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Superman Returns

Sorry, Superman, but Batman is the badass. Christian Bale, of last summer’s Batman Begins, didn’t mince words or spare feelings on June 3rd when he accepted the MTV Movie Award for Best Hero from Brandon Routh, of this summer’s Superman Returns. Bale put audiences to the test: Are you with the haunted Dark Knight or the saint inside the Man of Steel?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m down with the schizoid, sexually hung-up manic depressive who gets off by climbing into bat drag with built-in muscles to take revenge on evildoers for the murder of his parents. Still, director Bryan Singer, who passed up the third film in the X-Men franchise to bring this do-gooder back to the screen, makes a solid case for the buffed slice of white bread in blue tights.

Virtue can be dull. But Singer sees it as a turn-on. Working from a script by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, he revels in the idea of a flying superhero who wants to save the world from its own worst instincts. Don’t get me wrong, Singer also lets the action rip. This eye-popping epic is loaded with digital dazzle, ting with the way Superman levitates vertically from a standing position and including a spectacular rescue of a crashing space shuttle that Superman lands in a baseball stadium, plus a killer close-up of a bullet bouncing off Supie’s eyeball. But Singer is more interested in taking us on a spiritual journey. Eva Marie Saint shows up, in Virgin Mary mode, as Superman’s adoptive mother. Singer, adopted himself, is clearly working out some personal issues. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The movie takes its sweet time (154 minutes), and Singer dawdles when speed is of the essence, especially in the last section. Be patient. Singer’s passion for the DC Comics superhero is never in doubt. And that passion extends to the 1978 Superman movie, directed by Richard Donner and ring Christopher Reeve, who made a humane Man of Steel and played his alter ego Clark Kent with a bumbling, bespectacled charm. The film is dedicated to Reeve (and his late wife, Dana), who died in 2004 after years of fighting the paralysis that resulted from a horseback-riding accident.

Filling the role played by this real-life hero had to be hell on Routh, 26, a Reeve lookalike best known for his stint on the TV soap One Life to Live. At first, his features seem unformed, like an artist’s rough sketch. But there’s a glint of mischief in his eyes that also hints at depths of sadness. Routh has what it takes to reinvent Superman for a new generation. So does Singer. The plot picks up five years after 1981’s Superman II — the director wisely ignores the two other film sequels in the S-man canon. Having spent those years looking for the remnants of his home planet, Krypton, Superman returns to Metropolis with a sense of mission: The words of his dead father (Marlon Brando has been retrofitted into the new film) not only entreat him to help human beings — “I have sent them you, my only son” — they establish him as a Christ figure. Routh gets to lighten up as Clark Kent, back reporting for The Daily Planet, where the crack news team fails to notice that Clark and Superman look alike and have been missing for the same amount of time. What kind of rag is editor Perry White (Frank Langella) running? Apparently one good enough to snag Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) a Pulitzer for her story “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”

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Singer’s movie is all about proving that Superman’s selfless heroics are precisely what the world does need. Lois, still miffed that Supie split on her, has moved on and moved in with White’s nephew Richard (James Marsden, Cyclops in X-Men), who she claims is the father of her young son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). We are meant to have our doubts. But enough of the plot spoilers.

With all Superman’s chaste behavior — he takes Lois for a moonlit flight in his arms but stops short of playing tonsil hockey — it’s a kick to have Kevin Spacey around in full snark as the villainous Lex Luthor. A dying old crone (Noel Neill, who played Lois on the 1950s TV series) leaves Lex her fortune in return for — warning: bad visual ahead — “showing me pleasures I’ve never known.” Tossing his wig at a disappointed heir, baldy boy Lex snaps, “You keep this, the rest is mine.” Spacey powers the movie with ripe, nasty fun. Parker Posey pushes too hard as Kitty, the chatty handmaiden to Lex’s Satanic Majesty. And Bosworth (newly brunette and bland) underdoes it as Lois. But this is nitpicking. All the actors serve Singer’s vision. He’s holding out for a hero who never stoops to camp on his journey to myth. That’s why Superman returns with a bang. Singer tarnishes his hero’s halo with just enough sexual longing and self-doubt to make him riveting and relatable. That “S” on his suit has a whole new meaning: He’s a Soul man.

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