Late one summer evening in 1933, a young author named Jerome Siegel had a dream. Raised on a steady diet of Saturday matinee serials, pulp magazines and short-story anthologies, he imagined the ultimate superhero: an orphan from the planet Krypton who possessed amazing powers and who would speak directly to a country eager to re-embrace heroism, nobility and truth after the struggles of the Great Depression. He called his creation "Superman." Siegel developed the idea after school with fellow classmate and amateur illustrator Joseph Shuster, and soon "The Man of Steel" was flying high in comic books the world over. By the end of the 1930s, Siegel's superhero had become a bona fide phenomenon -- from comics to books to radio to TV, and seventy years later, Superman remains the most recognizable superhero in history.
The greatest strength of Richard Donner's 'Superman: The Movie' is its respect for Seigel's character. Donner's motto throughout the making of the movie was "verisimilitude," his intention to make a fantasy that was so honest and true, "people had to believe it was real." He and creative consultant (aka uncredited screenwriter) Tom Mankiewicz refused to make a campy update (like the 'Batman' television series), or a dark reimagining full of irony and despair. Instead, 'Superman: The Movie' rightly understands that we love Superman because he is square-jawed, noble and honest (corny qualities even in 1978). It is a grand slice of classic Americana, a film about ideals and values and doing what is right. Superman doesn't just fight for truth, justice and the American way. He is America.
Even after so many incarnations of the character, it is hard to imagine anyone more quintessentially Superman than Christopher Reeve. More formidable than his physique is his charisma; who else would have been able to find the inherent strength, dignity and goodness in the character and pull off blue tights, a red cape and a spit curl? Also perfectly cast is Margo Kidder as Lois Lane. Their witty banter and playful flirting is funny and sexy. But Donner/Mankiewicz don't stop there, stuffing 'Superman' with memorable supporting characters and a great cast. Gene Hackman, an actor so perfect for the role you would think he was born bald, is the ideal Lex Luthor; ex-Little Rascal Jackie Cooper is an inspired Perry White, and Ned Beatty plays the ultimate dimwitted accomplice. Marlon Brando, who sent shock waves through the industry by earning a then unheard-of $4 million salary for only a few minutes of screen time as Jor-El, lends an appropriate air of regality to the proceedings. The secret of 'Superman: The Movie' is easy -- everyone here has fun with Superman, but they don't make fun of Superman.
Originally planned for a major theatrical re-release in 1999, 'Superman: The Movie' underwent an extensive restoration, including the restoration of eight minutes of additional footage, supervised by Donner and his technical supervisor Michael Thau. It eventually played in only a few local theaters, so the first time most saw this restored version was on DVD, and now HD DVD. Several key sequences have been expanded, giving precious insight into Superman's backstory and his home planet of Krypton. Rare for an expanded cut, these additions do not disrupt the overall pacing or feel intrusive. Meanwhile, the film's landmark special effects have been cleaned up (but not touched up) -- and they still amaze over thirty years later. And so, I'm sorry to inform you that if you think you have already seen 'Superman: The Movie,' you're going to have to see it again.
As photographed by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Unsworth, 'Superman: The Movie' is big, bold and bright, and the perfect realization of comic book movie style. But for years, Unsworth's work suffered from washed-out, murky video transfers, with nearly half of the expansive 2.40:1 frame cropped and the film's many effects shots riddled with dirt and grime. Not anymore. The restored 'Superman: The Movie' truly soars. Meticulously rehabbed, it's like watching a brnd-new movie, with the Man of Steel's tights now the proper, glorious shade of red and blue. This is one of my favorite remasters of recent years, if only because it is such a quantum leap over what had come before.
'Superman: The Movie' comes to HD DVD in a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track encoded at 640kbps. The film's truly epic soundtrack was also remixed and remastered for the 2000 restoration, and it makes the journey nicely over to high-def. Sure, a Dolby TrueHD track would have been magnificent, but 'Superman: The Movie' still sounds so good here I can't complain too much.
Note that there you may notice some changes made to the extended cut of 'Superman: The Movie' if you are intimately familiar with the previous unrestored version. Some sounds have been re-scored and additional music cues used (most noticeably for the reinstated footage), but the results are pretty darn seamless. Dialogue reproduction is excellent -- gone are all those excruciating harsh highs (complete with distortion), while the front soundstage is wonderfully wide. Deep bass is a kicker, with some serious low frequencies pumped out, which are all the more astonishing given that this film is now almost three decades old. Surrounds also feel newly alive, with discrete effects consistent and atmosphere excellent.
However, like the new HD DVD of 'Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,' I still feel like the balance between the dialogue, music and effects is a bit off for me. John Williams' score sometimes does not feel as overpowering as I wanted it too. For example, during the scene when Superman rescues Lois Lane on the side of a building, effects like the snapping of helicopter cables and the like feel a bit too loud. But this may be a personal preference -- I tend to like my soaring scores loud, especially in action adventure epics like this. But whatever -- just crank this one up. 'Superman: The Movie' sounds fantastic.
'Superman: The Movie' had long been one of Warner's most requested library titles when the studio finally released the film in a deluxe special edition DVD in the Spring of 2000. Watching those supplements again on this HD DVD release, I'm reminded how well worth the wait it really was. The story of the making of 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Superman II' are legendary, a torturous production fraught with chaos, contention and clashing egos. The production was originally conceived as two movies to be shot concurrently, but Richard Donner was unceremoniously fired by producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind after completing the first film and after much of the shooting for 1981's 'Superman II,' only to be replaced by the late Richard Lester. (For more on the backstage melodrama, see our review of 'Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.') As the war between the Salkinds and Donner grew during the production of 'Superman: The Movie,' cast and crew quickly took sides, and tensions reached a breaking point, not helped by the film's punishing shooting schedule and pioneering special effects (which were wrought with their own problems). It was Christopher Reeve -- not cast until the eve of principal photography -- who finally helped to unify the production and proved that, yes, a man really could fly.
This rather amazing story is told in excellent fashion by two featurettes, together running nearly 80 minutes: "Taking Flight: The Development of 'Superman'" and "Making 'Superman': Filming the Legend." Donner, Tom Mankiewicz, Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, editor Stuart Baird, composer John Williams and the effects team all return to pay tribute to the film that catapulted them into the stratosphere. Donner's contentious interactions with the Salkinds and the studio are addressed matter-of-factly, time having dulled some of the edge, but none of the heart. While the amount of behind-the-scenes footage is not extensive, what is included here is revealing; the effects are fascinating to witness and often hilarious, especially when all does not go as planned. And priceless is the footage of the various costume concepts Reeve had to endure and the discussion of his ever-changing codpiece.
Donner and Mankiewicz also contribute a screen-specific audio commentary that delves into even more detail on the massive shoot, the casting and the endless feuds with the Salkinds. The development of the script was complex; the two movies were eventually combined into one shoot (which is even more apparent watching the new 'Richard Donner Cut' of the sequel) and Mankiewicz was relegated to a "Creative Consultant" credit. This commentary would appear to be their vindication, a portrait of Hollywood at its worst and the comic book movie at its best.
Unfortunately, the wealth of additional supplements that peppered the original DVD release are substantially trimmed here. Gone is the short effects featurette "The Magic Behind the Cape," two Deleted Scenes that were not incorporated in the restored cut, a few Additional Music Cues, and screen tests for many of the major stars beaten out by Kidder for the role of Lois Lane, including Anne Archer, Stockard Channing and Lesley Anne Warren. However, we do get a single screen test with a young, somewhat slimmer Christopher Reeve -- in both the Superman cape and as Clark Kent. But best of all the included extras is the inclusion of John Williams' truly iconic music score, isolated here as a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track. Excellent. Lastly, there is a theatrical teaser, theatrical trailer and TV spot for 'Superman: The Movie.'
'Superman: The Movie' has become a modern classic, and with good reason. It remains the template by which all current comic book adaptations are judged. And quite simply, Christopher Reeve remains the definitive Man of Steel. Warner has produced a fine HD DVD release, including a very strong high-def transfer and Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack. One drawback is the exclusion of some of the extras from the standard-def DVD release, but the most important supplements are here. So if you love 'Superman: The Movie,' this is an easy recommend.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.