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Superman's Blue Clothes

There's nothing new under the red sun.

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If the new movie does well, it will validate Warner Bros.' belief that there is but one unchanging Man of Steel: the one who has already made them millions; the one concocted by producer Alexander Salkind and director Richard Donner in 1978. That version spawned three sequels, and you could say now a fourth. The title of the new movie is apt, in a way. Except it's not as much a return of Superman as a return to him, the one from those four movies starring Christopher Reeve.

Though his "X-Men" writing team penned the script, Bryan Singer's version is so similar, it even seems to have digitally manipulated lead Brandon Routh's features and voice to make him look and sound, if not like Reeve, like Reeve's Superman. This version is merely a souped-up, CGI-enhanced extension, with fancy new tights on the hero that look like they were skinned from some kind of red, yellow and blue intergalactic reptile.

Just as Superman still looks like Reeve, he still does things that would wow a kid in 1945 and might even impress one today. Superman battles Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). He woos Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). He stops machine-gun bullets with his chest. He doesn't pull any cats down from trees, but he does the equivalent, at one point stopping a runaway passenger jet from crashing into a major league baseball game. We never see his mom bake an apple pie, but Singer does show her worrying about her son, staring intently over a field of wheat from her kitchen window.

"Superman Returns" is a super-corny movie, except when it's being a super-weird one. As usual, Superman is basically here to save America a few times — to Krypton with the rest of the world! But this time every threat looks like it was hatched by terrorists, or at least hatched by people paranoid about terrorists. Given that we now have senators scolding French Canadian officials on their border security, we have to wonder if they caught an advance screening and thought it was another surreal Pentagon briefing, that a maniacal bald man really was returning from the North Pole with a satchel full of Superman's magic crystals.

One of the few but noticeable differences in this "Superman" is the treatment of the minor characters. In "Superman: The Movie" they acted like characters from a comic book — broad perhaps, but memorable. Like the "X-Men" franchise, this movie has tried to make everybody serious, and likewise every sentiment seems interchangeable. Routh, Spacey, Bosworth, on down the list: All have been robbed of a comic book's natural emotional surges, the mayhem of outsized minds that mark them as special.

These listless characters seem to me a symptom of fear and slavish devotion. By now, after close to 70 years of the Superman mythos, to change one bit must seem suicide to a director. Singer and his team are hired guns, brought in to return "Superman" to its rightful place among action movies. If they succeed, it will be by doing next to nothing. As pure action, "Superman Returns" is competent and entertaining. But it is also perfunctory and uneventful, and in many cases unimaginative. In being so obsessively faithful, it's also a bit of a letdown, missing many opportunities to improve even the most impoverished ideas. Even so, it will probably uphold all the American values of its financial backers by the end of its opening weekend. Though an out-of-place anachronism, it might still be a profitable one. (PG-13) 153 min. *** S



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