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MOVIE REVIEW

With nod to past, 'Superman' flies

Because he came first, Superman is our base-model superhero. He's not broody like Batman and he doesn't have emotional acne like Spider-Man. His powers are straight up: flying, X-ray vision, super-strength -- none of this changing the weather nonsense. He stands for truth and justice without any of the winking irony our modern culture demands from a guy wearing a cape.

Superman is Version 1.0.

Which is how Bryan Singer treats him in ``Superman Returns, " the fine pop resurrection opening in theaters tonight. Unlike last year's ``Batman Begins, " this isn't a reinvention of a beloved franchise. It's a renewal, a continuation of what has come before. Singer, the gifted writer-director who made ``The Usual Suspects " and the first two ``X-Men" movies, respects everything about this property except the last two sequels.

He raises Marlon Brando from the dead, casts the actors who played Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane on the 1950s TV series in cameo roles, dedicates the film to Christopher and Dana Reeve , and even dusts off John Williams' s title theme from 1978's ``Superman."

The upshot of all this veneration is a generally thrilling entertainment that's not quite the grand slam you want it to be. ``Superman Returns" travels from Metropolis to the North Pole, from outer space to the ocean's depths, but in the end it feels just a little Smallville . You don't mind terribly, but you're conscious of the missed chance.

How's the new kid, by the way? Good enough so that you don't really notice there is a new kid. The role of Superman has to be played by a newcomer -- a known star would bring baggage along -- and like Reeve in 1978, Brandon Routh is tall, dark, handsome, and so sincere as to be faintly comical. The character embodies unadorned decency, and that makes others assume he's a square, especially when he has the Clark Kent glasses on. An actor has to be focused enough and bland enough to make that work, and Routh has both qualifications. He's like Reeve's slightly soulful younger brother; somewhere in the Fortress of Solitude, there's an iPod with James Blunt songs on it.

``Returns" picks up about five years after 1980's ``Superman II" left off. Our hero has been away on extended leave, looking for the remains of his home planet in the depths of space, and the world has finally moved on. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth with dyed brown tresses and not enough edge) has penned an editorial titled ``Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" and is getting ready to receive a Pulitzer for it.

Then Superman rides a meteor back to his adoptive mother's back yard (Ma Kent being played by dear old Eva Marie Saint ), and we're back in business. Clark gets back his old job at the Daily Planet , Perry White (Frank Langella ) is as ulcerous as ever, and Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington ) still looks pre-pubescent. Nothing has changed.

Scratch that. Lois is now a single mom to a sickly little kid named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu), and she's engaged to Perry's nephew, Richard, a sensitive upper-management type played by James Marsden , of the ``X-Men" movies.

Worse, Lex Luthor is on the loose again, with yet another plan for world domination. This role is always reserved for our slyest current character actor/star: Gene Hackman in 1978 and Kevin Spacey here. Where the former brought a manic, impatient giggle to the proceedings, Spacey just looks magnificently bored. This Luthor knows he's smarter than Superman, and it drives him crazy that he doesn't get the recognition.

The story line in ``Superman Returns" never convincingly gels -- something about Luthor getting hold of magic crystals from the Fortress of Solitude and using them to seed a new continent off the Eastern Seaboard , with a bit of green Kryptonite to keep any stray superheroes at bay. Anyway, Singer is more interested in emotional matters and overall tone. He spends a lot of time re-stoking the flames of Lois and Superman's romance, indulging in a flight over Metropolis that's not so much an improvement over the Reeve/Margot Kidder original as a loving nod to it.

``Superman Returns" even pushes a Christ parallel, thankfully not too hard. Unused footage of Marlon Brando's Jor-El from the 1978 Richard Donner ``Superman" is folded into a Fortress of Solitude scene early on, and the actor's voice keeps popping up throughout, reminding the hero that ``I have sent them you, my only son." (Brando may be God, but this is ridiculous.) This isn't ``The Passion of the Clark, " but it's uncomfortably close.

What's missing from the film is the popcorn exhilaration you get from action scenes that build dynamically throughout a narrative. Mayhem junkies will be happy with an early sequence where Superman stops a plane from nose-diving into a baseball stadium, and there's a funny slow-motion gag that illustrates the impact of a bullet on the hero. (None; what were you expecting?) A scene where one of the subordinate villains steps to a piano and lights into ``Heart and Soul" is so witty you wish there were more of it.

In general, though, the film never quite establishes the necessary momentum. Singer tends to his main characters while stranding gifted talents like Parker Posey (as Luthor's moll) and Kal Penn (as a henchman) on the sidelines, and he springs exactly one big plot surprise and doesn't do much with it. Presumably there'll be a payoff in the next film, but that leaves this one in the lurch.

So it's a good film but not a great one; at the very least, you can tell the people behind ``Superman Returns" have an abiding fondness for this 70-year-old pop myth. They're not hacks, and this isn't ``Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ." Still, you may wonder if a fan's worship can be its own kind of green Kryptonite.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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