I wouldn’t count this a virtue in most movies, but in the first few scenes of Superman Returns–the most elegant and surprisingly resonant of comic-book extravaganzas–I felt a pronounced sense of chronological disorientation, and I couldn’t tell how much of it–if any–was intentional.

Bryan Singer’s movie opens with the dastardly Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) bilking a dying heiress out of her fortune, and here it didn’t occur to me to wonder in what year the scene was taking place. It felt contemporary, perhaps, though at this point I wasn’t paying attention to details.

When we first see Superman (Brandon Routh), though, the time frame becomes a real question. That’s because the Midwest farm house where his widowed adoptive mother lives–and where Superman crash-lands after a traumatic visit to Krypton, the destroyed planet of his real parents–looks definitely, if somewhat vaguely, old-fashioned. This was when I started wondering if the story was taking place in the ’60s or ’70s.

Soon after, we jump to Metropolis–a very thinly fictionalized New York–and, shown an establishing shot of the city, I try to locate certain buildings–especially two identical skyscrapers–that might help identity the year. No such luck. Cut to the newsroom of the Daily Planet, and for a moment the confusion is even more pronounced.

The place has an Art Deco look à la Rockefeller Center of the ’30s. The jumble of desks and lack of fluorescent lights suggest the ’50s. When Clark Kent (Routh too, of course) appears, he’s got floppy hair and a wide-lapelled jacket that seem distinctly ’70s. But just when I’m about to peg the film as a very oddly conceived period piece, I notice the room’s computers and ubiquitous flat-screen TV monitors.

So it’s a contemporary tale, after all. Yet the design elements that suggest otherwise, I decide later, are hardly unintentional, nor are they insignificant. Far from it.

In effect, the expressive visual plan created by Singer and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas gives us what might be called an admirably capacious pop archeology of Superman, not the character but the long-evolving cultural icon. Depending on where you look, you can catch hints of the original cartoon hero, who flew into existence in 1938; the Fleischer Studios animated Superman shorts of the 1940s; the George Reeves-starring TV series of the 1950s; and, most noticeably, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), which introduced Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel and spawned three sequels (the first two directed by Richard Lester) before the franchise fizzled in the late ’80s.

Singer supposedly saw Donner’s film as a youngster and was struck by the way it blended the juvenile innocence of earlier Supermans with the adult knowingness of the Me Decade. “It mixed eras effortlessly,” he’s been quoted as saying.

His film does the same, just as effortlessly but even more elaborately and evocatively. And this isn’t an instance of clever postmodern eclecticism or gushing cinephilic homage. Rather, Singer’s sly referentiality acknowledges–in a way that’s both astute and modest–that his Superman is being constructed atop layers and layers of previous imaginings. More importantly, it recognizes that all those earlier understandings of Superman are still in play in the culture, and that his interpretation will join rather than erase or supersede them.

Which is also to say that, when we contemplate his film, Singer invites us to see that we’re beholding not just an implicit succession of Supermans, or even the various eras they emerged from, but, more crucially, several different Americas.

For Superman has this over Batman, Spider-Man and all the other, often inane cartoon heroes that have been writ large over our screens for the past three decades: He represents America. We don’t need the Stars and Stripes waving in the background to tell us that; the interstellar immigrant’s red, white and blue image is that banner in humanoid form, just as his rectitude, altruism and solitary strength have always comprised a singularly vivid hieroglyph of the national virtue.

And it is precisely this identification that gives meaning to the temporal dislocation I felt at the beginning of the film, a kind of uncertainty bordering on anxiety that informs not only the movie’s decors but its story too. The most important thing to understand about the return of Superman (character and symbol) in Singer’s vision is that it occurs after a crucial hiatus, a gap of five years.

For five years, the Man of Steel has been away from earth. For five years, Clark Kent hasn’t been seen in Metropolis and Lex Luthor has been in prison (he’s released when Superman fails to make a parole hearing). During that five years, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has acquired a partner (James Marsden) and a young son and won a Pultizer for writing an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”

And what happened five years ago in the real world? Well, of course. When the camera shows us the lower parts of Metropolis/Manhattan, they are notably missing the twin towers that stood there when Chris Reeves’ Superman sailed aloft. A Daily Planet front page even locates Singer’s story in September 2006, making it five years to the month since 9/11.

Was America attacked because Superman was away–that is, because our national virtue had abandoned us? I won’t begin to suggest that Superman Returns offers anything like a careful, explicit allegory–thankfully not, since films which do that tend to sink themselves with a kind of over-obvious literalism. Yet Singer’s movie does deliberately add to the Superman Americas of previous era an evocation of the national psyche transformed in a myriad of ways, which might all be grouped under the heading “What a difference five years makes.”

To be sure, the film bristles with signifiers that, subtly or not, touch on the national experience since 2001. Luthor’s latest diabolical plan is a “land grab” that projects America eastward in the worst way imaginable. (It also involves geophysical consequences that eerily parallel Al Gore’s doomy prognostications in An Inconvenient Truth.) The scheme’s visible manifestations are vaulting, angular rock formations that recall the craggy remains of the World Trade Center. And so on. At one point, Luthor, drunk with triumphalism, even exults, “Bring it on!”

Yet the beauty of Singer’s scheme is that all such social, political and psychological suggestions are at once casually deployed and connected to something larger. More than any previous Superman, this one is posed as a symbol of America that’s not only civic but Christian.

Certainly, there’s always been that element to this solitary, superior but compassionate “man who fell to earth,” whose story is so bound up with ordeals of self-sacrifice. Yet here there’s specific discussion of Superman as savior. His father, Jor-El, says that human beings want to be good, “They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all–their capacity for good–I have sent them you … my only son.”

Those who parse such symbolic patterns–which here include crucifixion postures and choirs-of-angels harmonies on the soundtrack–might even wonder if this is a Catholic Superman, or at least one opposed to the excesses of Protestantism. Is Lex Luthor, poetically speaking, “the law of Luther,” of materialistic individualism turned grotesque and rapacious?

Such details aside, the way Superman Returns assembles its larger meanings strikes me as imaginatively cogent and undeniably acute. As perhaps most of the world does, it sees America of the last five years as changed not by external forces but by an internal battle, the war between the good, spiritually pure and generous America represented by Superman (who has, rather mysteriously, been too absent of late) and his corrupt, greedy doppelganger Luthor, the America of world conquest and self-justifying acquisitiveness.

This degree of poetic richness and precision can be found in only the rarest of big Hollywood movies, even ones that begin with the mythic premises of superhero tales, yet Superman Returns has the additional distinction of being one of the most gorgeously and intelligently executed American films of recent years in any genre.

From The Usual Suspects through the first two X-Men movies, Singer has grown from a fastidious craftsman of large, action-oriented canvases into pop neoclassicist whose sense of the medium now seems well-nigh magisterial. Here, every scene is shaped with a flawless feel for both formal expressiveness and dramatic dynamics. Though there’s plenty of humor in the film, as well as romance and the kinds of gigantic action set-pieces you would expect, Singer never condescends to the material. In particular, the fine performances he gets from newcomer Routh and Spacey, who might easily (and enjoyably) have tilted toward caricature, achieve the perfect balance of seriousness and grace.

In every respect, this is the film of a gifted artist just arriving at what promises to be an amazing maturity. As a non-fan of comic-book movies, I was surprised by my enthrallment with Superman Returns, which, the more I think of it, strikes me as quite possibly the best such movie I’ve ever seen–a feat that amazingly returns one of America’s great mythic icons to his role as a symbol not just of strength, but of hope, goodness and spiritual purpose.

Superman Returns opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle.