Moviegoers attracted to "Superman" may confidently anticipate an abundance of thrills, marvels and infectious good humor. Despite a lull here and a lapse there, this superproduction turns out to be prodigiously inventive and enjoyable, doubly blessed by sophisticated illusionists behind the cameras and a b rilliant new stellar personality in from of the cameras-Christopher Reeve, a young actor at once handsome and astute enough to rationalize the preposterous fancy of a comic-book superhero in the flesh.

A fantastic mixture of heroic myth and tongue-in-cheek comedy, the movie contrives to update the character of Superman while retelling the legent of his arrival on Earth and eventual emergence as the champion of Truth, Justice and The American Way.

The surprisingly expansive screenplay for the picture, which opens today at the Beltway Plaza, Jenifer, Landover Mall, Oxon Hill and Pike, is organized into three more or less self-contained chapters, each of which builds to a spectacular climax. The opening chapter is set on the planet of Krypton, where the infant hero-to-be is placed in a starship and propelled to safety by his father, an eminent scientist who correctly foresees the death of their civilization.

Landing in the heartland of America, the child is adopted by a kindly farm couple named Kent. After the death of his foster father, the boy, called Clark Kent, is overcome by a sense of mission that leads him to the North Pole, where he reestablishes spiritual communion with his natural father and spends several more years in advance preparation from heroism.

In the final chapter Clark has reached maturity. Soon after being hired as a reporter on The Daily Planet in the metropolis of Metropolis, he makes his debut in the costume of Superman, saving lives and apprehending criminals with electrifying virtuosity. His fame provokes a confrontation with a criminal mastermind named Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who schemes to capture Superman and make himself the real-estate king of California by destroying the destroying the present coastline.

Lois Aloft

Among other delightful interludes, consider the hero's first date with Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder. The scene is Lois' penthouse apartment, presumably a rent-controlled treasure.

After scanning the landing zone from a breathtaking panoramic height, a mysterious but irresistibly personable and gallant young titan alights on the terrace. Only the night before he literally flew to Lois' rescue as she fell from a damaged helicopter teetering on the roof of the Daily Planet building. After catching Lois he went on to catch the chewed-up chopper when it fell, capture a gang of robbers trying to escape by speedboat, pinch-hig for a jet engine that flamed out and dropped off an airliner and-the crowning touch of heroism-pluck a little girl's cat out of the treetops.

Granted an exclusive interview with this paragon, Lois is too infatuated to think straight. She keeps asking dumb, humiliating things, like "How big are you?" and "Do you like pink?," referring to the color of her lingerie, which somehow becomes a major topic of conversation.

Finally, the subject himself takes her off the hook by inviting her up to his place-the heavens. He treats her to an aerial tour of Metropolis (i.e., New York City), climaxed by free-falling above the clouds. An inexpensive, short but rapturous date. People ask if the flying sequences in the movie look "real." The answer is no, they look better than real; they look like fantasies realized with an exuberant sense of humor and lyric imagination. The flight over Metropolis, for example, is an elegant erotic reverie, sweetly scored by John Williams.

Lois is still hovering around Cloud Nine after her amazing escort returns her to the apartment. Seconds after he departs, she exclaims, "What a super man!" It's so satisfying that one would prefer to believe that this was indeed the way Superman got his name.

Lois' christening line illustrates the playful mood that helps make "Superman" an exceptional popular entertainment, a worthy successor and challenger to the science-fiction blockbusters of last year, "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

When Reeve as Clark Kent first looks for a place where he can change into Superman, his gaze falls on the latest style of public telephone booth. Instantly recognizing that this once secluded structure will no longer do, he dashes off to find adequate privacy in one spin of a revolving door. Parents may need to explain to their kids why that glance at the phone booth tickles them, but the somewhat esoteric joke does not violate thee integrity of the scene.

Down-To-Earth Charm

Mario Puzo's original screenplay reportedly ran to epic length before being trimmed and rewritten by Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman and Tom Mankiewicz. One presumes that Puzo originated the sprawling but entertaining epic structure, which begins with detailed sequences that chroncle the infancy and youth of Superman.

A great deal of expostion unfolds before Reeve makes his triumphant entrance. In a manner of speaking his episodes are the most down-to-earth, even though they culminate in such fantastic feats as deflecting the path of a ballistic missile, shoring up the San Andreas Fault and reversing the Earth's rotation. The film actually begins higher , reaching for audacious but also precarios notes of mythic drama and lyric grandeur. The early episodes originate in cataclysmic events on a distant planet and emphasize traumatic losses suffered by the child destined to grow into Superman.

Reeve's charm and assurance save the show from the potentially unfortunate consequences of epic pretensions. I can't think of another movie newcomer who ever shouldered a heavier burden of illusion, publicity and commercial expectations. Reeve is such a skillful and discreetly ingratiating actor that he transforms the burden into a cheerful light workout, finessing his incredible identities as deftly as Superman might divert a runaway locomotive.

Clark is wittily differentiated from Superman. Reeve varies his appearance, voice and masquerade credible. He has fun playing the roles straight, allowing the humor to emerge from the fundamental improbability of his character. His winning grin may establish a conspiratorial link with the audience, but it never violates the integrity of his character.

Ultimately, Reeve seems to resolve all the traits and conflicts that originate in Superman's impressionable youth, from the baby transported across countless solar systeems from an advanced but doomed civilization to the small-town teen-ager struggling to reconcile his otherworldly prowess with a homely American upbringing.

This could be the start of an extraordinary career. It's not often that such an attractive appearance, good humor and resourceful technique fuse in the presence of a single young actor.

"Superman" gets on course during a scintillating credit sequence, paced to the opening movement of Williams' rousing new orchestral score. The names flash out of flying bars of light that bank in from the sides of the frame, straighten their flightpath and then materialize into block letters with a sizzling, whooshing sound before disappearing into the vanishing point of outer space. Eventually, these meteoric titles and Williams' propulsive fanfares carry us to Krypton, visualized by projection designer John Barry as an eerie, crystalline ice palace of a planet.

From Krypton to the Kents

The filmmakers journey to Krypton basically to depict its destruction, which occurs just as the eminent jurist-physicist Jor-El (Marion Brando costomed in a white wig and luminescent white robe and sounding more British than anyone else in the cast) launches a starship carrying his infant son Kal-El to safety on the remote, primitive, yet human planet of Earth. Curiously, the first dramatic sequence on Krypton seems to anticipate "Superman II," as Brando presides at the exile of a vicious-looking trio led by Terence Stamp, who sounds ferocious and looks unrecognizable. Evidently, this gang is meant to return and make things hot for Superman in the sequel.

(Brando has filed a $50-million suit in Los Angeles against the film's producers and distributors in a dispute over receipts from "Superman," the Associated Press reported yesterday. The suit, filed Wednesday, attempts to enjoin the defendants from showing the film or using "the name, acts, poses, appearances, performances, image, likeness, voice and/or other personal attributes" of Brando.)

The comical villains played by Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine never generate a credible illusion of menace, although Hackman's schemes certainly keep Reeve hopping during the cliffhanging climax.

Director Richard Donner and editor Stuart Baird demonstrated a flair for images of impending doom in "The Omen." Reunited on "Superman," they immediately refine their virtuousity, orchestrating the destruction of Krypton with terrifying splendor. The collaboration of the late, great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth seems to have intensified their distinctive falling, hurting and shattering sensations. There's one awesome image of bodies slowly tumbling into eternity, a Donner-Baird specialty with a little something extra.

Parents should probably kee Donner's affinity for panicky, frightening montage in mind. Though essentially a terrific juvenile entertainment, "Superman" has its creepy, nightmarish moments, like the sight of a helicopter careening out of control, the Golden Gate Bridge bucking and Boulder Dam collapsing. Perhaps the most agonizing passage depicts Lois being buried alive as her car slips into a fissure in the earth.

The portentous opening makes one a little apprehensive about the film's staying power. Fortunately, Donner navigates from Krypton to Smalltown to Metropolis without a significant loss of pace, energy or invention.

The story begins to develop comic aspects when the starship carrying Kal-El crashlands in the Midwest and the child, now a brawny toddler, is discovered and adopted by the Kents, endearingly embodied by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter. It may seem odd to oberve Ford making a stronger impression in this film than Brando, but it's a function of their roles. Jor-El the superior being is also a pompous preceptor, and Brando does nothing to relieve the pomposity. Jor-El's lengthy expressions of paternal solicitude sound perfectly sincere, but the unpretentious Jonathan Kent seems just as perceptive and far more incisive.

Ford has a stunning death scene in which he fully comprehends the sign of a coronary seizure an instant before it kills him. This jolting loss of a modest, decent man leaves lasting emotional reverberations. The writers have astutely devised a final crisis situation in which Superman must follow the precepts of either Jor-El or Jonathan Kent and feels heroically impelled to heed the words of his foster father.

Sei-Fi and Nonchalance

The comic elements dominate once Reeve enters flying and the setting shifts to Metropolis. Although the most abvious source of comedy is the overreaching goofiness of the antagonists led by Hackman, the most successful sources are the feats that Reeve pretends to perform ith such adorable nonchalance and the complicated romantic relationship he shares with Kidder's Lois, who is indifferent to awkward, apprehensive Clark and dazzled by difident, noble Superman.

The situation promises swell comic confusion for both sexes if a "Superman" series is competently sustained, but Reeve clearly enjoys the upper hand. I doubt if Kidder will ever come close to matching his appeal. She's a good actress and a phenomenal screamer, but she looks a little exhausted. The freshness and magnetism in their scenes emanate exclusively from Reeve. He's a generous performer, but in this role, he draws everyone into the orbit of his radiance-admiring men, charmed women and hero-worshiping kids.

"Superman" confirms the new pre-eminence of science-fiction and fantasy. Fueled by the success of "Star Wars," "Close Encounters" and "Superman" and the talent pools they create and sustain to specialize in cinematic wizardry, S.F. is likely to become the supergenre of the next generation. In addition to continued improvement in the technology of special effects so important to this field, it appears that several depleted entertainment genres may be rejuvenated by taking on science-fiction adaptions.

Elements of the Western, swashbuckler and combat melodrama were clearly evident in "Star Wars." "Superman" also tries to encompass aspects of the Biblical epic, romantic comedy and caper comedy. It's conceivable that many of the heroic action and adventure genres now considered virtually moribund in their traditional forms will find a new lease on life when transposed to futuristic settings. It's an expanding filmmaking universe in which everything may be imaginable. Between its extravagant fancies and extravagant success "superman" can only help to enhance the prestige of large-scale fantasy filmmaking. CAPTION: Picture 1, 2, 3, Christopher Reeve as Superman and Clark Kent, and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane