Warner Bros. // 1978 // 151 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // November 28th, 2006
"I'm here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way."
Of all the comic book icons that have reigned over many an adolescent's imagination, Superman was the be all, end all for many. Batman may have had its own success at a respectable level, but Superman was the source of a lot of idolization for kids and, for much of the century, was arguably a more beloved superhero than the caped crusader. After some various camp attempts at other superhero films, Superman: The Movie made its debut to an eager audience in 1978, helping to realize the potential of scores of comic book hero adaptations since then. So now that Superman makes its high definition debut, what's the dilly-yo?
Credit Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for creating a hero that has launched a river of inspiration and serves as quite possibly the most original American fictional character of all time. To be a little more specific, the film was written by Mario Puzo (The Godfather), David and Leslie Newman (Bonnie and Clyde) and Robert Benton (Nobody's Fool) and directed by Richard Donner (The Omen). The film recounts the early origins of Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman (Christopher Reeve, The Remains of the Day), an infant on Krypton, who is sent to Earth by Jor-El (Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now) and his wife Lara (Susannah York, Yellowbeard) as a protective measure to save him from the consumption of the Krypton by its red sun.
Clark gets to Earth safely as an infant, and he is found by an older couple named Jonathan and Martha Kent, portrayed by Glenn Ford (The Blackboard Jungle) and Phyllis Thaxter (Springfield Rifle). They raise him as their own and as Clark grows older, he becomes too big for the confines of Smallville, and decides to leave for Metropolis, where he takes a job as a reporter for the Daily Planet, managed by Perry White (Jackie Cooper, The Champ), and working with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, Sisters). Using his Superman persona, he manages to fight crime quietly and without recognition.
Life in Metropolis has its own obstacles as well, as a criminal mastermind named Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, The French Connection) plans to sink a portion of California in the ocean as part of a twisted land grab, even though he has a couple of slightly dim henchman in Otis (Ned Beatty, Deliverance) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, Lenny).
Superman is probably the first film I saw growing up. I was a young ankle-biting troglodyte who mixed nose picking with unsuccessful shoe tying with a love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. My mom and dad took me to the Cineplex Odeon downtown to see Superman, and I enjoyed every damn bit of it. I remember having the comic book, I remember having the Superman Underoos, and yes, I had the faux "Daily Planet" newspaper with the comic book legend on the cover. It was my gateway drug into the addiction I currently share today.
Simply put, the performances and story are believable enough to make you think that it can happen today, regardless of what age you are. The tack that Donner took was clearly the right one (no cartoonish "Pow!" or "Thwap!" cards can be visible here; it's simply on its basic level). Reeve portrayed the alter ego of Kent so well and put enough faith into the hero working himself out in the story, that nowadays when a Christian Bale or a Brendan Routh is called upon to revive the Warner/DC lineage in more recent film incarnations, one of the questions that's asked is "How well can he play (fill in the blank)'s alter ego?"
In addition to all of this stuff, the movie also helped Hackman explore another facet of his abilities. As Lex Luthor, he's simply funny beyond any previous impressions, and his chemistry with Beatty is one of the more unheralded, yet special parts of the film. The supporting performances are all worthy compliments to the overall sum, notably two of the more famous actors that appear in it. Despite his mispronunciation of the word "Krypton," Brando delivers his lines with force and authority. No comic book hero's dad (natural, adoptive or otherwise) is more resonating in the small screen time Reeve has than with Ford. His death early on in the film is done with such emotion that it's hard not to share the pain with everyone on the screen, even if he isn't Clark's natural dad.
And considering how the film's production panned out, the story managed to do a couple of things. Not only does it effectively express Clark Kent's internal conflict and his urge to set a natural balance between his "human" abilities and his real ones, but it also sets up the motivations for the other characters in future films. We get to see early on the criminals that Jor-El banishes to the Phantom Zone, only to return in the sequel. Lois' skepticism starts early on in the first film quietly builds throughout, and becomes full-blown doubt in the sequel.
At the end of the day everyone in the cast and crew does an amazing job with the material. The fact that it's done as seriously as it is (still with a touch of humor) helps to maintain a level of timelessness that still holds up after all these years. It's still the benchmark for comic book adaptation films for good reason, and it's set barometers that filmmakers today (Bryan Singer, I'm looking at you on this one) adhere to faithfully in order to stay true to the source and get people in the seats.
The best way I can communicate how this movie sounds with its Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack is this; I was watching the destruction of Krypton at a fairly muted level. My wife was upstairs in the shower, and after she was done, she opened the door upstairs and said, "I can feel that up here." And marital bliss and relations aside, is there any other better compliment for a movie if you're a guy watching an action film? It's not like I'm deaf or anything, but if I can watch it with the volume low and it still transforms my shower into one with an involuntary "pulse" option, I've done my job as an American male, short of gnawing on a raw piece of meat or something. And for those who don't like a lot of low end in their explosions, the Williams score sounds fantastic during the opening credits, and when it comes to a film's score is a benchmark from a sonic point of view. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen soundtrack looks just as impressive, with vibrant colors (the blues and reds look great without any sort of bleeding), and Geoffrey Unsworth's (2001: A Space Odyssey) cinematography is pristine.
The extras are a little disappointing, but the information on them isn't too bad. Donner and Tom Mankiewicz (who handled a lot of the rewrites that appeared in the film, yet didn't receive a screenwriting credit) combine for a commentary that's not too bad to listen to, and it's apparent that neither had watched the film in awhile, and Donner still regrets a couple of the shots, but remembers a lot of the lines as well. The shots are explained, the working relationships with the actors are recalled, Donner's nostalgia of some of the crew members who have passed on is a little touching at times, too. Some of the production trivia is discussed (Kidder was almost forced to sing her swooning monologue when she's "flying" with Reeve), and some interesting discussions about the first and second films, since both were being filmed simultaneously. This is a holdover from the last disc (as the other extras are), and the commentary is pretty good. "Taking Flight: The Development of Superman" is the first of two 30 minute extras that cover the production of the film, though this focuses more of the previsualization part of the project. Hosted by Marc McClure (who plays Jimmy Olsen in all of the earlier Superman films), the piece features recent (or dated) interview footage with almost all of the major cast, and revisits the pre-production for the film (along with some conceptual footage by the first director, Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger), before being replaced by Donner). Aspiring Lois Lanes like Lesley Anne Warren, Anne Archer and Holly Palance are shown in screen test footage, and the search for a decent Superman is talked about too. Switching over to "Making Superman: Filming the Legend," things focus on the production during shooting, The difficulties in shooting both films are covered, and the wardrobe, production and location designs are as well. The obligatory post-release thoughts on the film wrap up a fairly informative hour on the making of the film. The other extras are pretty quick, as 10 minutes of screen test footage is included (with Reeve in the suit and sweating up a storm), along with a teaser, trailer and television spot.
If there's anything that leaves me raw when it comes to looking at Superman on HD DVD, it's that the extras are virtually barren. Now, expecting it to be as extras-laden as the new four-disc version would be foolish, but it's not even a straight port from the 2003 release, as some extras from that version are missing from this disc. So if you want to be a completist, you'll be forced to double-dip, whether you like it or not.
Even though the lack of extras is a disappointment, the audio and video presentations are stellar, and the film remains a more than capable measuring stick for any aspiring filmmaker thinking about making any reasonable adaptation from source material that is so well-loved and admired. It's not going to replace either edition you might have now, but is definitely complementary.
This court excuses itself to check out the Fortress of Solitude. And, oh yeah, not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2006 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 151 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary with Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
* Music-Only Audio Track
* "Taking Flight: The Development of Superman" Featurette
* "Making Superman: Filming the Legend" Featurette
* Screen Test Footage
* Trailers and TV Spot
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* Official Site
* DC Comics Site
* Superman Home Page
* Superman Super Site
* Superman Cinema
* The Christopher Reeve Foundation