Imagine, if you will, God. Imagine that He has done everything to protect His people, and then one day, without warning, He leaves. After five years, He returns, only to find that not only have the people survived without Him, they have thrived, and now that He is back, they realize that for all the time He was their protector, they were weak and powerless. And now they are angry that He wants to protect them again, because they no longer want to be powerless. Imagine, in short, the story of God returning to find that He is no longer needed.

That's not the story of Superman Returns.

Superman Returns is the story of God returning to find that everyone is very happy to see him, indeed, except for the woman who used to love him, whose anger is much less of the "you abandoned us!" mode and much more of the "you couldn't call me?" mode. My version is better. But you're not supposed to review movies that weren't made, so I'm not going to bring it up again, save to say that for squandering such a thematically rich concept, the film automatically loses a point.

So here's what does happen: Superman (Brandon Routh) left earth five years ago to search for the ruins of Krypton. He returns to find that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is engaged with a five-year-old son (guess where that's going, "twist" my ass), she's about to win a Pulitzer for the editorial "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," and Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is newly freed from prison with a dastardly plan (aren't they always) to take over the world using technology from Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

I imagine it might seem that I was being flippant with all of that God-talk, but really it's nothing that the film doesn't say itself. Bryan Singer's Superman is clearly (and when I mean clearly, I mean C-L-E-A-R-L-Y) a Christ figure. Sure, there was a little bit of that in Richard Donner's 1978 film, with all it's talk of "I shall send them my son," blah blah blah, but it was hardly made the focus of the movie. But Singer, unlike Donner, is an Auteur, and he wants to make damn sure we get a lesson with our popcorn. Sadly, whereas a film like X2 shows a playful approach to pop sociology ("Have you tried not being a mutant?"), Superman Returns is mostly too serious and too heavy and too leaden. If you're going to put Christ in a cape, you need to have a sense of humor about it. Were I a lesser writer, I'd throw in a joke about "Superman can't fly under the weight of his own importance," but instead I'll just be meta-passive-agressive about it.

The film's biggest problem may be the existence of Batman Begins. That film demonstrated more than any of the other modern comic movies that a superhero could be the center of a serious drama, and it's known that Warner Bros. wanted the new Superman to follow in the gritty real-world style of that film. But the great charm of Superman and Superman II wasn't their grit; it was their lightness, even campiness in some ways. Superman Returns is rather dour and grim, with a couple of truly unpleasant scenes (especially a sequence in which Luthor pummels a kryptonite-crippled Superman to the ground). Perhaps that's truer to the comics, but the film is too obviously designed as a sequel to the first two, and such a remarkable tonal shift is hard to take.

So after all that, I'm going to go ahead and say I liked the movie. Not as much as it's predecessors, and not nearly as much as the best of the current superhero wave. But when it clicks, it's really quite special, and it does click for almost half of its unignorable 154 minute run-time. It only bogs down in its savior-imagery for the last hour or so, and before that there's a great deal of screwball humor, most of it involving Clark Kent's futile attempts to engage Lois (in this, as in many ways, the film plays like a jazz variation on the original). And Spacey has a lot of fun as Luthor, reminding us of how much better he is as a villain than an Everyman. He's not good enough, and the film's not bad enough, for me to honor him as the film's McKellan, but there's a similar sense of "screw this all, I'm going for camp!"

The big surprise of the film is Brandon Routh. The role is shockingly thankless; it's obvious that someone (Singer, Warner brass) told him early on that his job was to play Christopher Reeve. And while he can't improve upon one of the best performances in comic movie history, he comes scarily close to equalling it. His Clark is better than his Superman, perhaps (he looks a little too pretty for the Man of Steel), but he makes the role his own, and for not one moment did I regret what might have been (given that Nicholas Cage is what might have been, it's an easy regret to avoid).

I think the most important element of the film, post-Batman and post-Spider-Man, is that it returns a sense of sheer awe to superhero movies. Not that there aren't awe-inspiring moments in those films, or the non-sucky X-Men films (credit where it's due: Superman Returns is miles better than X-Men: The Last Stand). But even at it's grimmest, this film skips over the angst and psychological darkness of those films, and its moments of joy - watching Superman rescue an airplane, or fly with Lois around Metropolis - reach a childlike joy that its competition doesn't even strive for. Like the fella said: you'll believe a man can fly.