Look! Up in the sky”it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the Man of Steel on Blu-ray! The movie that made the superhero genre more than just filler for weekend matinees at theaters for the kiddies has hit the high definition home video market: Richard Donner’s original 1978 classic, Superman: The Movie.
I remember seeing the original Superman with my father back in December of 1978 for my 10th birthday. Much like my first viewing of the original Star Wars a year and a half prior, my initial screening of Superman was an overwhelming experience that felt like it lasted two and a half minutes instead of two and a half hours. A visual and audio assault brought to life on a giant 70mm screen; it was easy as a child to become wrapped up in the glory of big-budget Hollywood.
Many films from the late 70s and 80s made similar impacts, yet a lot of them have not held up as well as I had hoped they would. Blame years of watching too many films and analyzing them too closely, or just the simple fact that I was young and impressionable, but films such as Batman (1989), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and to a lesser extent, Temple of Doom), Gremlins and even a large chunk of Return of the Jedi have aged about as well a cheesecake under a tanning lamp turned on full blast.
So what is it about the original Superman that has made it stand the test of time? What makes this particular movie the Citizen Kane of the cinematic comic-book set? What elements make me and countless others hold this so dear to our cinematic-geek hearts? In trying to come up with one particular reason, I discovered ten (actually, 11) reasons why I think Donner’s film is still the best of the bunch, despite efforts by such greats as the first two Spider-Man films, X2, The Crow and Batman Begins to dethrone it:
1) It’s a great origin movie.
As much as I loved the first X-Men and Spider-Man, the well-executed setups of their heroes” beginnings were sidelined by what felt like a rush job when it came to the bad guy and putting their Big Plan in motion. Richard Donner does a fine job taking his time detailing Superman’s beginnings as well as the character of Lex Luthor and his Big Scheme in act three to make a decent impression.
2) The screenplay has heart and the characters are memorable.
The foundation to the film’s success lies in the epic screenplay written by Mario Puzo, Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman and an un-credited but vitally important Tom Mankiewicz. They all worked on the script at various stages of production, but they obviously all loved who and what they were writing about, and it shows through characters with depth and heart. As much as I liked the recent Superman Returns, most of the characters were as memorable as strangers you meet and talk to for a few minutes at a party: not very.
3) It doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Superman has great moments of moving drama (Pa Kent’s death, Jor-El’s departing speech to his infant son) and tension (Lois hanging for dear life from the top of Metropolis Tower), but just when it looks like it is about to take itself too seriously, along comes the perfectly-timed tongue-in-cheek moment needed to remind the viewer that they are, after all, watching a film about a flying man in tights.
4) It has a great villain that doesn’t overshadow the hero.
Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Lex Luthor is one part car salesman, one part homicidal maniac, all parts terrific (definitely one of the actor’s most underrated performances). Hackman and his character make their presence known without stealing the spotlight from number five”
5) The perfect Superman/Clark Kent.
While Brandon Routh did a solid job in Superman Returns, he didn’t hold a candle to the late Christopher Reeve’s performance, which perfectly balanced a convincingly earnest Man of Steel with his bumbling but likeable alter ego, Clark Kent. He might have received third billing behind Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, but Reeve was definitely the star.
6) You actually feel good when it’s done.
Let’s face facts, people: as terrific as Batman Begins and the first two Spider-Man and X-Men films were, did you actually feel good afterwards? I didn’t. With Superman you do. The optimism at the end is delivered on such a high note that you’ll be hard-pressed not to smile when the credits begin to roll.
7) It has the (near) perfect music score.
His body of soundtrack work is both tremendous and legendary, but John Williams” score for this film was, and still is, one of his most memorable and iconic. The only time it really stumbles is when Margot Kidder mumbles her way through the dismal (on a vocal level) Can You Read My Mind? I can only imagine how much better that scene would be without those vocals.
8) It’s perfectly cast.
The best superhero films all have actors perfectly cast in the lead roles (Christian Bale as Batman, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and, for lack of an actual lead character, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in X-Men), but stumble a bit when it comes to the supporting cast (James Franco in Spider-Man, Katie Holmes in Batman Begins and Halle Berry in X-Men are prime examples). With its huge cast of at-the-time big stars, Superman avoids that (even Brando’s paycheck-minded performance works). Everyone was ideally suited to their roles and made the best of their onscreen time. Heck, even Larry Hagman made the most of his two minute cameo!
9) The visual effects are in service of the story instead of taking away from it.
Sure, visual effects have advanced tremendously since 1978, but far too often (as was the case in the original Spider-Man) I am all too aware that I am watching effects shot, which tends to take me out of the picture. With one or two small exceptions (check out the curtain at the lower part of the left frame when Krypton blows up!), the effects in the original Superman have held up pretty well. After all these years, you still believe a man can fly (or that a production company can hide wires without using a computer for assistance).
10) Otis Rocks!
Most of the time the villain’s sidekick is completely forgettable, both during the film and afterwards (Did any of Lex Luthor’s gang in Superman Returns have names?). Thanks to a great comedic performance by Ned Beatty and the terrific onscreen chemistry he shares with Hackman, Otis is just as memorable as Lex Luthor is.
11) It’s fun, damnit!
Cut from the same cloth as the original Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman: The Movie is pure unadulterated fun that entertains the pants off of people of all ages. You can watch it on its own and still enjoy it as much as you did the first time you saw it, without memories of lesser sequels tainting it.
I have seen Superman: The Movie in every conceivable home video format, and it should come as no surprise that the HD format is where the film looks the best. The film underwent a picture and sound restoration back at the start of this decade, and the results looked and sounded great back then, and they look and sound even better on the Blu-ray format.
The late Geoffrey Unsworth photographed Superman: The Movie with an overall aura of softness, possibly to elicit a nostalgic feel. The Blu-ray transfer (2.40:1 aspect ratio, VC-1 and 1080p encoded) perfectly replicates Unsworth’s cinematic style, but it also gives us a picture that has a lot of nice detail not found in earlier home video presentations (perhaps a bit too much at times-check out the makeup on Brando in the beginning”yikes!) and colors are really”um, super (yeah, I’m groaning at that one too). In fact, I find the transfers of this film and of the Richard Donner edition of Superman II to be better than the transfer found on the recent Superman Returns.
A lot of people complained about the 5.1 sound remix on the 2000 restoration of Superman but I thought it was pretty damn good. Sure, it would have been nice for Warner to include the original 2.0 Dolby Stereo track (or, ahem, an uncompressed PCM track), but like the saying goes, would have, could have, should have. What we get is a 5.1 Dolby Digital track at 640kbps that delivers the goods. From the whooshing of the legendary opening credits to the Man of Steel’s very busy day saving the West and East Coast from nuclear destruction, all backed by John Williams” iconic music score, Superman sounds as nice as it looks.
The only place the Blu-ray (and HD DVD, for that matter) release of Superman falls short is in the extras department. Warner has ported over most, but not all, of the extras found on the 2000 DVD release (to make matters even worse for fans of the film, this disc is also lacking the new extras found on the recent 4-disc release of the film).
First up is an Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Richard Donner and screenwriter/creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz. The two longtime friends fill the commentary with stories about the troubled production that is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Despite running two and a half hours, is always fascinating and fun to listen to.
Up next are two Documentaries, Taking Flight: The Development of Superman and “Making Superman: Filming the Legend”. Each is hosted by actor Marc McClure (who played Jimmy Olsen in the first four films) and when the docs are combined, they run approximately 80 minutes (they can also be viewed separately). A chronicle of the production on the first film, Flight and Filming the Legend have a nice selection of behind-the-scenes footage to be found among interviews with Donner, Mankiewicz, the late Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, John Williams and editor Stuart Baird (“Casino Royale”).
Also included on the disc are Christopher Reeve’s Original Screen Test, the Theatrical Teaser and Trailer, a Television Spot and, best of all, John Williams Isolated Score in full 5.1 glory (I really hope George Lucas considers doing this for the “Star Wars” saga when they hit the HD market).
For the most part, Warner Home Video has done right by Superman: The Movie for its HD debut, with a handsome picture and audio presentation of the modern classic that more than makes up for a rather lackluster collection of extras. Perhaps someday we may get a more definitive edition (the 30th Anniversary is next year, after all), but for the time being, this disc is solidly recommended.
– Shawn Fitzgerald