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Superhero worship

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Last summer, Christopher Nolan gave us a "Batman Begins" with a dense, psychological center, encased in a junky job of filmmaking. Now Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects," the first two "X-Men" films) delivers the beautiful new "Superman Returns," an impeccably made film, but with little inside.

This new "Superman" is intended to revive a series that ended with the dud "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987). It takes place five years after Superman (Brandon Routh) has disappeared, jetting to the far reaches of the universe for a peek at his demolished home planet, Krypton, and finally returning to Metropolis and to his faster-than-a-speeding-bullet duties. (Of course, no one notices that both Clark Kent and Superman have returned on the same day.)

Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is now a mother, though she has neglected to marry her beau, the pretty-boy nephew (James Marsden) of the notorious Daily Planet editor, Perry White (a muted Frank Langella).

Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has also returned, having snatched a handful of those magic crystals from the original 1978 film, with a plan to own the largest chunk of land on the planet. Spacey gives the movie its main juice, one-upping Gene Hackman’s performance in the original films with his venomous, narcissistic performance.

Singer lets fly with a series of spectacular set pieces, handled with a strange kind of grace. He has an eye for composition and the patience to marry it to his ball-bearing smooth action. In a kickoff sequence, Superman rescues a plane inconveniently attached to a runaway space shuttle, rocketing through the upper atmosphere, then plummeting back to Earth, its wings afire. Singer lets us feel wind, gravity, heat and impact and gives us a front-row seat with a 360-degree view.

The problem lies in the humorless, mall-culture casting. Though this story is supposed to take place years into the Superman legend, we’re dealing with rank youngsters. The handsome, chiseled Routh vaguely resembles a plastic action figure; it’s hard to believe that Marlon Brando (seen and heard here in outtakes from the original films) could sire such a lump. By contrast, Christopher Reeve brought souland a nervous, nerdy humor to his role in the original four films.

Bosworth is just as cute, but looks like she should be reporting for her high school rag, not collecting Pulitzer Prizes for a major Metropolitan newspaper. (Margot Kidder had the necessary sex appeal and gumption.)

The one thing that actually "returns" here is John Williams’ score, adapted by John Ottman, blasting over the opening titles with a thundering triumph. Once again, we believe a man can fly.

Superman Returns ???

Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington, Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando

Written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and Bryan Singer

Directed by Bryan Singer

Rated PG-13

Running time: 2 hours, 34 minutes