SUPERMAN'S MR. SOFTY IN 'SUPERMAN RETURNS,' HOLLYWOOD'S NEWEST VERSION OF THE MAN OF STEEL FIGHTS CRIME - AND HIS FEELINGS April 30, 2006 -- SURE, he's still faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But have you noticed that Superman's has seemed different lately? We think it started when Christopher Reeve's Man of Steel and Margot Kidder's Lois Lane spent time snuggling in satin sheets in 1980's "Superman II." And ever since - through "Lois &Clark" and "Smallville" - Superman's just been getting softer and softer. But just wait until you see "Superman Returns," which arrives in theaters on June 30. Nearly 70 years have passed since Superman first appeared on the cover of Action Comics in blue tights and a red cape. Since then, practically everything has changed - and not just sartorially. The meaning of masculinity itself has been so redefined that the Man of Steel, and even his alter ego Clark Kent, seem positively unrecognizable to most contemporary guys. Guys these days see themselves better reflected in the characters played by Owen Wilson - a slacker leading man whose most endearing quality is his passion for underachievement - than to earnestly patriotic, straight-arrow Clark Kent, or nearly invincible and never self-interested Superman. Enter Brandon Routh, a practically unknown 25-year-old actor, who'll redefine the superhero for a new century as the star of "Superman Returns," the fifth big-budget installment of the franchise. Superman may be an icon of masculinity, but he's also a brand - a brand in need of a serious makeover. This is a fact that has not been lost on Bryan Singer, director of "Superman Returns." "It's time to address and celebrate, in some way, people's connection to Superman, and how the character has evolved from 1938 to now," says Singer, who acknowledges that it's tough to empathize with a guy who can lift trains over his head and deflect bullets like they were cotton puffs. "But a guy who's having a hard time fitting back in - then everyone can relate," Singer adds. "He's a breath of fresh air." Singer understands that when you're a superhero, there isn't much in the way of physical obstacles - providing you can steer clear of arch villains bearing Kryptonite - so he created the biggest sort of obstacle any guy can face: an emotional one. In "Superman Returns," the squeaky-clean hero heads back to Earth after a mysterious six-year absence, only to find things have turned ugly. Worse yet, even his long-simmering romance with Lois Lane (played by "Blue Crush" star Kate Bosworth) has lost all its heat. Lois not only has a new guy - she has a child. "I wanted to have something serious to confront Superman when he came back," Singer says. "We've seen disasters, we've seen criminals. This is altogether different. This is personal." For 40 years, Lois never knew that Clark wore a cape under his suit and tie, although she had her suspicions. By "Superman II," in 1978, Lois knew Clark's identity - and fell in love with him. Afterward, in the television series "Lois and Clark" and "Smallville," the relationship between the two grew deeper (although in "Smallville," Clark actually has a crush on a woman named Lana, not Lois). More than the '40s comic books or the George Reeves TV show, these are the images that have defined Superman for the past three decades. This gradual shift from a square-jawed stud into a sensitive superhero who actually cuddles with Lois is something the writers took into account. "Our view is, if you're over 25 years old, then you've seen the [Christopher] Reeve films, and that's Superman to you," says Dan Harris, who co-wrote the script with Michael Dougherty. "If you're under 25, then you watch TV's 'Smallville,' and that's Superman to you." In "Superman Returns," Lois has moved on. She realizes there's something to be said for loving a guy who's secretly not Superman. After all, if you're dating Superman, you have to compete with the whole world for his attention - and it's a needy world! With an ordinary guy, at least there's a chance that he'll stop watching ESPN long enough for the two of you to nestle on the couch and get some quality time. So this time around, Superman's not only got to reverse the darkness that has descended on the world - he has to seek some kind of emotional breakthrough, too. Can he find closure with the love of his life? Warner Brothers is betting nearly $200 million that this is the battle we really want to see. Superman's interior life isn't the only thing that's changed. You can even see a transformation in his costume. First, there's his new, tiny "S" on his chest. His logo used to scream superhero. Now it just seems like a modest boast. His monogram isn't the only thing that's shrunk. What's up with those shorts? Those are the kind of things that Ricky Martin wears while working out on a European beach. Though his trademark curl remains, Clark's classic pomaded 'do has also been toned down in favor of a matte brush cut. Finally, what happened to the bold scarlet red that used to adorn his cape, insignia, shorts and boots? Now they're a sedate shade of rust. As a nation, we're always willing to embrace the familiar one more time, even if merely for old time's sake. We did it for Coca-Cola Classic. We do it every couple years for the Rolling Stones, no matter how much they look like cadavers instead of rockers. We can do it for Superman, too - but not the one your daddy worshipped. He needs to be a superhero, sure, but also has to be recognizable to today's guys, dudes with iffy romantic prospects, tough career choices and a worldview that recognizes everything could unravel in a moment. They crave a new Xbox more than X-ray vision. After all, in a world filled with jihad, culture clashes and environmental catastrophes, being an emotionally remote, straight-arrow Man of Steel would be just as much of a problem as it used to be a solution. So, Superman, welcome back to Earth, 21st century-style. And before you put on that cape, can we just talk about your childhood for a while?