We've been a long time waiting for the return of Superman. His last big screen outing - 1987's 'Superman IV: The Quest for Peace' - was a big, fat, far-from-memorable dud. 'Superman III' (1983) wasn't much better. Most people's memories of this screen icon are, however, based around the annual Christmas screenings of the original 1978 film and its great follow-up, 'Superman II' (1980). This time 'round, director Bryan Singer ('The Usual Suspects', 'X-Men'), together with writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, revisits plots from the past, familiar relationships and old myths. From the start, the heartfelt 'Superman Returns' has an instantly familiar air helped, in no small way, by the original John Williams score woven throughout. But is it any good? The answer is an unexpected and resounding yes.

In a reprise of his original arrival at the Kent farm, Superman (squarejawed newcomer Routh, bearing a marked resemblance to Christopher Reeve) returns to Earth after a five-year absence. As Clark Kent he makes his way to Metropolis to pick up the threads of his old life. Back once again at the Daily Planet - evidently an understanding employer - Clark encounters his beloved Lois (a disappointingly one-dimensional Bosworth), who now has a wide-eyed son (Leabu) and pilot fiancé (Marsden) in tow. She's moved on, evidently, and is about to receive a Pulitzer Prize for an essay titled 'Why the World Doesn't Need Superman'. But Superman's not on the planet for more than 10 minutes before incident-prone Lois needs saving from an aircraft disaster. When he makes his spectacular comeback, kiss-curl intact, by parking the airplane in the middle of a baseball game, Lois' editor (Langella), despite her protests, orders her to cover the story, reopening old wounds for the couple.

Romantic entanglements aside, the plot revolves around the timely return of Lex Luthor (Spacey, in full scenery-chewing mode) and - again - he has a dastardly plan. This time 'round he intends to use crystals stolen from Superman's Arctic Fortress of Solitude (cue some repurposed footage of Marlon Brando as Superman's father Jor-El) to grow a huge kryptonite continent that will erase large chunks of North America.

Singer makes the most of what was, in 1978, considered an obscene multi-million dollar salary for Brando's two weeks of work on 'Superman' by using him in voiceover to emphasise Superman's divinity; he is now represented as a god sent by his heavenly father - Jor-El - to protect Earth. In case we miss this, there are shots of Routh hanging above the Earth's atmosphere as if on a cross and several other similarly heavyhanded and explicit nods towards Christ. But, when you get over the whole "does the world need a saviour? Yes/No" issue, there's more than enough here to keep more than the die-hard Superman fans happy. He's still destroying perfectly good business suits at an exceptional rate and, of all the award-winning observant reporters that surround Clark at the Daily Planet, no one can yet see similarities between him and the man of steel they're so intent on writing about.

A gorgeously crafted epic, 'Superman Returns' doesn't forget to entertain and its 154 minute running time is crammed full of breathtaking set pieces and panoramic special effects. But, action aside, there's also a real beating heart at the centre of this film. As a summer blockbuster 'Superman Returns' will be an undoubted crowdpleaser - and a staple of Christmas reruns for a long time to come.

Caroline Hennessy