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Superman is back, and not a moment too soon. The world is falling apart, and now even Lex Luthor is being let out of jail. Does the world need a savior? That’s a question pondered by the characters of the exciting new “Superman Returns.” But can there be any doubt that it does?

The first new Superman movie in 19 years, “Superman Returns” is a worthy successor to the iconic 1978 original “Superman: The Movie” (forget its three increasingly bad sequels). Director Bryan Singer hits all the right notes here in honoring the look and feel of that movie–literally, when it comes to the score, which borrows heavily from its predecessor–while successfully making an original, relevant film that avoids any taint of mere literal-minded homage.

This is not a Superman of the ironic and cynical, in the way that many superhero movies have been lately; the Man of Steel in 2006 is still a man who struts around, unabashed, in a red cape and blue body suit with a big ‘S’ on it. And yet, he’s also not the same stoic, don’t-show-your-weakness 1950s father figure of the past.

Singer spares us any extended explorations of Superman’s dark past or troubled psyche, and there are no moments when he hangs up his cape to go find himself in Tibet. But those moments of despair, longing, and doubt are there, all the more powerful for the fact that they’re hinted at and alluded to rather than tackled head on. How can they not be there? In “Superman Returns,” our hero comes back to Earth after five years away, during which he confirmed that, with his home planet of Krypton destroyed, he is indeed the only survivor; once back, he finds that the love of his life, Lois Lane, has moved on and is engaged to someone else. Sitting in a bar as Clark Kent, brooding over a beer, he hears of a tragedy in progress–innocent civilians imperiled, and one of them is none other than Lois herself. After the briefest moment of hesitation, he snaps into action, of course. Does he do it for love or altruism? In this case, it doesn’t matter.

I’ll leave it to others to explore the Christ parallels in this film–suffice it to say they’re there in force–but I was struck by a very different side of it. Yes, the Man of Steel is the powerful other-worldly superhero, come to defend truth and justice. But this Superman film makes clear that it’s not a one-man show. Superman has his vulnerabilities–physical and spiritual–while conversely and more importantly, the world is saved by a lot of people reaching deep inside themselves to find their own inner superman, the spark of moral and physical greatness that they didn’t know was within them. It is only then that salvation truly comes. Call it the Gnostic Superman.

None of this is entirely new to “Superman Returns”–little can be fully new in a story told and retold for almost 80 years–but it is an exciting, fresh, and refreshing take, one that is true to the spirit of Superman while also presenting us all with a unique challenge for today: Don’t look to the heavens for anything more than a bird or a plane; look inside yourself for Superman.

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