This review was actually written next Tuesday, but Judge Daniel MacDonald flew it here so fast that he reversed time and delivered it yesterday.
Our reviews of Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (Blu-ray) (published June 13th, 2011), Superman: The Movie (published May 1st, 2001), and Superman: The Movie (HD DVD) (published November 28th, 2006) are also available.
You'll believe a man can fly.
Superman: The Movie was the Titanic of 1978: a movie with a huge budget, larger than had ever before been approved; a special effects-heavy film employing techniques never before attempted; and a throwback to movies of an earlier time that would either be a hit or a massive failure. Fortunately, like Titanic, the movie was a phenomenon, successful beyond any expectations or predictions, becoming the highest grossing film of its genre at the time.
Facts of the Case
It's a story firmly ingrained in North American culture…
On the distant planet of Krypton, Jor El (Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris) predicts the coming destruction of the planet, only to be silenced by the nay-saying council. Knowing certain death is on its way, he sends his only son Kal El to Earth, along with an encyclopedia set of the collected knowledge of all known galaxies on convenient crystal media. His theory proved correct, Krypton is obliterated, leaving the young Kal El as the last survivor of this alien race.
Raised by those who found him in a farmer's field, Kal El—now Clark Kent—learns that he has astonishing powers, such as the ability to fly, x-ray vision, and super speed. While he feels like an outcast for being so different, his adopted Earth father instills Middle American values in the teen: modesty, humility, and a strong work ethic. One day, Clark is mysteriously compelled to strike out toward the North Pole, using a glowing green crystal sent by his father to create the Fortress of Solitude, a massive ice structure where he can speak with a recorded image of his father, learning about the people of Earth and his mission here.
Twelve years later, Clark emerges as Superman, dedicated to protect his new home planet, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Keeping his alter ego of Clark Kent, he finds work as a reporter in Metropolis and becomes smitten with fellow journalist Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, The Pornographer). But when trouble calls, Clark (Christopher Reeve, Noises Off) discreetly leaves the scene, quickly returning as Superman just in time to save the day.
He'll need all of his powers, though, to defeat criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums). Luthor, with the help of his dimwitted henchman Otis (Ned Beatty, Network) and sultry companion Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, Lenny) has concocted a devious scheme to raise the value of land he owns in the California desert, at the cost of millions of lives. Only Superman stands a chance of coming between Luthor and victory.
Comic book films tend to be either very well done (Spider-Man 2) or painfully bad (Catwoman); because of the fantastic nature of the material, there's not much of a middle ground. The defining factor, it seems, is the commitment with which the talent involved approaches the project—if the director, writers, and other key personnel are willing to immerse themselves in the character's lore, to discover what elements are so beloved by fans that to change them would be commercial suicide, and to defer to the established back-story when questions arise. Those who commit to making a comic book film true in spirit to the source material are likely bound for success, as it's no coincidence that these stories have lasted as long as they have.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Superman: The Movie.
Not that director Richard Donner (The Goonies), or the many writers and producers, were huge Superman fans, just dying to get their vision of the hero on the screen. But all involved set out to make the best Superman film possible, emerging with a truly epic telling of the classic tale, using groundbreaking special effects techniques to make the impossible possible. Indeed, a teaser poster was created before shooting even began that set the bar appropriately high, announcing, "You'll believe a man can fly."
This wasn't the first time Superman had stepped from the pages of his long-running comic book series into other media. A radio show was begun in the early 1940s, followed by Fleischer Studios' full-colour cartoon series that played in theatres, then a series starring Kirk Alyn. George Reeves famously played Superman in a television series beginning in 1951. And so on. But technical limitations prevented a believable representation of a live-action Superman from being realized on movie screens—until 1978, when the seemingly impossible was made possible.
Given what it was attempting to accomplish, Superman: The Movie has an absolutely perfect opening. Curtains cover the right and left side of the wide screen, creating a nearly square academy ratio area in the middle. In black and white, we see the pages of a comic book being flipped, then a shot moving toward the top of the Daily Planet, the newspaper where Clark Kent and Lois Lane work. Suddenly John Williams' rousing, brilliant score dominates the soundtrack, and the first credit, in full color, flies in with much fanfare, launching a grin-inducing space-themed credit sequence. It ideally sets the tone—this will be spectacle writ large, so sit back and enjoy the ride.
By setting the overall tone in this way, Donner has much more freedom to craft a deliberately paced first half of the film, starting with the stark landscapes of Krypton, and a very serious Marlon Brando predicting the fate of their race. The theme Williams (who did Star Wars the year before) composed to introduce Krypton is my favorite in the film, a slowly building but ultimately triumphant musical accompaniment to the unique world created by production designer John Barry (also Star Wars).
>From there we move to Smallville, and the style of the film changes dramatically. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey) creates one classically composed shot after another, using the endless fields and far-off farmhouses to take advantage of the frame's entire width; you could freeze the film at nearly any moment during this section and have a perfectly designed shot. Jeff East (Pumpkinhead) gives an underrated performance as the young Clark Kent, capturing his adolescent confusion, unwitting innocence, and devotion to his parents with ease and grace. The great Glenn Ford (3:10 To Yuma) also stands out here as Jonathan Kent.
When we hit Metropolis, again there is a stylistic shift, with more handheld cameras, more close-ups and two-shots, and bright, vibrant colors with an emphasis on reds, yellows, and blues. Christopher Reeve is widely accepted as the ideal Superman, and for good reason: his performance blends subtle shifts in posture and mannerism with broad comedic pratfalls to create distinct personas for both Superman and Kent. It's quite a feat of acting that stands the test of time. Kidder makes a wonderful counterpoint as Lois Lane, ambitious and tough but still vulnerable at times; we can see why Clark/Superman falls for her so quickly. Gene Hackman was an ideal choice for Lex Luthor, blending menace and overconfidence to create a character we love to hate. And I really enjoy Marc McClure's (Apollo 13) performance as Jimmy Olsen, the ambitious youngster with some of the best throwaway lines in the film.
Superman: The Movie stands up every bit as well today as it has for the past 28 years. The flying scenes are totally convincing within the context of the film, the script is solid and encompasses Superman's entire history without feeling like an origin story with a denouement tacked onto the end, and there's nary a dull moment in its 143 minute running time. This is about as good as comic book films get.
This four-disc set does well to give a thorough understanding of how the picture came to be, and some context to its creation as well. On disc one is the never-before-on-DVD theatrical cut of the picture, with an audio commentary by producer Pierre Spengler and executive producer Ilya Salkind. The commentary is informative and relaxed with few quiet moments, and will tell you much about the making of the picture. The picture quality is a top notch for a movie of this age, with very few instances of dirt intruding on the film, and accurate, vibrant representations of the varied color palates in the movie. The sound is large and aggressive, appropriate for a picture of this scope, with plenty of low end. It appears the restored print made for the expanded edition, including controversially re-recorded sound effects to replace those that were beyond repair, was also used for this version of the film. Theatrical trailers and a TV spot are also included.
Disc two is the expanded edition released in 2000, which incorporates 8 minutes of additional footage into the picture. Most of this is some added material on Krypton and a new conversation at the Fortress of Solitude between Superman and Jor El, but also included is an appearance by a young Lois Lane, an extended gauntlet that Superman must endure when reaching Luthor's lair, and a cameo by the director. It's not a hugely different film, but is on balance my preferred version—I love the added Brando material, but the ridiculous security system employed by Lex Luthor makes me unable to say it's entirely superior. As mentioned above, both picture and sound are sure to impress. We get the audio commentary from the 2000 DVD release, featuring Richard Donner and creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz, a great track not duplicating much from the commentary on the theatrical version; the pair's easy friendship makes this a worthwhile listen. A music-only track is also included, allowing the listener to better appreciate John Williams' score, which is a more engaging inclusion than you might think.
Disc three contains the rest of the special features that appeared on the previous DVD release, three documentaries that add up to about an hour all together, a few restored scenes that weren't incorporated back into the film, screen tests and some additional music cues. The documentaries are quite good, if a little over-produced—I would have liked a bit more "raw" footage. Marc McClure proves a fine host, and makes me wonder why he hasn't appeared in more films.
And on disc four, we get some Superman history, starting with an excellent making-of TV special from 1979. This hour long look at the making of the film, hosted by Christopher Reeve, gives plenty of insight into the work that went into the picture, and also captures the relative innocence with which the material is presented—unlike today, when most DVDs have some sort of behind-the-scenes supplement, this special is aimed at a public with no clue of how exactly a film is made. Despite this, it's a lot less fluffy than most EPK material, is really worthwhile viewing. Next is the 1951 movie Superman and the Mole Men starring George Reeves. At about an hour, this is an entertaining little picture indicative of its time. Most surprising is how different the characters of Clark Kent and Lois Lane are: Clark is a man of action, doing a lot more on balance than Superman, and Lois is relegated to the role of a sort of assistant to Clark, still a reporter but without any of the tenacity of later incarnations. Also on the disc are nine of the Fleischer Studios cartoons, looking great and presenting yet another take on the Superman persona. These cartoons were highly influential in later pictures, credited for inspiring the traditional lighting scheme of film noir.
All in all, pretty close to a definitive set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A healthy suspension of disbelief is needed to enjoy this picture, as with any comic book film, so if you're not ready to check your inner party pooper at the door don't bother with this one. And even I can't completely forgive the glossed-over timeline problems at the picture's end. Hard to say exactly what happened with those missiles, and the movie doesn't make figuring it out any easier.
Also, I would have liked more in the way of supplemental features, perhaps something on the process of restoring this classic to its pristine condition, and maybe some recent interviews with cast and crew. Actually, the Superman II: Two-Disc Special Edition had a few features I'm surprised didn't appear here, namely a 50th anniversary TV special and a featurette on the importance of the Fleischer cartoons. I suppose to maintain the quality of the materials another disc would have to be added, so it made sense to spread things out onto the second installment, but it's worth mentioning nonetheless.
A fine presentation of a fine film, this Superman: The Movie: Four-Disc Special Edition is an easy recommendation. If you've already got the 2000 release, you'll have to decide whether or not the theatrical version of the film and the few new special features are worth the upgrade, but for everyone else, pick this one up. It's super.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Pierre Spengler and Ilya Salkind
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