So, Superman returns - and he's taken his time about it. Warner Bros spent $40m developing this film over the past 19 years, and that was even before it lavished $200m on the budget. It was almost made in the early 1990s by Tim Burton, who imposed some unusual stipulations: no flying sequences, and all underpants to be worn beneath trousers. Faced with the finished product, you can't help pining for his perverse vision. Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films, has crafted a blockbuster from which every ounce of risk has been removed. There's little about it that can be called super; Sufficientman is nearer the mark.
The film ignores the dreadful later Superman sequels and picks up where Superman II (1980) left off. That was the one in which the hero had his wicked way with the reporter Lois Lane, and then wiped her memory in the final reel; it seemed romantic back then, but these days it would be called date rape. Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to earth after many years away, dons the glasses of his alter ego Clark Kent and takes up his post at the Daily Planet newspaper. Much has changed in his absence. His arch-enemy, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), is out of prison and armed with a stash of Kryptonite, the only thing capable of immobilising Superman. Luthor is also using magic crystals to create real estate in the middle of the Atlantic, on which he plans to sell desirable beachfront property; he's been downgraded from evil genius to evil estate agent. Presumably Spacey is hoping to receive as many boos and hisses in the role of Luthor as he has done during his tenure at the Old Vic.
Superman is chagrined to discover that Lois (Kate Bosworth) is now married with a child. She has also won the Pulitzer for an article entitled "Why the world doesn't need Superman". Luckily for Superman, Lois needs him very much right now: she's on a plane that has caught fire and is plummeting towards the earth.
There can't be many women who can rely on an ex-boyfriend in such a situation, but Superman does a fine job, easing the aircraft into a baseball stadium like a removal man shifting an unwieldy sofa. You know from the moment he and Lois clap eyes on one another again that the old magic is there. Besides, they share the same super power: the ability to endure a mid-air catastrophe without getting their hair messed up.
Soon Lois is being whisked off on a late-night flight in Superman's arms. Fooling around with another man's wife - what kind of behaviour is that for a superhero? "My husband's a pilot," Lois tells him, "and he takes me up all the time." "Not like this," he grins smugly. The tone rarely rises above this level of teen soap opera, like the two television series - The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville - that have kept the brand ticking over.
Whereas Batman and Spiderman have become more neurotic in recent film outings, the makers of Superman Returns seem unsure of how to tweak their hero to fit the 21st century. I liked the hints of vanity after Superman saves the burning plane: he soaks up the crowd's applause for a few seconds longer than is proper, suggesting that he craves attention as much as any mortal. But the writers could at least have given him a new power. Sure, he has X-ray vision, freezing breath and superhuman strength. But it would be really impressive if we saw him fill out his own tax return, or make an avocado ripen at will.
It's easy to blame the film's blandness on Routh, whose performance resembles an audition for Stars In Their Eyes: "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be Christopher Reeve." But this approach applies to the whole production. There is dialogue lifted from the original 1978 Superman film. John Williams's soaring theme music is brought back into service. And faded footage of Marlon Brando, as Superman's father, is incorporated into the new material. Nineteen years of development have resulted in karaoke on a grand scale. And as with all karaoke, the performers get more out of it than the audience.
Pick of the week
The Death of Mister Lazarescu (15)
dir: Cristi Puiu
Gruelling odyssey about a dying man's quest for treatment in Bucharest. A film of the year.
Heading South (15)
dir: Laurent Cantet
Charlotte Rampling is outstanding as a middle-aged sex tourist squabbling over a Haitian gigolo.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party (15)
dir: Michel Gondry
An unbeatable combination of hip-hop, comedy and joie de vivre.