Superman Returns Review (Blu-ray)

In 2005, the Caped Crusader was resurrected from the franchise dead. This year, it was the Man of Steel’s turn. Superman Returns, the much-hyped epic from X-Men director Bryan Singer, didn’t quite set the box office on fire the way Warner Brothers had hoped it would (if one can consider $400 million in worldwide ticket sales disappointing), but it still proved popular enough of a draw for Warner to give it the high definition works on both HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

Returns picks up several years after the events of “Superman II” (Singer has wisely chosen to ignore the atrocious third and fourth installments). After heading off into deep space to try and find the remains of his home planet of Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) comes back to find an Earth whose troubles have not subsided, whose crime has been on the rise and whose population has moved on without him, including Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), the love of his life.

While the Man of Steel was away, Lois turned her heartbreak into a Pulitzer-Prize winning article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” got engaged to Perry White’s nephew, Richard (James Marsden) and gave birth to Jason (Tristan Leabu), now five years old. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Superman’s old nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been sprung from prison on a technicality and is now looking to use Krypton’s technology to launch another global threat and finish Superman off once and for all.

The concept of Superman returning to a changed civilization isn’t all that dissimilar to the Superman film series returning to a radically altered film climate. Movie viewers today are far more cynical and demanding than they were back in the late 1970s and 80s, and the Man of Steel is coming back to a genre no longer populated by squeaky clean do-gooders. These days, if your protagonist doesn’t have deep, dark issues to deal with while pounding the crap out of bad guys, then you’d better stick to the funny pages and stay out of the cinema. Another question that begs asking is this: Do movie audiences really need another Superman, or for that matter, superhero, movie? No. Superhero films are a dime a dozen these days, and few exceptions aside, most suck (Fantastic Four or Elektra, anyone?)

But Singer and his talented cast and crew worked hard to make Superman Returns a pretty damn good piece of popcorn entertainment. Is it perfect? No. The film goes on too long for about fifteen minutes; Singer’s insistence on connecting this film to the 1978 Richard Donner original is so overwhelming at times he could have subtitled it Déjà vu (case in point: Luthor’s big plan deals with land”again) and Kate Bosworth, while a competent actress (and quite cute as a brunette) is simply too young and merely adequate as Lois. I never thought I would hear myself say these words: I miss Margot Kidder.

But by bringing along many of his fellow X-Men collaborators with him, including X2 writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel and editor/music composer John Ottman, Singer and the movie succeed because we are given a Superman film similar in approach to his two great X-Men sagas (God, I wish he had stuck around for X3 and put this film off for two more years). “Returns” is an action and visual effects extravaganza that still has plenty of room for character, heart and personal drama.

Brandon Routh does a fine job with the impossible: stepping into a role immortalized in my generation’s eyes by Christopher Reeve. He does a good job conveying the inner struggle and issues of loneliness and alienation that Clark/Superman deals with while trying to fit back into the world. Kevin Spacey agreeably balances menace and laughs to make for an ideal Lex Luthor. Parker Posey is decent as Lex’s girlfriend, and Frank Langella is fine in his brief turn as Perry White.

Superman Returns got a lukewarm reception when it landed in theaters this past summer, a victim of bad marketing (most of the trailers cut for the film downright sucked), an even worse release date (One week before Pirates of the Caribbean 2? Who made THAT brilliant decision?) and eventually, the stigma of being a movie that couldn’t live up to its hype or its $200+ production budget. All of this is too bad. If people could look beyond what is shoved down their collective throats by both the studios and the likes of Access Hollywood, they would have found Superman Returns to be a fun, at times nostalgic, night at the movies.

Fortunately, this is what the home video market is for: second chances. Despite the lackluster box office returns for its big summer event picture, Warner Home Video has done right by Superman Returns for its home video release. Launched simultaneously on Blu-ray, HD DVD and standard DVD, Warner Home Video has given consumers a wide selection of formats to choose from– a great move on the company’s part that hopefully will become the norm as the HD formats (hopefully) continue to grow.

While a multi-platform, simultaneous release is indeed a cause for celebration, a questionable video transfer of the film is not. Superman Returns was shot with the Panavision Genesis HD cameras, also recently used on the Mel Gibson action epic Apocalypto. While I am all for filmmakers using new technology to tell their stories, I really wish they would wait until all the camera’s bugs have been fully worked out. With the exception of the last two Star Wars prequels, films shot with HD cameras don’t really look all that cinematic on the big screen, and they tend to look just as disappointing on the home front. They capture colors perfectly, but they look and feel flat. Such is the case with Superman Returns.

Just like its HD DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray release of Superman Returns is VC-1 encoded in 1080p and presented in its 2.4:1 theatrical ratio. On the plus side, the colors are vibrant, contrast levels and flesh tones are acceptable, and for most of the time, detail is sharp as a tack. But this is not consistent. As in the theater, a fair amount of scenes lack sharpness and detail and wind up looking a bit too soft and flat. If the entire film looked this way, then I could chalk it up to directorial style. But since the quality varies over the course of the film’s 154-minute running time, one has to chalk it up to a photography process that isn’t quite ready for prime time (no matter what George Lucas says).

The actual video encoding is also fine, with compression artifacts being a non-issue throughout. An occasional instance of posterization can be found here and there (namely in the underwater scenes), but this could be inherent in the source material, or it could be inherent in the playback hardware. (I noticed posterization on both the Blu-ray and HD DVD releases, with the Samsung BD-P1000 player displaying it a bit more than the Toshiba HD-A1). The Blu-ray transfer of Superman Returns is more than acceptable (you really should see the SD version–awful), it just lacks the “wow” factor we have come to expect from HD versions of movies as recent as this one.

Issues with the video presentation aside, I certainly did not have any with the audio. The Blu-ray version may not have the Dolby TrueHD track that the HD DVD version does, but that doesn’t stop its Dolby Digital 5.1 track from enveloping the viewer with music and sound effects galore. Encoded at 640kbps, I was very pleased with the track (I am sure my next door neighbor was not). Dialogue was as clear as a bell and the .LFE channel was, as expected, aggressive throughout. Sure, it would have been great to have a DTS-MA or PCM track on this release, but it is kind of hard to hold a grudge against a sonic assault as nice as this one.

Another area where the Blu-ray version of Superman Returns soars in is in the extras department. Granted, some of the cool extras that had been rumored, such as picture-in-picture video commentary or the lengthy deleted “Return to Krypton” sequence, did not make it onto either the BD or HD DVD editions, but will most likely be on the next. (Come on, you know it’s coming in a few years). What we do get, however, is both very impressive and informative.

The featured extra is Requiem For Krypton: Making Superman Returns, a five-part, 173-minute making of documentary presented in 480p Standard Definition and Dolby 2.0 Stereo sound that can be played either as one feature or in five separate sections. Secret Origins and First Issues: Crystallizing Superman (29 minutes) shows the origins of the film, consisting of script and pre-production meetings as well as the hiring of Brandon Routh. The Crystal Method: Designing Superman (34 minutes) looks at art and costume design, as well as the film’s set decoration, which makes for standard making of material. An Affinity For Beachfront Property (74 minutes total) covers the actual filming and is broken down into three sub-sections: Superman on the Farm (21 min.) covers the Kent Farm sequences; Superman in the City (37 minutes) covers filming in Sydney; and Superman in Peril (16 minutes) covers the scenes in and around Lex’s new waterfront property. The Joy Of Lex: Menacing Superman (21:31) is a look at actor Kevin Spacey’s involvement on the film. And He’s Always Around: Wrapping Superman (14:29) showcases the wrap up of principal photography. This last one is the weakest of the group, as it ends rather abruptly with principal photography and doesn’t talk about post production (yes, I am saying a 173-minute documentary still could have been longer).

While the documentary is hardly ground-breaking or revelatory, Requiem is a very entertaining program that certainly gives one an appreciation of what Singer and company have done to get this movie made. Welcome moments of humor that run throughout (especially in the Joy of Lex feature) also help make this documentary well worth the time.

Next up are a collection of Deleted Scenes which run a little over 16 minutes total. As with Requiem For Krypton, the deleted scenes can be watched individually or together. All are presented in 1080p and 5.1 Dolby Digital and look quite good. The Date, Family Photos, Crash Landing/X-Ray Vision, Old Newspapers and Are You Two Dating all center around the Kent farm and expand on Ben Hubbard, a character played by James Karen that is only briefly seen in the actual film. They’re good scenes, but were clearly cut to improve the film’s pacing. Martinis & Wigs and I’m Always Right establish Lex’s crew a bit further, while the remainder (Jimmy the Lush, Language Barrier, Crystal Feet and New Krypton) would have added little to the film if they had not been cut. Last but not least is the best of the bunch. How Wrong Can You Be? is a very amusing collection of takes of Kevin Spacey shouting “WRONG!!!!” at Kate Bosworth.

Rounding out the extra material is a 4-minute feature entitled “Resurrecting Jor-El”, which shows how the filmmakers used footage of the late Marlon Brando from the original Superman and incorporated it into this film. The film’s Theatrical Teaser (1:52 in MPEG-2 and 5.1), the one actually good Theatrical Trailer (1:58 in MPEG-2 and 5.1) and a bland commercial for the equally weak EA video game release (1:11) are also included.

Superman Returns is a solid attempt to bring the Man of Steel back into the cinematic fold. If you can overlook such issues such as a familiar plotline or its long running time, you will find this entertaining film has enough action, character and heart to make it well worth your time. And if you can overlook some source material issues, you will see that Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray release is a solid one that’s well worth adding to your HD library.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

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