There have been three incarnations of the Superman story in the last decade, and each one of them has found it necessary to downplay one of the character's two halves and stress the other. The mid-90s television show Lois and Clark made it very clear that Clark was the person and Superman the mask he hid behind. Smallville does away with Superman entirely. In Superman Returns, Bryan Singer takes the opposite approach, making Superman--Kal-El--the real person and Clark the persona. In doing so, Singer is keeping faith with both the original comics and Richard Donner's late 70s films, Superman and Superman II, to which Superman Returns is a sequel, but this choice also serves his own interpretation of the character--a mythical savior, a Christ figure, floating above ordinary humans and unable to take part in our quotidian lives.
So thoroughly is the Clark persona devalued in Superman Returns that one finds oneself, while watching the film, wondering why it was even reintroduced. My best guess is that Singer was too married to the trappings of the Superman story, one of the key ingredients of which is the fact that the man of steel masquerades as a bumbling goody-two-shoes. But the film does nothing with Clark except replicate a few scenes from the Donner films (even I found it difficult not to smile when Clark characterized an evening with Lois and her fiancé Richard as 'swell'), and doesn't work very hard to convince us that Superman is interested in maintaining the human aspect of his life. We never see him working--as soon as Perry White sends Clark on an assignment, he casts off his glasses and heads off to battle evil--and there's no indication that he attaches any importance to the relationships he forms with humans in his guise as Clark. Besides his connection to his mother (who is left waiting outside the hospital as her son lies near death, while Superman's former lover and unacknowledged son are ushered in to see him), it's difficult to imagine why Singer's Superman would even want to resume his life as Clark Kent.
The flipside of Singer's Superman-as-savior approach--the one embraced by shows like Lois and Clark and Smallville as their central concept--is an empowerment fantasy. It tells us that as soon as a mild-mannered, geeky, (Jewish) reporter takes off his glasses, he becomes a physical hero. It promises us that the reason the cool, gorgeous girl won't give this nice guy a chance is that she can't see how wonderful he is on the underneath--if only she saw him without his glasses, she'd realize what she was missing. There's a scene roughly along these lines in Superman Returns, but it only serves to illustrate just how thoroughly Singer misuses Clark. In this incarnation of the story, Superman's 'secret identity' is almost insignificant. It's made very clear to us that to reveal himself to Lois would achieve nothing--their problems would be the same, and she would have no greater insight into his personality than she did before.
The revelation of Jason's paternity offers another interesting twist on the Superman story. At the film's close, Superman knows that Jason is his son--this is, presumably, what Lois whispered in his ear as he lay in a coma. If Superman Returns does indeed follow Superman II, then the fact that Lois knows that Jason is Superman's son but not that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same implies that at some point between the two films, Superman and Lois had another affair in which he never bothered to reveal to her that she knew him by another name--presumably because the revelation wasn't important. (Another explanation is that Jason was conceived during Superman II, and that Lois only realizes he is Superman's son when he demonstrates his powers in Superman Returns. I would have expected her, in this case, to have a few pointed questions, and a few less gooey looks, for the man who apparently had sex with her without her knowledge.)
Between painting Superman as a super-human Christ-figure, and reducing Clark to a mass of mannerisms, Singer accomplishes what no other superhero, comic-book or action film before has managed to do--make the audience root for the impediment guy, that nice, safe, ordinary bloke who is invariably left (usually at the altar) by the hero's love interest. Plenty of reviewers have pointed out that, by making Richard a genuinely decent and loving man, Singer has placed Superman in a bind to which he is unaccustomed--he has to hurt this blameless man in order to be with the woman he loves. To my mind, however, Singer's film doesn't present that sort of dilemma--it's obvious to me that Lois should stay with Richard, that he will make her happier, and have more to offer her, than the man of steel ever could. "He was Superman. We were all in love with him," she tells Richard, and seeing Brandon Routh's interpretation of the hero, this is an easy claim to believe. We can imagine loving Superman from afar, as a concept or an idea, but Singer strains our credulity when he asks to believe that Lois could have taken him as a lover--one might as well love a marble statue. The notion of a life with him is unthinkable.
And the fact is that Richard is by far the more appealing and interesting character. His ordinariness is winning in the face of Superman's chilly inhumanity. Given that there's no passion evident between Lois and Superman--only a low-key longing that borrows most of its intensity from the audience and their pre-loaded knowledge of how the Superman story is supposed to unfold--there's really no convincing reason for her to turn away from a man with whom we see her have actual conversations and shared jokes. To my mind, Richard is even the more compelling hero, and all the more admirable for not having any superpowers. No amount of sweeping orchestral music will convince me that the tragic climax of the film is the scene in which Lex Luthor and his goons oh-so-photogenically beat Superman to a bloody pulp. Anyone with a heart will walk away from the film thinking of Richard, bravely but vainly trying to keep Lois and Jason's heads above water, struggling in spite of the fact that there is no hope for their survival.
There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved in every stage of Superman Returns' production. Isn't it strange that none of them thought to point out to Bryan Singer that, as his film closes, we are actively rooting for his hero to keep the hell away from us flawed mortals, and go back to the sky where he belongs?