Superman Returns

Lois Lane won a Pulitzer for an editorial called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” written during the five-year period in which the Man of Steel was gone, vanished without a trace and presumably not coming back. He does come back, of course, in “Superman Returns,” and at the end of the film Lois is writing a new piece: “Why the World Needs Superman.” Only she can’t seem to type anything beyond the title. Does the world need Superman?

According to the Daily Planet front pages we catch glimpses of, “Superman Returns” is set in September 2006. Think of what Superman has missed in those five years. Think of what we’ve endured without him. When he makes his first post-hiatus appearance, bringing a doomed airliner to safety in front of a crowded baseball stadium, the reception he gets is deeply stirring. No one begrudges him his absence. No one complains of being abandoned. People are just elated to see him, overjoyed to once again have a savior in their midst. Glance again at the front page of a newspaper and tell me we don’t need Superman.

The question is, do we need “Superman Returns”? Since the last embarrassing effort in 1987 — “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” in which Superman battled a monster made of nuclear energy — not only has the world changed, but so has moviemaking in general and comic book movies specifically. Our superheroes today aren’t as four-square as they were the last time a caped Christopher Reeve leapt tall buildings in a single bound. Nowadays they have angst, crises of faith and streaks of brooding selfishness. They are eminently human, in other words — something Superman literally is not. How can a hero so alien be relevant in 2006?

Bryan Singer has the answer with this sensitive, exhilarating film, which he directed from a screenplay by his “X2” writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. (The story is credited to all three men.) Superman, here played with surprising (to this skeptic, anyway) depth by newcomer Brandon Routh, left Earth in search of his home planet Krypton, which astronomers thought they had discovered remnants of. He has returned now introspective and contemplative. So much on Earth has changed in five years. So much within himself seems different, too.

He does still love Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), but she has moved on. She’s engaged to her boss’ nephew, Richard White (James Marsden), who’s a pilot, which means he can fly, too, just like her last boyfriend. They have a little boy, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu). Superman — in the guise of Clark Kent, who allegedly has been traveling the world the past few years and now has his old Daily Planet job back — wants to rekindle his romance with Lois but is too decent to break up her happy home. Instead he does what you or I would do in his boots: He floats outside her house and uses his x-ray vision and super hearing to see how she’s doing. He’s a super-stalker.

The film is in large part the story of Superman’s internal struggles and his love for Lois, and many viewers may be disappointed at the comparative lack of action. The film is 40 minutes old before the first action sequence occurs, and the opening 20 minutes or so are eerily quiet. You’d think you were watching a Merchant-Ivory production, not a summer blockbuster.

It’s a thinky blockbuster, yes, though you’ll find plenty of deft humor and breathtaking visuals and nods to the earlier films, too. And when the story calls for action, Singer delivers it, with seamless special effects and thrilling heroics. Yet he seems to realize one of the inherent problems with a Superman story: The guy can only be killed by one thing. Absent that, there’s very little suspense over whether (or even how) he’ll save the day. So it’s wise to focus on other elements in the story, as Singer has done, rather than give Superman a list of good deeds to do and call it a day.

Lex Luthor is present, played with ice-cold malevolent glee by Kevin Spacey, and his plan is, as ever, the very picture of dastardliness. You may recall the ditzy Miss Teschmacher who was Gene Hackman’s sidekick in the first two Superman films; here that role is filled by Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey), who goes along with Lex’s plans without realizing just how crazy he is.

But while Lex’s schemes are crucial to the world, they are secondary to the film. It is not a story of how Superman stops Lex from killing everyone; as I said, that kind of story has a foregone conclusion. This is the story of Superman coming to terms with himself, rendered by Singer and Routh subtly, quietly, even beautifully. If Krypton is truly gone, does that mean Superman has no one to relate to in all the universe? If we need Superman, does he need us, too?

I think the reason Lois doesn’t know how to begin her “Why the World Needs Superman” essay is that the point is so obvious it shouldn’t need explaining. Of course we need him. Even a fictional Superman, even in this cynical age, is reassuring. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed him until he came back.

A- (2 hrs., 34 min.; PG-13, mild vulgarity, plenty of bloodless action-related violence -- still, should have been PG.)