The voice of Marlon Brando, lifted from his performance as Superman's father Jor-El in 1978's Superman, opens the immense new revival Superman Returns, echoing through the heavens with a godlike authority. What he says isn't that important—in fact, his mush-mouthed musings sound a little like Apocalypse Now outtakes—but this nod to the original film sets a tone of pop classicism that's rare in modern superhero movies. Director Bryan Singer isn't interested in adding dark inflections to the legend, like Batman Begins, or even harnessing the whiz-bang energy of the Spider-Man movies or his X-Men entries. Instead, he intends to restore this mightiest of heroes to his full iconic glory, with one majestic image after another of the Man Of Steel literally carrying the world on his shoulders. Singer's reverence for the 1978 version edges perilously close to mimicry, as if he has no new ideas to bring to the table, but he succeeds in drawing out the Superman myth with simple power and a refreshing absence of irony.
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to a young Christopher Reeve, newcomer Brandon Routh looks so perfect as Superman that he might as well have been chiseled from stone, yet he plays bumbling alter ego Clark Kent with equal aplomb. After a long sojourn to find himself, Superman returns to Earth and learns things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse: The world has collapsed into chaos, his old flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is living with a fellow journalist (James Marsden) and raising a young son, and famed nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from jail and is up to no good again. While Superman was away, Luthor, like the shopkeeper at a New Age store, has harnessed the power of crystals taken from Superman's Fortress Of Solitude. Superman tries to stop a fiendish plot that would kill billions, but Luthor has a generous supply of Kryptonite on hand.
There's a thin line between preserving an icon and merely delivering on an expensive franchise, but Singer's genuine connection to the Superman legend overcomes his predilection toward playing it safe. With a touch of melancholy, Superman Returns strongly emphasizes the fact that its hero is alien to his adoptive planet, so burdened without reward that the woman he loves wins a Pulitzer for a column about why the world doesn't need him. His unwavering decency sets up a stark good-and-evil battle with Luthor, whom Spacey plays with a delicious, mirthless villainy that puts his post-Oscar soft streak behind him, at least for now. Superman Returns may be the squarest and most old-fashioned of the recent superhero movies, but its lack of revisionism gives it strength.