For those who’ve been holding on the best they can, waiting for Superman, director Bryan Singer has made a movie with all the weight and whimsy of the Flaming Lips’ song about the superhero.

With Superman Returns, Singer (for whom the first two X-Men films clearly were a warm-up) reclaims the Man of Steel’s good name from bad movies past almost as well as Batman Begins. The idea of a four-squared hero in a roundly cynical world is echoed here, albeit with more lip service than true talk — not quite as resonant, but fitting of Superman’s more-popcorn presence.

The only real complaint is that it takes a bit longer here to shake off the franchise’s dust. (Those who’ve seen Superman IV: The Quest for Peace know of the substantially thicker build-up, and Singer and screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty wisely pretend Superman III and IV never happened.)

But oh, what it achieves once it does. Whether dabbing furiously or employing smooth strokes, Singer and his special effects crew have painters’ eyes. The budget — estimated at a whopping $260 million — allows you to believe Superman can do a whole lot more than fly.

Meanwhile, his now-incredibly complicated love affair with Lois Lane remains grounded, as does any snide-joke creep factor. A scene involving destruction of to-scale miniatures gently ribs the limited effects of Richard Donner’s 1978 film, and Superman’s apple-pie appearance during a baseball game shows that this film honors the tradition while chuckling at it, not chucking it out.

There certainly are plot and visual echoes of the first two films here, picking up as it does after the end of Superman II. After being foiled so handily, it’s about time for Lex Luthor to be an angrier land-baron wannabe, and whom better to ham it up than Kevin Spacey. He imbues Luthor with a fresh, palpable sense of mental menace without losing sight of the villain’s raconteur style.

Freshly sprung from prison (in a bent, early scene), Luthor revisits the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s arctic re-creation on Earth of his lost home planet Krypton. Luthor steals several all-powerful crystals sent with Superman on his initial journey to Earth and has every reason to believe his world-dominating plan will go uncontested. After all, Superman is nowhere to be found.

After astronomers discovered possible remnants of Krypton, Superman returned to outer space on a several-year mission to see if his native home still exists. His torment is his inability to perfectly fit into either existence he’s known whether in space or on earth.

Who knows if newcomer Brandon Routh is truly talented, but he sure makes Superman his own. Resembling Jason Schwartzman with a stylist and trainer, Routh’s look is more modern-day than matinee-idol and his fierce internalization of Superman’s between-two-worlds angst is scorching.

Once he returns to Metropolis, and his by-day identity as Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, Superman learns his great love Lois (Kate Bosworth) has moved on. Really moved on, with editor Perry White’s (Frank Langella) nice-guy nephew Richard (James Marsden) on her arm and her wheezing, walking-pharmacy boy Richard fathered.

When Lois becomes a tossed-about pinball on a plane flight gone bad (one of several amazing action sequences), Superman’s day-saving sends her world into a shift, but not into melodrama.

The higher side of Superman’s heralded return isn’t long, though, given how Luthor’s plot grows into more than just a couple of east-coast blackouts and thefts. Speaking strictly in terms of Superman-movie stories, if ever there was a plot maximized for backbreaking punishment, this is it.

Superman Returns is an excellent example of crackerjack storytelling. It locks into place with snappy-patter humor (from Spacey, Langella and Parker Posey’s Kitty Kowalski, doing Valerie Perrine a few better in the role of Luthor’s latest floozy) and serious treatment of both worlds Superman has come back to (the smaller with Lois and the larger with a world in need of help). They’re beautifully entwined, as Superman measure what he sees as abandonment from the woman he loves against both her and Richard’s capacity for goodness — his M.O. for helping Earth.

Love triangles, maternal and paternal instincts and overcoming vulnerability are given graphic-novel seriousness. But the film never detours into something so solemn so as not to be a good time; a movie with such a bizarre affinity for Pomeranians as a macabre punchline can’t be too mopey.

With a perfunctory flashback to Superman’s Smallville childhood and one bullet-beating action scene that feels like an insert, Superman Returns is just a shade shy of great. But it easily takes its place as one of the best superhero movies ever made.