cinematography, design and score -- ultimately serve Singer's greatest achievement, which is the storytelling. While hitting all the right notes as he guides us through the superhero narrative, the director reminds us that, as agile and elegant as Superman is, his rescues can't always be. Real-world physics demand that passengers in a jet crash will be slammed around the cabin, and metal ripples and snaps under the strain of resistance. It's this scene of a commercial airliner plummeting toward what looks a lot like Manhattan, along with later images of buildings exploding and a body falling, that taps into the viewer's post-9/11 anxiety. Intended or not, such allusions at this point are unavoidable.
Meanwhile, although free of the angst that plagues his Justice League colleague Batman, Superman here is dealing with complex adult themes -- a romance that can't consummate for reasons both practical and existential -- and a dark edge that sees him on the receiving end of a pathetic beating. Best of all, Singer, who first came to industry attention with "The Usual Suspects," delights with small surprises throughout; goes to laborious lengths to leave expectations unfulfilled, particularly with regard to a certain pint-sized revelation; and at times, as in an epiloguic hospital scene, waggishly winks at the cliché. Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella and Sam Huntington. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Produced by Jon Peters, Bryan Singer and Gilbert Adler. A Warner Bros. release. Sci-fi action/adventure. Rated PG-13 for some intense action violence. Running time: 154 min