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Superman, where have you been?

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Superman, where have you been?
Unknown actor Brandon Routh has been catapulted to fame as the star of "Superman Returns," which opens in theaters nationwide June 28. (Warner Bros. photo)

LOS ANGELES — Lois Lane, the love of Superman’s life, had written him off, put him behind her, even won a Pulitzer Prize for a column about why the world no longer needed the Man of Steel.

Clearly, Lois was wrong. The world needs Superman so much that Hollywood spent a frustrating decade of false starts with top directors to bring the kid from Krypton back to the big screen.

The wait finally ends June 28 with "Superman Returns," the story of a planet that lost the hero it had come to lean on and learned to make do without him, only to have him reappear at the moment his powers are needed most.

"I’m happy that it took as long as it did in the end, because I think we’ve come out with something that’s really great," said Brandon Routh, a virtual unknown who’s been rocketed to stardom as Superman and his alter ego, bashful, klutzy reporter Clark Kent.

The fictional saga of Superman’s mysterious departure reflects his long void at theaters. While the character flourished on television with "Smallville," "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and various animated shows, he had become a forgotten man at the movies, where other comic-book heroes had come to reign.

In the 19 years since Christopher Reeve’s fourth and final appearance as the hero in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," Hollywood churned out five Batman flicks with four different actors in the title role.

"Spider-Man" and its sequel became the Cadillac of superhero franchises at the box office. Three "X-Men" movies turned the mutants with strange powers into global idols.

There were movie adaptations of "Fantastic Four" and "The Incredible Hulk," and lesser-known comic-book heroes leapt to the big screen in "Blade" and its two sequels, "Daredevil" and its spinoff "Elektra," and "Constantine," "Hellboy" and "The Punisher."

The longer Superman, with his goody-goody Boy Scout values, languished in development at Warner Bros., the more it looked like his time may have passed in favor of the darker, conflicted heroes of "Batman," "Spider-Man" and "X-Men."

Not so, said Bryan Singer, who directed the first two "X-Men" movies and passed on the third when he got the chance to make "Superman Returns."

"The world may change. That’s kind of the idea behind the movie. The world may change, relationships change, things change, but Superman endures," Singer said of the DC Comics hero who first appeared in print in 1938.

"When you’re coming to a Superman movie, you want to see Superman. You want to see all that nobility, idealism, virtue and strength more than ever, because the more frustrating and dark things get in the world, the more a character like that becomes a breath of fresh air. A light at the end of the tunnel. Something to strive for. Someone to make you feel — I don’t know — the purity you felt as a kid."

A boyhood fan of the old George Reeves TV series "Adventures of Superman," Singer saw director Richard Donner’s "Superman" starring Christopher Reeve on opening day in 1978.

Singer was not into comic books growing up and knew nothing about the "X-Men," but said his early love for Superman helped inspire him on the "X-Men" movies.

Ironically, Singer wound up in a game of Hollywood musical chairs with Brett Ratner, who along with directors Tim Burton and McG, had been among filmmakers signed on over the years to revive the "Superman" franchise. After Singer jumped to "Superman Returns," Ratner wound up directing "X-Men: The Last Stand," the year’s biggest hit so far.

"The karma gods have really been good to me and Bryan," said Ratner, who always dreamed of doing a big comic-book adaptation.

Considering the convolutions it took to revive Superman, the karma gods apparently were kind to movie fans, too.

Three years ago, Singer turned down the chance to direct a Superman movie because at the time the project would have been yet another origin story of the hero, whose roots have been thoroughly examined in the 1978 movie and "Smallville."

Another failed story line would have pitted Superman against Batman. And at one point, Nicolas Cage hoped to star as Superman.

"I always thought that in a way, you want your Superman to be a total unknown," said Kevin Spacey, who plays villain Lex Luthor in "Superman Returns," a role he had discussions about with filmmaker Burton a decade ago.

"When there were other incarnations of the film being thought about and there were famous actors that were supposed to play it, I thought, it’s going to be hard to make that leap of faith where you believe that person can fly," said Spacey, who won the first of his two Academy Awards for Singer’s "The Usual Suspects."

As Donner did with Reeve, Singer went for an unknown in Routh. Singer also tossed out the origin story Warner Bros. had developed, crafting his own story with screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris that serves as a quasi-sequel to Reeve’s "Superman" and "Superman II."

After Lois and Superman’s ongoing dalliance in those films, "Superman Returns" has our hero abruptly leaving Earth to visit the ruins of his home world, Krypton.

Finding nothing but a dead planet, he returns to Earth to find the world has moved on, including Lois (Kate Bosworth), who has a young son, is engaged to another man and has written her Pulitzer-winning commentary "Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman."

She learns otherwise after Lex wins early parole from prison and sets out to steal Superman’s Kryptonian technology in a catastrophic plan to take over the world.

"Superman Returns" co-stars Eva Marie Saint as Clark Kent’s adoptive mom, Parker Posey as Lex’s girlfriend, Frank Langella as newspaper editor Perry White, Sam Huntington as photographer Jimmy Olsen and "X-Men" co-star James Marsden as Lois’ fiance.

Routh at times eerily resembles Reeve, who died in 2004, nine years after he was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident. The new film draws on design elements originated in Donner’s "Superman," including the crystalline Fortress of Solitude that serves as Superman’s haven.

The movie also uses John Williams’ rousing theme music from his Oscar-nominated "Superman" score.

Given the pains Singer took to pay respects to the early Reeve movies, reprising the theme music became almost as important to "Superman Returns" as Williams’ fanfares were for the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films.

"I think it’s just that classic first couple of notes that transports you back to childhood or whatever memory you feel nostalgic about with Superman," Bosworth said. "Bryan did such an amazing job of maintaining the classic feel and giving a great homage to past ‘Superman’ films, and even just real old-school filmmaking, but keeping it fresh and new and exciting at the same time."

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