Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's ... a mild disappointment

'Superman Returns' with a whimper in a reverent, sincere movie that lacks great characters.

Twenty years after the last "Superman" feature – anybody remember "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"? – we have a new addition to the franchise. Weighing in at a budget of about $180 million, "Superman Returns" is a great, big, and very square superhero movie. After the slapstick of Richard Lester's "Superman II" and "III," director Bryan Singer has gone back to basics – with mixed results.

This approach should not be shocking to anyone who saw Singer's "X-Men" movies. A traditionalist in the fairly untraditional realm of comic-book movies, he doesn't go in for a lot of hoopla or high jinks. His take on "Superman" is almost childlike, and that is part of its appeal. He takes us back to the time when we read superhero comics as kids and all that crusading idealism could be taken straight, undiluted by satire or subversiveness.

With the new "Superman," what you see is pretty much what you get. While it's true that he's a brooder, he doesn't go in for the Hamlet-esque contortions that the Batman franchise has been prone to.

In Singer's film, which was scripted by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, Superman returns to Earth after being AWOL for five years. In search of his roots, he had been poking around the recently discovered ruins of Krypton. Back in Metropolis, he resumes his old job at the Daily Planet as Clark Kent and discovers that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a child and a full-time boyfriend (James Marsden). Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is also back: Let's just say that his scheme to rule the planet involves Kryptonite.

It's probably no accident that Superman's five-year absence began in 2001. If I may put a sociological spin on it, Superman is a superhero for a post-9/11 world in dire need of one. (One curiosity: We are told that he stands for "truth and justice"; what happened to "The American Way"?) But Singer doesn't play up the 9/11 angle very much, and it's just as well. Do we really need Lex Luthor to be a stand-in for Osama bin Laden?

Although "Superman" is set in the present, it has a deliberately retro look. The scenes at the Daily Planet in particular have the feel of '30s hard-boiled newspaper movies, and Frank Langella's Perry White is very much in that "Front Page" mold. You don't see a whole lot of cellphones in "Superman."

Lois won a Pulitzer for an essay about why the world doesn't need Superman, but clearly she still keeps the flame burning for him. And just who is the father of her boy? (One guess.) Her reunion with Superman is modeled on the first film: He lifts her high into the night sky as they swoon over the cityscapes.

These flying scenes have always been the hallmark of the "Superman" movies and never more so than in this film. As a piece of techno-art, it's often dazzling. The whoosh of being aloft has a kinesthetic power. At least one sequence, a near plane disaster involving Lois and a team of reporters, is hair-raisingly good.

But if the special effects are often terrific, the people are less so, starting with Superman himself. Brandon Routh certainly has the right rock-jawed comic-book look but, unlike Christopher Reeve, who also had the look, he's not much of an actor. When he has to show some passion, as in his clinches with Lois, he resembles a wax dummy that is starting to melt.

Bosworth's Lois is more animated but also deficient in the passion department. Only Spacey's Luthor has the jollies and wit that this movie cries out for. Parker Posey plays his moll and she, too, has a few choice moments, especially a yucky one involving her pet Pomeranian. After appearing in one of the most expensive movies ever made, I guess we can no longer call Posey the Queen of the Indies.

Maybe "The Incredibles" has spoiled me for superhero movies. The new Superman has its visionary charms, but there's only so far you can go without great characters. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for some intense action violence.

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