Faster than a one-legged man on a skateboard! More powerful than a gerbil! Able to leap tall dust bunnies in several bounds! It's Judge Harold Gervais! Just kidding...his review of Superman is at least as powerful as an entire legion of beefy, testosterone-fueled gerbils. Read his analysis of this king of all superhero flicks.
Our reviews of Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (Blu-ray) (published June 13th, 2011), Superman: The Movie (HD DVD) (published November 28th, 2006), and Superman: The Movie: Four-Disc Special Edition (published February 8th, 2007) are also available.
Fighting for truth, justice and the American way
The long wait is over and Warner Home Video finally delivers this special edition of Superman. Boasting a beautiful transfer, a rousing 5.1 remix and very good supplements, Warner delivers the goods on almost all counts.
Facts of the Case
Kal-El, son of Jor-El (Marlon Brando—On the Waterfront), has been sent to Earth as an emissary from the dead world called Krypton. Crash landing in the wheat fields outside of Smallville, Kansas, the young space baby is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter). Deciding to raise the child as their own, the Kents instill in young Clark the values that will govern the great powers he possesses because of this planet's yellow sun. Following the death of Pa Kent, Clark makes his way north where he will finally discover his alien heritage via crystals sent with him on his trip to Earth.
Several years of study prepare the last son of Krypton to make his way to the center of American culture, Metropolis. Working as a reporter for the great newspaper, The Daily Planet, Clark (Christopher Reeve—Somewhere In Time) meets ace reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder—Sisters) and quickly falls in love. Acting as her guardian angel, his great powers are revealed to the world and he is quickly named Superman by the press. The subject of great notoriety, Superman comes to the attention of criminal mastermind, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman—The French Connection), who decides that the only person who can possibly foul up his plans for incredible wealth is Earth's new protector. Launching his plan into motion, Luthor places Superman, Lois Lane and millions of lives in great peril that will give Superman the race of his life. A race of pure speed and priority, yet also one that will question the upbringing of two fathers causing our young hero to make a choice that involves the life or death of his one true love.
Classic myth is full of characters with fantastic powers, movers of mountains with names such as Thor, Atlas and Mercury. As time progressed, those characters became more grounded and bore names like Sherlock Holmes, Captain Nemo and Dr. Van Helsing. Coming into our modern age, the names and the style of our heroes once more began to mutate. Wearing colorful costumes and hiding secret identities, these fixtures in pop culture now bear the names of Captain America, Batman, Spider-Man, The Flash and The Green Lantern. These bearers of pure ideals and strengths encapsulate the notion that great power needs to carry with it great responsibility. Yet, as we enter this new age, no hero better represents what the past American century stood for than the granddaddy of all super heroes, Superman.
As a country whose greatness was built on the backs of immigrants, this last son of a doomed planet is an ideal toward which this country has strived. A fixture of popular culture for almost 70 years, Clark Kent/Superman is the ultimate example of a person making good on the promise of the American dream. Sent to Earth by his father in a gesture that can best be described as Christlike, in power level Superman is every inch a god. Impervious to harm, able to fly at great speed and with the strength of many men, here is a man who can literally turn back the hands of time. Yet it is through his life as a man in the heartland of America that he learns of the limits that need to be placed on his power. Because of these qualities, is it difficult to see how an American public desperate to understand their place in the world embraced the character of Superman? Like the country itself, Superman wanted to prove itself as a force for good and a power for evildoers everywhere to reckon with. Tempered by the core values of America, Superman wants to be an agent of change, a symbol of truth, justice and the American way in a world poised on the brink of war. Pretty weighty stuff, but such is the power behind myth. In myth we find the dreams of man, the hope and the need for heroes to make the world a safer place, the pride in a better ideal and a desire to serve a higher goal. Heroes have come and gone, with few making deep inroads into the American consciousness, yet Superman remains. The ideal and the thought behind Superman is strong today because no matter how unfashionable it may be, Americans as a people still believe in what the character represents and no amount of cynicism can alter that.
Is it any wonder that a character as ingrained in the American psyche as Superman would have numerous permutations over the years? From the comics, both four-color and the daily strips, to radio and of course film and television, Superman has been with us in some form or another for what seems like forever. So it was in the second half of the '70s when the producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, along with Pierre Spengler, decided it was time for a new Superman to fly into the public view. They wanted to make this version of Superman a big-budget movie with an epic feel. The main problem was Hollywood only saw Superman in terms of the "Batman" television show of the late '60s. So in order to secure financing, the Salkinds had to line up someone who would give the project instant credibility. That someone turned out to be writer Mario Puzo. The author of "The Godfather" and other works turned in an outline that was more than enough to lure in Warner Brothers who owned the Superman property through their company DC Comics. Once Puzo was onboard, Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were added to the mix and the project started to generate some real buzz.
Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton was brought on to helm the project, which was now envisioned as two films shot simultaneously. The movie was ramped up, but a major snafu reared its head when the film moved the filming to London where the producers could save a lot of much-needed funding. As luck would have it, Hamilton was a tax exile in his native land and the relocation of the movie made it impossible for him to continue. Quick cut across the pond, and the champ at the box office is a little horror film called The Omen. Its director, Richard Donner, has suddenly become a hot property. One phone call and a cool million dollars later, Superman parts 1 and 2 have a new director. Jumping into the project with both feet, Donner inherits a screenplay that is over 400 pages in length and with a tone that the director is uncomfortable with. Bringing in his close friend and writer Tom Mankiewicz, the two begin what is basically a page one rewrite. The primary creative force behind the filmed version of Superman, Mankiewicz was denied writing credit by the arcane rules of the Writers Guild and has to settle with the title Creative Consultant, a credit that Donner placed directly behind the Guild sanctioned one, causing no small degree of bad blood that sounds like it still exists to this day. I mention this for a couple of reasons, first of all to give credit where credit is due, and to show that Donner brought the right sense of loyalty and independence to this big screen version of Superman. If Mankiewicz created the film's soul, Donner brought the backbone—the energy and the work ethic that the movie needed to be successful. Making up the techniques to make us believe a man could fly as they went along, Donner and company created a movie that is not only full of thrills but also one that has at its center a great love story. It is this love story that binds all the elements together and the one that keeps the film somewhat grounded in reality.
From a production aspect, Superman is a class act across the board. Credit should certainly be given to the cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey), whose work gives the film a beautiful glow and warmth. When looking at Superman, it is easy to see that three styles are present. In the opening sequence on Krypton, everything is cool and sterile. Moving to the middle chapter in the American heartland, it is all Norman Rockwell, and then in its third part in the big city, bright comic book colors are the palette of choice. Unsworth's camera and lights cover everything in style and his contribution cannot be overlooked. Physically the great John Barry (Star Wars) designed the production, and the scale of the movie really is a sight to behold. Lastly, what would Superman be without the music of John Williams? Of his "big" scores like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman has long remained one of my favorites. It is rich and complex music that perfectly sums up what is onscreen and gives the movie a musical identity. For me, one of the biggest selling points of this DVD is the 5.0 isolated music track of Williams' score.
Having not seen Superman in a number of years, the first thing I was struck by was just how remarkable Christopher Reeve's two performances are. The classic superhero tales are often defined by their duality, and it is what has often caused many adaptations to fall flat. In order to accept the world of the superhero, both identities must be believable and exist on their own terms. Using simple body language, Reeve made Superman and Clark Kent two very different people, and the movie succeeds because of his work. There is a sense of true purity to his performance, yet his work is far from one-dimensional. His Superman is a man who believes he has a purpose and is here to do good. It is this core belief that also gives his Superman a slight swagger and a tinge of arrogance, but also makes for a performance of surprising depth. Simply put, Reeve took a role that is as much a part of the fabric of America as baseball or apple pie and made the role his own.
As the Harriet to his Ozzie is Margot Kidder as star reporter Lois Lane. An unconventional beauty, Kidder gives the film much-needed zing and spunk. From the beginning, it is obvious there was great chemistry between Reeve and Kidder that the film highlights to great advantage. In equal measure Kidder is hard-nosed journalist and smitten schoolgirl. Again, the film locks in on one of its characters duality, making for a complex relationship that helps define the tone of the movie. It's a charming, career making performance by Kidder.
People may have had problems with the size of Marlon Brando's salary ($3 million), the time he spent work on the picture (just a couple of weeks), and the fact that he gets top billing in the credits. Still, it is difficult to imagine Superman without his presence. If you look at Superman and see Kal-El/Clark/Superman as Christ, then Brando is the hand of God sending his son to Earth, and as such Brando turns in work that takes itself quite seriously. He lends an undeniable air of respectability that hangs over the entire production. Much of what Brando filmed was for Superman II, and it was all cut when Richard Donner was fired from its production even though 70% of the film was already in the can. It is a pity we can't see that footage here, and it is one of this special edition's glaring omissions.
As Superman's archrival, Gene Hackman gives what is probably his first onscreen comedic role. He turns in a droll, witty performance that always has a hint of danger beneath the surface. While I may not enjoy the joking style of film villain on display here, on its own it works and Hackman is a joy to watch.
Also in support are Ned Beatty (Deliverance) as Luthor's dimwitted lackey, Otis and Valerie Perrine (Lenny) as Luthor's sexpot girlfriend who has a secret heart of gold plate. Jackie Cooper is all bluster as Editor Perry White and Glenn Ford is the perfect film father, Jonathan Kent. Like most epic style films, it's the main roles that comprise most of the screen time, but cameos have a strong place as well. To everyone's credit, no performances seem "phoned" in and everything is performed with a great deal of skill.
There has been much anticipation over the release of Superman on DVD with the biggest holdup being the sorry state of the films source elements. For all the time and the trouble, it must be said that it was worth the wait. The job done on Superman is nothing short of a revelation. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and enhanced for 16x9, I can't ever remember seeing the movie look this good. Colors are rich and vibrant, almost seeming to pop off the screen, while flesh tones are also impressive. Black levels are dead on with great detail, depth and clarity. There is barely a hint of pixel breakup and edge enhancement to be noticed, but they are very minor. Cleaning up the source material was also a major undertaking, and once more Superman is done proud. Scratches and imperfections are held to a bare minimum, with the entire image looking almost like a new movie. There are slight instances of film grain to be noticed, but it is to be somewhat expected and it doesn't detract from the presentation.
For the sound, there was some controversy over the creation of the new 5.1 remix for the movie, but to me all those concerns are washed away during the opening credits. After sitting through the movie, one of my first thoughts was that this is what surround sound is supposed to be like. It is an involving soundtrack that never detracts from the movie, but rather enhances the experience. Rear speakers are used extensively and the film also does not disappoint in the lower sound levels. Dialogue and music are clearly and cleanly recorded, as well as mixed together with everything being easy to understand. Clear as a bell is the background, with zero hiss or pops to be detected. An outstanding job.
Now for the goodies. Well, first up is a screen specific commentary track with director Richard Donner and uncredited screenwriter/creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz. It's obvious these guys are longtime pals, as they have an easy comfort with one another that certainly moves into pretty aggressive ribbing of the other. Quite a lot of information is discussed, including details of what Superman II would have been like if Donner had been allowed to remain, and it's pretty clear exactly what both men think of the Salkinds. Mankiewicz certainly answers any questions about who wrote the version of Superman that we have enjoyed over the years with his intimate knowledge of the movie and all its motivations. This is a good-natured track that rambles along, but be warned, it does possess more than a few dead spots. All in all though, its an enjoyable way to watch the movie and if you are a Superman fanatic, it is must listening.
This being a DVD-18, once you flip the disc over you will find the bulk of the release's supplemental material. Side two starts out with three documentaries, each focusing on a different aspect of bringing the Man of Steel to the big screen. The first is about the process that went into developing the property so that it could be filmed, the second deals with the actual production, and the third is about the revolutionary special effects that allowed a man to fly. There are things to like about all three, but if I had my way, the three would linked together as one long piece. Not a big deal, more of a minor annoyance.
Director Richard Donner has chosen to include two deleted scenes for the disc, in addition to the eight minutes of added footage that was included in the film proper. Both scenes are in anamorphic widescreen and take up about three minutes of running time. It's nice to have them, but they are like the appetizer for the main course that never arrives. Tasty but unfulfilling. I already mentioned the 5.0 isolated music track, and the disc adds to that by including additional music cues from the film. Once more, this is a very welcome feature and one that I wish Warner would support more readily. There are also the expected production notes, cast and crew bios, a television spot and the movie's theatrical trailer, including the marvelous teaser trailer that exposed Richard Donner to the traveling through space credit sequence that would become one of the movie's trademarks. With the exception of a few things, this is as exhaustive an edition of Superman as any fan could hope to have. Hats off to Warner for a job well done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not a lot of complaints with Superman here. While I do wish Donner had included more of the material that made up its legendary television incarnation in the disc's paltry deleted scenes section, it is a glaring but a minor reservation.
As I stated above, I would have been happier if the three features had been combined into one big documentary, but at this point I am just trying to find something wrong with the disc, so I'll just go ahead and stop now.
If you are a lover of state-of-the-art CGI special effects, then many parts of Superman may well come off as old-fashioned. It does sometime seem that they spent so much time getting the flying right that they short changed the film's other effects. For me, this is of little concern. Everything, especially the rapidly changing world of special effects, is going to seem dated at some point. Yet, I was amazed by just how kind the years have been to Superman. Will it ever be confused with modern special effects extravaganzas? Nope, but it does not have to be. The movie has nothing to be ashamed of. I'm just thankful they did not go back and pull a Lucas on Superman. I don't need or want my movies fooled with in a fundamental way. I love them for what they are and what they mean to me. All Superman got was a new paint job, and that was all it really needed.
I suppose if you don't like big screen versions of superhero movies or stories that involve great romances, then Superman may not be for you. I also suppose if Superman IV: The Quest For Peace is your favorite of the film series, then the original may not hold much interest for you. Otherwise, what are you waiting for?
Don't walk, don't run, but fly out and get your copy of Superman today. One of the best discs of the year 2001, this disc was well worth the wait, and it has a place of pride on my shelf. It looks and sounds swell. It also packs a great punch in the extra content department, plus at a retail price of around 20 bucks, Superman counts as a pretty solid bargain. To buy or rent? Well, I think its pretty clear. Superman is a must buy.
Up, up and away! This is one special edition that is truly special, and this court is duly impressed. Director Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, and Superman himself, Christopher Reeve, are all acquitted for turning in a modern American classic. Producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind are thanked for the vision of what a super movie could look like, but are convicted for not allowing Donner to complete work on Superman II and are ordered confined to The Phantom Zone. Warner Brothers is thanked for a great disc.
That is all this judge has. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Director Richard Donner and Writer/Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
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