Move over, Spider-Man–the Man of Steel is back, and he’s flying higher than ever. After an absence of nearly two decades (and more abortive efforts to rejuvenate the franchise than one can count), Superman finally returns to the big screen, and it was worth the wait. Bryan Singer has fashioned an enthralling film that soars and excites, but touches the heart, too. It easily joins Sam Raimi’s two pictures about the Web-Slinger among the elite of the super-hero genre.

“Superman Returns” has some spectacular set-pieces–a rescue of a jumbo jet, which the hero deposits in a crowded baseball stadium, his stopping a runaway car careening down packed city streets, and multiple acts of heroism when Metropolis is struck by a tidal wave (the most elaborate involving the great globe atop the Daily Planet building). And they’re all expertly executed; the effects are cutting-edge. But in other respects the picture, like its hero, is marked by old-fashioned virtues. What really distinguishes it is its soulfulness. To an even greater extent than Raimi’s films, and unlike almost all movies of this sort, it effectively employs still, quiet moments to make you feel the loneliness and isolation of the character in tights. The visuals in “Superman Returns” are stunning, but what’s most notable is its tone: for the most part it’s elegant, ruminative, elegiac, even lapidary, with motions even in the action sequences that are graceful, often serene. And from the narrative standpoint, though it’s about an alien, it’s a deeply human story that (like Raimi’s movies) isn’t afraid to wear its emotions on its sleeve. Singer’s film not only treats its protagonist with dignity, but imbues his story with grandeur and poetry rather than mere volume and eye-popping razzmatazz–though, to be sure, there is one striking moment that does involve an eyeball.

The tone also distinguishes it from Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman,” an excellent film in its own right but one that was very much a product of its time–brightly colored, and though not deliberately campy in the fashion of the old “Batman” series, essentially light-hearted (not only in Gene Hackman’s broadly comic performance as arch-villain Lex Luthor but in Christopher Reeve’s sly portrayal of both Clark Kent and Superman). Though in many respects Singer’s film is a homage to that one–it borrows many of its plot elements, especially involving Luthor, resurrects John William’s brassy musical theme and the familiar title design, and even goes so far as to use Marlon Brando’s voice and image as Kal-El’s father, Jor-El–it’s far darker, an epic of loss, regret, even pain, in which the hero’s deeply-felt status as an outsider is mitigated only toward the end, and then ambiguously. In fact, it’s not so much a delayed follow-up to that picture as it is a melancholy mirror image of it, a story (if you’ll pardon the pun) of alienation, where Donner’s was one of almost joyful introduction and assimilation. Superman now feels the burdens and problems of his special abilities more than their blessings. Instead of chasing after him, Lois now wants nothing to do with him. And Luthor, in the hands of Kevin Spacey, is a much more venomous figure whose humor has a truly cruel edge and who, when given the opportunity to do Superman harm, seizes on it in a truly vicious, brutal way. There is, to be sure, a strain of humor, but that’s mostly in the firm of throwaway lines and bits of visual business; the picture never becomes jokey, as Donner’s (and Richard Lester’s fine sequel) often were; this is a fundamentally serious affair.

In short, Singer hasn’t attempted to modernize Superman, but he has deepened him. Perhaps forewarned by the occasional misguided efforts of the comic-book writers to make Clark and his alter-ego more congenial to today’s jaded sensibilities, his film respects the traditional Superman, a paragon of righteousness, integrity, service and self-sacrifice–if he has a fault, it’s his absolute earnestness–but at the same time he emphasizes that the hero is forced to deal with the loss of his world and the realization that he doesn’t fit comfortably into this one. There may be some who will still dismiss him as simply too square for the twenty-first century, a big, soulful Boy Scout. But the reverence to the spirit of a simpler time was the proper choice; Singer’s refusal to refashion Superman for a crasser era and his unabashed embrace of the ageless one, torn between two worlds, ironically makes “Superman Returns” feel fresh.

Plot-wise, the script is remarkably simple. After an absence of five years from earth (during which, we learn, he was searching for the remnants of Krypton and, by extension, a place where he can really belong), Superman (Brandon Routh) crash-lands near his boyhood home, where he’s welcomed back by his widowed mother Martha (a down-to-earth yet almost ethereal Eva Marie Saint). After wistfully recalling his youth–the occasion for some lovely cinematic rural vistas and shots of young Clark Kent gamboling through fields and over water towers–he returns to his reporting job at the Daily Planet, where he’s excitedly welcomed by young Jimmy Olsen (pleasant Sam Huntington) and almost matter-of-factly by editor Perry White (restrained Frank Langella). But he’s shocked to learn that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), whom he’s long secretly loved, not only has a young son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu, a personable tyke) but is romantically involved with White’s nephew Richard (James Marsden, as stiffly handsome as he was in the X-Men movies). Lois remains bitter that Superman left her half a decade before without even saying goodbye–indeed, she’s won a Pulitzer for an editorial titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”–and resists Perry’s demand that she concentrate her reporting on his return, even though the Man of Steel, in his first major intervention, saves her when a space shuttle launch she’s covering goes wildly awry.

Meanwhile the bumbling Clark, whom she largely ignores, is assigned to look into another story–the mysterious power blackout that caused significant damage in Metropolis as well as that shuttle near-disaster. That blackout is related to the second main plot thread–a scheme by Luthor (Spacey, oozing smirking malevolence), released early from prison because Superman had failed to appear to testify against him and more recently heir to a large fortune, to use crystals he’s pilfered from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to create a new continent off the eastern seaboard, flooding most of North America and killing millions in the process. (The scheme, of course, does for the east coast what Hackman’s Luthor plotted for the west coast three decades ago in Donner’s film.) And when he becomes aware of Superman’s return, he seeds the crystals with a kryptonite meteor so that when the new land inevitably lures Superman to investigate, it will drain him of his powers and allow him to be done away with.

The two plot strands link up when Lois and her son are kidnaped by Luthor, Richard and Superman both go to save them, and the human “family” become aware of the villain’s plot to kill the hero and try to intervene. In the final act Superman saves the day, or more properly the east coast, but in the process may have doomed himself–an act that not only releases an outburst of affection from people everywhere but makes Lois realize her love and reveal a secret to Superman. Some may complain that this concluding segment needlessly draws out the film, but it actually brings some of its most entrancing imagery (a scene of the powerless Superman falling helplessly to earth is breath-taking) and provides some of its most powerful moments, including a shot of the stricken Martha Kent, watchfully waiting outside the hospital where her son is being treated but unable to go to him, that’s really quite devastating. And the film’s major addition to the mythology–Jason–completes an emotional circle in a fashion that’s not terribly surprising, but is nonetheless quite satisfying.

This story, intelligently put together by Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, is sumptuously and affectingly realized on the screen. The production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas and art direction supervised by Hugh Bateup are gorgeous, Newton Thomas Sigel’s widescreen cinematography is at once wonderfully crisp and evocative, the effects–especially the flying sequences, whether at high speed or a slow glide–are seamless, and John Ottman’s score, which incorporates snatches of Williams’ themes, is very effective (the composer also served as editor with Elliot Graham). Aside from the fact that he seems awfully young for a fellow who’s supposed to have been gone for five years, Routh proves an excellent choice for the lead, resembling Christopher Reeve not only physically but in his ability to fashion an agreeably awkward Clark; his Superman, in line with Singer’s conception, is a more distant, reserved, slightly stilted figure than Reeve’s was (of course, he’s supposed to be more experienced and, given his changed circumstances with Lois, sadder), a lonely savior painfully aware of how his very nature isolates him. (To put it another way, he’s here, as the old scripts used to remind us, a somewhat “strange” visitor from another planet.) Routh fills both sides of the equation well, though only time will tell whether his acting talent has the breadth for other sorts of roles (Reeve, to be honest, was quite limited in this respect). And his well-developed frame is perfect for the instances in which Singer virtually poses him in stillness, like the statue of some Greek god. The bald Spacey has a field day with Luthor, as does Parker Posey as Kitty Kowalski, his hench-woman; and though Marsden, Langella, Huntington and Kal Penn (as one of Luthor’s aides) aren’t much more than serviceable, Leabu and Saint are considerably more than that.

The sole weak link in the casting, though hardly a fatal one, is Bosworth, who doesn’t find exactly the right tone for Lois. She’s unable to soften the character’s harshness sufficiently in the earlier reels, so that one finds her more irritatingly standoffish than endearingly spunky. And though she improves in the later going, when Lois realizes that the world does in fact need Superman, the acidic taste isn’t entirely expunged, and so the romantic ache at the center of the tale doesn’t register as fully as it might. Long-time fans will enjoy glimpsing Jack Larson and Noel Neill, the Jimmy and Lois of the old George Reeves TV series, in cameo parts–he’s the sympathetic bartender, and she’s the old lady Luthor cons out of her fortune.

The 1978 “Superman” was one of the best super-hero pictures ever made, but “Superman Returns” is even better. Television’s “Smallville” has presented an imaginative remolding of the young Clark Kent (while, again, remaining true to the basics of the character), and now Singer’s masterful resuscitation of the movie franchise takes us on this summer’s most satisfying big-budget ride. Fans of the comic, and those with a nostalgic recollection of the character, should find this film cause for celebration. The only question is whether today’s young viewers, who have heroes of a very different stripe and attitude, will relate to one so defiantly “uncool” in contemporary terms. And whether, accustomed to movies made for people with short attention spans, they can embrace one that, cinematically speaking, is more heartfelt poem than machine-gun prose. One can only hope that the modern audience, though brought up on explosively loud, whiz-bang flicks and ultra-violent video games (and in an age that itself seems ever more callous), will be able to appreciate this sort of super-hero movie–a lushly lyrical, stately epic with a surprisingly strong emotional core, emphasizing style and grace over mindless action. And one hopes that the ample sequel opportunities Singer’s picture affords will in time be taken up with the same affection and skill that he’s lavished on this marvelous restoration of one of pop culture’s most enduring icons. Because even if you feel going in as Lois does at the start–that the world of 2006 doesn’t need Superman–by the time the final credits of “Superman Returns” roll, you’ll probably be hoping, along with her, that the big fellow will stop by again soon.