What a weird movie. Not exactly a sequel, not exactly a remake, and not exactly a reinvention, Bryan Singer's 'Superman Returns' is instead best described as an unapologetic cinematic love letter to Richard Donner's 1978 blockbuster 'Superman: The Movie' (and to a lesser extent its Frankenstein'd together 1981 sequel 'Superman II'). Never have I seen a movie so in love with another movie -- I'm sure if Singer could have somehow CGI'd Christopher Reeve and Kate Bosworth together, and had them spawn bald children that looked like a cross between Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman, he would have done it.
As 'Superman Returns' begins, it is about five years since the events of 'Superman II' (the incredibly dismal, largely played-for-yuks sequels 'Superman III' and 'Superman IV' are wisely ignored). Superman had left for a long sabbatical to explore the remnants of his destroyed home planet of Krypton, and when he returns he has miraculously morphed into Brandon Routh and found that Lois Lane (Bosworth) also looks nothing like Margot Kidder. But more than just cosmetics have changed while old 'Sup' was away -- apparently Lois, pissed off that her Man of Steel left her stranded, has not only written a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece called "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," but also shacked up with another guy ('X-Men's James Marsden) and has a new child (Tristan Lake Leabu). Unfortunately for Lois, however, her feelings for Superman are still simmering, and it seems the world may indeed need their absent superhero after all. Lex Luthor is fresh out of prison (with one Oscar winner replaced by another as Kevin Spacey slums, er, subs for Gene Hackman), and the only thing he wants more than real estate is to kill Superman. With Lex hatching a new plot to destroy a good chunk of America and turn it into the Mall of Luthor, Superman must defeat his greatest enemy all over again and win back the heart of the woman he loves.
I would not be the first reviewer to say that 'Superman Returns' has a lot of problems. The casting skews too young, the plot replicates key narrative and character dynamics from Donner's 'Superman' far too closely, and the film is so devoid of action that you start to wonder if Kryptonite causes narcolepsy in Superman, not death. But even if those issues had been fixed, on a conceptual level something feels amiss in Metropolis, if not downright creepy. Singer is so busy making goo-goo eyes at the original 'Superman' that his 'Returns' never assumes an identity of its own. And that's a genuine surprise -- Singer so memorably put his own personal stamp on the 'X-Men' series that I really wasn't expecting his 'Superman' to be wrapped so tightly in nostalgia that it is practically mummified.
Indeed, watching 'Superman Returns' with even a passing familiarity with 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Superman II' plays like deja vu. It is not just that the Superman versus Lex Luthor storyline is plotted out in an all-too-similar fashion (a plot to destroy a huge chunk of America for real estate -- again?), but the Superman/Lois love story explores little new territory. It doesn't help that Routh and Bosworth, though good actors, just don't share the same chemistry that Reeve and Kidder had in spades. I think that is not only due to the age and relative inexperience of Routh and Bosworth (who look like a toothpaste-fresh couple straight out of 'High School Musical'), but because Reeve and Kidder were also classically-trained stage actors at the time they did 'Superman: The Movie." Much of their witty banter in the first two Superman films was if not wholly improvised than a joint effort between cast and filmmakers. I just never believed Bosworth as a credible news reporter, much less a Pulitzer Prize-winning one, and while Routh looks great he just doesn't possess the life experience needed to turn Clark into a believable, three-dimensional boy-man. Even Spacey misses the mark -- his Lex is so smarmy and hammy that he never rises above an irritating caricature. While Hackman's Luthor was bigger-than-life, he lent the role enough gravitas to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground, even if his tongue was planted firmly in his cheek.
Yet, despite its faults, 'Superman Returns' is an earnest film that is hard to hate. A filmmaker can certainly commit worse sins than flattery-by-imitation, and this is still Superman, after all. For many of us, no one may ever fully replace Reeve as the Man of Steel, but the character is so iconic it is hard not to get a thrill watching anyone in those blue tights and red cape, fighting evil. And Singer manages to pull off a couple action scene doozies, in particular the end-of-first-act Superman rescue of Lois Lane from a fiery plane crash. I also liked the requisite "Superman saves Metropolis citizens from peril" montage, one of the few times Singer recalls the original Donner 'Superman' successfully. Perhaps had 'Superman Returns' possessed more such soaring pulp derring-do and less of the heavy-handed Superman-as-God posturing that completely derails the film by the time of its pretentious conclusion, it might have truly been the heir apparent to Donner's 'Superman' that it so desperately wanted to be.
'Superman Returns' hits Blu-ray concurrently with 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,' and it's interesting to compare the films to see how far the art of motion picture photography and special effects have developed over the years. Where the early 'Superman' films had to rely on rear-screen photography, matte paintings and rotoscoping to make audiences believe a man could fly, 'Superman Returns' is purely a digital creation. In fact, it was shot entirely on HD cameras, which certainly gives it the edge in terms of cutting-edge special effects and visual razzmatazz. But is newer necessarily better?
I'll start with what I find lacking about 'Superman Returns' -- it is so pristine looking that it feels sterile. HD cameras tend to flatten images out a bit to me, with backgrounds resembling pixel paintings, and the image impossibly clean. Though I can't say I want to go back to wholly analog filmmaking, I do often miss the realness, the grain, the simply aliveness of celluloid.
That said, 'Superman Returns' looks mighty good on Blu-ray. Warner gives us another 1080p/VC-1 encode, and it's on a BD-50 dual-layer disc to boot. In raw tech specs, that gives it more room to play around in than its HD-30 dual-layer HD DVD counterpart. Picture quality-wise, however, it is another wash between the two formats. I picked a few scenes to compare fine details, including Clark's visit back to Smallville, the fabulous "Lois rescued from fiery airliner" crash and Superman getting the poop beat out of him by Lex and the gang. Both the Blu-ray and HD DVD deliver excellent pictures, and I'd be hard-pressed to find any Superman fan who would be disappointed.
Aside from some softness to the image -- primarily on backgrounds and some CGI effects containing lots of motion blur -- the transfer is wonderfully three-dimensional. The source material is as clean and sharp-as-a-tack as you're going to see on high-def. Colors are quite bold but generally not oversaturated. Singer and his director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel generally limit bold hues to primary colors, so Superman's red and blue outfit and the more yellow and greens of Lex Luthor's lair are striking. I also like the silver-ish, metallic look of the Daily Planet and the more lush, natural vistas of Smallville, both of which work nicely as contrast.
Technical aspects of this transfer are also excellent. Compression artifacts are non-existent. Posterization and macroblocking never intrude, and colors appear free of chroma noise. I only noticed some slight digital fuzz in the darkest scenes -- noise is slight in darker patches of solid color, such as the later scene when Superman visits Lois and Richard White's home on the water. Hardly major, such slight imperfections are all that keep 'Superman Returns' from rating a five-star transfer.
Amid great relief after early info from Warner indicated otherwise, 'Superman Returns' did indeed come with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track on the HD DVD release. Alas, Blu-ray fans aren't so lucky. For whatever reason, Warner decided to drop the track from the Blu-ray release, even though more players, particularly the PlayStation 3, can now decode Dolby TrueHD. That's a very unfortunate omission, because while the Dolby Digital 5.1 track that is included is perfectly fine, such decisions continue to rate Blu-ray as a second-best format in the eyes of some early adopters.
Focusing on the good, 'Superman Returns' certainly sounds great no matter what audio format you listen to it in. The early "Superman saves Lois from a burning jetliner" sequence is my favorite, with a very nice 360-degree soundfield created. The breadth and depth to the discrete sounds is readily apparent, if not as crystal clear as the TrueHD track. Imaging is near-transparent on the Dolby Digital, however, with seamless pans between channels. The film's sound design is also excellent -- atmosphere is palpable even during the far quieter second half of the movie. As poor Superman is pummeled by the Kryptonite-fueled Lex and his gang of thugs, then Lois and Richard White save Sup' via biplane, the combination of John Ottman's soaring score, sustained ambiance and aggressive use of surrounds is truly effective. Bass response is also tight on the Blu-ray, if also a notch below the wallop the TrueHD track delivers.
The extras assembled for 'Superman Returns' may appear a bit underwhelming at first. A glance at the back of the box reveals no cavalcade of bullet points. No audio commentary, no 23 featurettes, no still gallery, no music videos. But don't let looks fool you -- this really is one hell of a comprehensive package. 'Superman Returns' is making its debut on standard-def DVD simultaneously with the Blu-ray and HD DVD releases, and Warner was able to pile on nearly three hours of bonus material along with the 154-minute feature film thanks to this being a BD-50 dual-layer disc.
In lieu of extensive extras, Bryan Singer opted instead to chronicle the production of 'Superman Returns' with a single 173-minute documentary called "Requiem for Krypton: Making 'Superman Returns.'" Yes, there is something a bit weird about a doc longer than the film itself, but with such an embarrassment of riches I'm not going to bitch about it. The doc is also broken into five parts, which makes it a little less intimidating: "Secret Origins and First Issues: Crystallizing 'Superman Returns,'" "The Crystal Method: Designing 'Superman Returns,'" "An Affinity for Beachfront Property: Shooting 'Superman Returns,'" "The Joy of Lex: Menacing 'Superman Returns,'" and "He's Always Around: Wrapping 'Superman Returns.'"
As you might expect, Singer granted almost unprecedented extensive access to the documentary crew, with only the director's legendary penchant for over-the-top outbursts left on the cutting room floor (Halle Berry famously responded to one such Singer outburst on the set of 'X2' by telling him to "kiss my black ass"). Even without controversy though, there is a nice sense of intimacy to the doc, from Singer's pre-production home movies to you-are-there video of development and production meetings, behind-the-scenes preparations to the usual cast and crew interviews with ever major player even remotely connected to the movie (in fact, I can't think of a single notable missing from the proceedings). Of course, the question with a doc of this length becomes one of overkill, and indeed some of this is a tad slow-paced. Did we really need a whole segment on Lex Luthor? I am also biased against special effects dissections, of which there is a fair amount in 'Requiem for Krypton' -- this stuff would have worked better for me as a separate supplement. But still, this is truly a landmark documentary and one of the best of its kind I've ever seen on DVD of any kind. 'Superman Returns' fans will absolutely love it.
Oddly, there is also a short three-minute featurette entitled "Resurrecting Jor-El" that could just as easily been integrated into the documentary given its length. But whatever -- it is an interesting look at the reinsertion of old footage from the original 'Superman: The Movie" of the late Marlon Brando into 'Superman Returns.' Personally, I found the use of the Brando material distracting, and despite the Oscar-winner's truly iconic turn as Jor-El, I would have preferred they cast a new actor.
Also included are 14 minutes of Deleted Scenes that, unlike the standard-def documentary, are presented in full 1080p video. The material itself is intriguing -- I especially liked the fleshed-out moments where Superman realizes what has happened to Earth while he was away. There is also a nice little outtake called "How Wrong Can You Be." Though there is no commentary by Singer or anyone else, the quality of these deleted scenes is quite excellent and they are definitely a must-see for Superman fans.
Rounding out the fun is a theatrical teaser and trailer, along with a boring Electronic Arts game promo.
'Superman Returns' is a well-meaning, earnest attempt to pay tribute to the original Richard Donner classic, as well as update the iconic superhero for a new generation. I can't say it was entirely successful, but this is still a very fine Blu-ray release. The transfer soars, and the audio is also impressive (although Blu-ray continues to get short thrift with no Dolby TrueHD soundtrack included). Another major boo-hoo is the lack of any exclusive HD content, despite what was promised earlier this year by director Bryan Singer. But even if you just want a terrific demo disc for video, I recommend you pick up 'Superman Returns.'
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.