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Greatest American Hero?

It took nearly two decades (and over $350 million) to bring ''Superman Returns'' to theaters. Now the Man of Steel faces his biggest challenge -- winning over Generation-X Men.

ROUTH AS THE NEW MAN OF STEEL
Image credit: Superman Returns: Sony Pictures Imageworks
ROUTH AS THE NEW MAN OF STEEL
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Greatest American Hero?

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His eyes are Bambi brown, not Superman blue. In the face, he seems more Superboy than Man of Steel, even though at 26, Brandon Routh is the same age Christopher Reeve was when the late actor assumed the mythic mantle almost 30 years ago. But these are quibbles. As he stands on the set of Superman Returns, filling out his unforgiving body sock with supreme self-confidence, Routh at least looks the part, especially after he puts his tinted contacts in. Now it's time to see if he can fly. We mean this literally: Routh is about to go up, up, and away into the rafters of Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia. We're inside one of the many cavernous warehouses occupied by the production, on the rooftop set of the Daily Planet, Metropolis' biggest newspaper and the employer of both Clark Kent (Superman's bumbling alter ego) and spelling-challenged ace reporter Lois Lane (Bosworth). Filming is under way on an emotionally charged moment: Superman's reunion with Lane, his former flame, after a five-year absence spent searching for his homeworld of Krypton. Alas, Lois has moved on. She's engaged to Richard White (James Marsden), nephew of Planet editor Perry White (Frank Langella). She even has a son. A son who's around 5 years old. Hmmm...

They conclude their awkward rendezvous. Say their goodbyes. And with that, a crew member pushes a button and a computerized rigging system tugs on the harness under Routh's suit, hoisting him into the air. His curly forelock flutters in the breeze. Routh smiles. He keeps ramrod-perfect form, all the way to the rafters. Then he descends, his cape spreading above him like an unfurled flag.

But it's not good enough for director Bryan Singer. Sitting behind a bank of monitors, the famously demanding helmer of the first two X-Men films doesn't like the way Routh's arms look during flight. He wants to see him do it again, this time with two arms in front, hands fisted.

And again, this time bringing one arm up.

And again. And again. And — TWANGGGGGGGG!

''What was that?'' asks Singer.

That was the sound of Routh hitting a rafter.

There's a hush. Everyone looks up in the sky to see if the franchise is falling.

Routh is brought down — he's fine. ''I guess everyone thought I was unconscious because I didn't say anything,'' Routh recalls later. ''But I didn't say anything because Kate was down below, and the camera was shooting her. I didn't want to disturb her.''

Aw, shucks. What a sweetie! Polite. Selfless. Noble. Exactly the kind of guy you expect Superman to be. Exactly the kind of guy Superman has always been since his debut in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938, the proverbial Big Bang of superhero fiction. And exactly the kind of guy everyone thinks of as...a big bore. Take it from Routh himself: ''People say that Superman is unrelatable. A Boy Scout. White bread. Just a dumb comic-book character.'' Here on the verge of good ol' Superman's splashy reentry into mainstream pop culture, the risky $363 million question for Superman Returns (out June 28) is this: Can anyone still believe in good ol' Superman anymore?

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