What's with Superman? He used to be a fun guy. Now, he's gone the way of "Batman Begins" - sullen, grumpy, definitely no fun at all.
In "Superman Returns," Christopher Reeve look-alike Brandon Routh literally seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. And, suddenly that is a strain for the Man of Steel.
Another strain in the newest Superman movie is its length: Almost three hours! Most of it does not have him doing super stunts, but floating around listening to humanity's incessant whining as if he's Bruce Almighty or Jesus Christ.
In fact, at times, "Returns" could have been directed by Mel Gibson (maybe, the title should have been "The Passion of the Superman"). The kryptonite-defused uber hero is subjected to torture and beatings by the evil Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). He dies in a hospital bed, only to disappear, leaving a shroud-like sheet behind. He reappears in the sky before Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who may have given birth to his child (we're approaching "The Da Vinci Code" scenario).
Wait a minute. Isn't Superman a comic book character, not a religious figure?
"Returns" has all the franchise prerequisites: The Daily Planet characters, including the big guy's silly Clark Kent alias; a few token amazing rescues, where Superman himself is often a computer-animated; the Lois Lane love interest and romantic ride over Metropolis; villain bent on world domination. But now we have a downer Supe with none of the comic, comic-book cute charisma that earlier incarnations (Chris Reeve, George Reeves) brought to the story. Routh looks right in a carbon copy kind of way, yet director Bryan Singer of "X-Men" fame is most concerned with his super angst than action.
The plot involves a homesick Superman returning from a tour of the universe in search of a piece of his extinct mother planet, Krypton. Luthor is out of prison. He's in possession of a bit of kryptonite and some Krypton crystals from the mighty man's "Fortress of Solitude," where an old hologram of Superman's deceased father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando clips from the 1978 film) fills him in on a few super secrets.
Superman is back to being a savior of mankind, but in need of therapy and a love life with Lois, who's got a new boyfriend (James Marsden). Luthor is still obsessed with real estate speculation and wants to flood America (is Al Gore listening?) by creating a new continent with his magic crystals. The resulting continent looks like stalagmite city... not a place of interest to even the most eccentric home buyer.
The 1978 film's Luthor (Gene Hackman) had a better idea: He bought land east of the San Andreas fault line, activated an earthquake which eliminated California and provided him with prime new West Coast real estate.
While Spacey as Luthor does his best to steal the movie with inspired villainy, Routh's super depression submerges the fun in a pseudo-religious funk, despite the complex story and a handful of fantastic effects.
If you're a die-hard disciple, go see "Returns" and experience the theological side of Superman.