For most of the 20th Century, Superman has played a distinctive role in American history, symbolizing the ideals the nation has so valiantly stood for. Since his inception during the 1930s Depression era, the super being from the planet Krypton — technically making him an immigrant to the country, which is one of many aspects academics love discussing — has become a deeply rooted cultural icon. Even his outfit is reminiscent of the U.S. flag. He serves as a reminder of what humans are capable of when working together toward a common goal. And he pops into our collective consciousness when he's needed most — when the country and the world seem bleakly insecure and anxiously uncertain due to catastrophic events which affect all.
Towards the end of the tumultuous 1970s, especially after the President embarrassingly resigned from office and a disastrous conflict in Vietnam finally came to a close, The Man of Steel was called upon to basically lift the spirits of the American people. Or at least, he was in a strange cultural episteme of unconscious desire which of course was not openly expressed by the public. I won't go any deeper with this idea, so I'll just write that from a historical standpoint, it's curious to see a sudden interest in the Superman mythos at the end of some very troubling times in the U.S. As if coming from an unspoken need to remember the country's core values remain strongly intact in spite of a widespread, distressing unease.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
And so it is that in this climate The Last Son of Krypton made his big-screen debut in Richard Donner's 'Superman: The Movie,' a high-concept blockbuster which displayed some of the best and most advanced special effects of the time. Working from a script that famously began with Mario Puzo's 550-page beast intended for a two-part film series, the film doesn't shy away from delivering snide, cynical remarks on the political atmosphere. There was a genuine distrust of government and policymakers, which characters openly express. So much so that we're even given a scene of Superman's motto ("Truth, Justice and the American Way") being almost frowned upon as some kind of hokey jingoism.
Rather than address the possibility that viewers might be expressing similar sentiments, Donner fills the screen with grand spectacles of herculean heroism, placing more emphasis on Superman as preternatural Christ-like savior. The classic helicopter sequence is a prime example of this — a thrilling eye-opener made believable by the remarkable performance of Christopher Reeve. (John Williams's memorable score also had a great deal to do with it.) He not only dons the glasses and fedora hat, but he actually portrays a wholly different and convincing person as Clark Kent. And it's a marvelous display of talent when he maintains strong chemistry with Margot Kidder's Lois Lane in either disguise.
Superman's long-time arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) also joins the cast, but he's been transformed from the traditional mad scientist to a white-collar criminal, which really only adds to the idea of distrust against suits. Although he remains a super-genius, the character is also a comical swindler with a penchant for real estate and talking his way out of trouble. What's truly interesting of the plot is Luthor challenging Superman not with power or high-tech weaponry, but as symbolic of corrupt corporate greed to which life is an expandable commodity for the greatest profit return. Predictably, the Kryptonian wins in the end, but with good performances and Donner's strong direction, 'Superman: The Movie' offers a fun and imaginative ride to that conclusion. (Movie Score: 4.5/5)
Superman II (1980)
Two years later, filmmakers continued the fantasy, comic-book action with a sequel that introduced an even greater challenge for Superman. Three criminals of Krypton, who incidentally became survivors of the doomed planet at the start of the first movie, are accidentally released from their prison cell, known as the Phantom Zone. Landing on Earth, the trio, led by Terence Stamp in his treasured role as General Zod, aims for world domination while Superman foolishly (and rather lamely) relinquishes his best qualities for Kidder's Lois. By also possessing the same powers as the Man of Steel, the villains set the stage for an all-out confrontation, featuring some of the best product placements ever — with the Coca-Cola sign in Times Square being the most memorable.
The idea of Superman becoming Clark Kent full-time is a nice daydream, but it goes pretty much unexplored except for an altercation with a chauvinist truck driver at a diner. And there's also the budding romance of our hero with The Daily Planet's top reporter — so much for it being a Fortress of Solitude when just anyone can crash there. The subplot often feels like it's interrupting what should be the only headlining story with Stamp, Jack O'Halloran and Sarah Douglas (the Queen in 'Conan the Destroyer' and Pamela in the original 'V: The Final Battle'). One rather intriguing aspect of the movie, however, is Superman's inability to stop Zod's seeming military presence, forcing him to learn the meaning of brains over brawn as Luthor once put it.
But of course, 'Superman II' is ultimately best remembered for the havoc wreaked behind-the-scenes than for what was seen on screen. After shooting more than half of the sequel, Richard Donner was unceremoniously fired for clashing with the producers. Richard Lester, one of the producers from the first film and originally second unit director for part two, was brought in to complete the project, bringing with him a more comical and campy approach. In 2006, Donner was given a very rare opportunity to revisit the material and reedit the movie as close as possible to the way he envisioned it. Dubbed "The Richard Donner Cut," this alternate version doesn't change too drastically from the theatrical, but it is interestingly better paced, removing much of the misapplied humor.
Theatrical Version (Movie Score: 3.5/5)
The Richard Donner Cut (Movie Score: 3/5)
Superman III (1983)
Filmmakers (the team after Donner's departure) continue the same farcical approach seen in part two for this third installment to the blockbuster franchise. Similarly to Tim Burton's 'Batman' series, the move towards comedy with a more colorful comic-book structure results in a nonsensical, embarrassing failure. From a script by the Newman couple, which Donner replaced with Tom Mankiewicz — apparently for good reason — the movie introduces a terrible pair of multimillionaire villains in Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) and his sister Vera (Annie Ross). They hardly present a formidable challenge to Superman, and due to a lack of intelligence, they must rely on another to formulate an evil scheme.
This is where legendary stand-up comic Richard Pryor comes in as computer genius Gus Gorman. The comedian does a fine job in the role, establishing an amusing tone with a few chuckles spread throughout, but in the end, the character is nearly as bland as the two who hire him. Then there's also the fact that his whiz kid talent with high-tech gadgetry comes at the price of being a complete buffoon. It doesn't help that Richard Lester's direction and pace is terribly languid and contrived, as seen in the opening credits. Ultimately, the film is a grossly campy tale of supercomputers, a pair of money-hungry siblings and a rather dumb notion of man-made kryptonite. Oh, and he also battles a hilariously silly-looking robot. (Editor's Note: I don't see ANYTHING silly about that robot!)
If there's any arguable defense for this second sequel, it is all solely due to Christopher Reeve. Of the entire franchise, this remains his best portrayal of the iconic superhero, and the junkyard scene is a great highlight of the entire movie. Because of the synthetic kryptonite made from Gus's bumbling foolishness, Superman develops split-personality disorder and flies around the planet doing the opposite of what's expected of him. So malicious is he that he even straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa for no reason and later goes on a drinking binge. It's a good piece of entertainment that's sadly all for naught — used purely as a short-lived subplot to a poorly conceived main narrative with second-rate characters. (Movie Score: 2/5)
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Although missing Richard Lester, the Salkind producers and a lame script from the Newman couple, Warner Brothers prolongs the ridiculously campy approach seen in the previous movies and actually makes matters worse. Far worse. Typically, film franchises try to go out with an extravagant, action-packed finish, but 'Superman IV' manages to end the series with an embarrassingly overzealous finale. It's a highly ambitious project, with story input from Christopher Reeve, which has the Man of Steel single-handedly bringing an end to the nuclear arms race. Looking back at the production, it's interesting to see how the story unashamedly taps into a widespread fear of the 1980s and predates the end of the Cold War by at least three years.
Nonetheless, the plot and storyline is naively overoptimistic. It grossly oversimplifies a politically complex issue at the time into something easily resolved with the use of an oversized fishnet hurtled it into the sun. Much like little Jeremy's plea to Superman, the whole idea is essentially the wishful thinking of a middle-schooled kid and miserably executed in much the same fashion. There's even a clear lack of appreciation for physics — or at least a simple understanding of the basics. I'm pretty sure there would be a horribly negative reaction if the sun were to encounter such a large amount of atomic bombs. And I'm still confused as to how Mariel Hemingway's Lacy survived in outer space and then proceeded to fall towards Earth while weightless in zero gravity.
Sadly, that's only the tip of the iceberg. Fans must still contend with a wince-inducing speech delivered by none other than our glorious savior after leading a throng of random spectators into the United Nations building. It's a scene that not only feels weirdly out of place, but also scarily propagandizing. The script features many of the device elements from the first film, which is really lame, and has Superman battle Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) on the moon, with sound effects that would be better suited in a 'Gojira' movie. Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder reprise their original roles, but show the same amount of depth as Jon Cryer's blundering idiot. In the end, this fourth installment, which unfortunately is also Reeve's final performance as the Last Son of Krypton, is an unintentionally hilarious B-feature that's best forgotten. (Movie Score: 0.5/5)
Superman Returns (2006)
Nearly twenty years later, and director Bryan Singer does precisely that, overlooking the events of the last two movies entirely. Hot off the success of the first two 'X-Men' films, Singer reboots the franchise by bringing back Donner's vision and tone, including Marlon Brando as Jor-El and the space-age, neon-lit opening credits. Although far from the awfulness of its two predecessors, 'Superman Returns' ultimately fails at recapturing the original's appeal with some disappointingly questionable plot points. For anyone who ever wondered if Kal-El and Lois Lane played it safe during their romantic encounter in part two, we see the consequences of that night in this fifth installment. A quick lesson in biology and theoretical Kryptonian anatomy, of course, makes this quite dumbfounding.
On the other hand, if we make light allowances for it as a fleeting possibility, the idea works as a small part to a larger narrative which has our hero struggling with his alienation. What I find more fascinating, however — and the reason for why I actually like this movie — is Singer's self-awareness as a filmmaker, taking partial story credit with Michael Dougherty ('Trick 'r Treat') and Dan Harris. Similar to Donner's first entry, Superman sweeps into our collective conscious only a few years after the nation experiences a large sense of uncertainty and insecurity. Singer appears aware of the cultural significance of Donner's movie, so he informs his film with imagery situating Superman with contemporary concerns and positions him back to a Christ-like savior.
The film is filled with other clever devices and images throughout, hinting at Superman's absence as something much more culturally relevant. There's the scene where Clark Kent runs to catch an elevator and he passes a framed newspaper announcing the fall of the Berlin Wall. A second later in that same scene, we see another headline asking where Superman had disappeared to. Coincidentally, that's around the same time when the last movie, 'Quest for Peace,' was made and the entire franchise went on hiatus. Quite a bit has happened since then, and the idea makes the film's title that more impactful. According the plot, however, Superman's departure only lasted five years, and with the help of basic arithmetic, we can easily figure out what filmmakers are hinting at. Another inspired scene is when he catches The Daily Planet's giant globe like the Greek Titan, Atlas — a possible allusion against Ayn Rand since Superman is the epitome of the selfless altruist.
In the end, Singer's film is a respectable attempt at bringing back a favorite franchise — well, at least the first two are fan favorites. Brandon Routh is adequate in the role of Kent and looks good as the Son of Krypton, but his acting is rather bland and average. Kate Bosworth is a real chore to watch as Lois Lane, but the charismatic Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor is the cast's saving grace. 'Superman Return' is not a complete failure, but there's also something unspectacular about it, nowhere near as good as Donner's films. In 2012, the franchise will be rebooted once again as the 'Man of Steel' thanks to Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, but it has Zack Snyder sitting in the director's chair instead. Fingers are very enthusiastically crossed. (Movie Score: 3/5)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video offers 'The Superman Motion Picture Anthology' in a handsomely attractive eight-disc box set with a design that resembles the Fortress of Solitude and Superman's iconic emblem right smack in the middle. It opens from the top with the large diamond-shaped "S" still attached, and inside is a red multi-fold box where two discs per plastic hub sit comfortably. There was no real difficulty with removing the Blu-rays from their designated spots, but it is somewhat annoying that the top one has to be moved in order to retrieve the second disc underneath. Aside from that, it's a lovely box with detailed descriptions of each Blu-ray on the fold-out panels.
The original theatrical cuts of the first two films, the Extended Edition of part one and the Richard Donner Cut are all on separate BD50 discs with various supplemental features. 'Superman III' and 'Superman Returns' are also on different BD50 discs, but 'Superman IV' is given the BD25 treatment. It's rather strange seeing as how even the eight bonus disc was granted a BD50 disc. Still, they're all Region Free without any previews at startup and different menu windows that feature a still image for that particular film.
The original theatrical cut of 'Superman' arrives with a great 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.40:1) thanks to a new remaster. The picture shows terrific definition and resolution despite the filtered, hazy photography of Geoffrey Unsworth. The transfer does show its age in a few scenes, particularly during optical effects, but overall, the movie looks very good. Contrast is slightly muted, but black levels remain deep with strong shadow delineation. Colors are nicely saturated with bold reds and blues. (Video Rating: 4/5)
The expanded edition of 'Superman' has received a new AVC MPEG-4 encode, which leads one to believe the movie might also have been remastered for this special Blu-ray collection. Compared to previous high-def releases, there's little to no discernible difference between them. Overlooking the deliberately stylized cinematography, the picture is pristine with terrific clarity and strong definition. Optical effects are bit problematic, which is understandable, but contrast remains well-balanced with deep blacks and a vivid color palette. If I had to choose between this and the theatrical version, I would go with the original cut appearing ever so slightly sharper though it is a very trivial difference. (Video Rating: 4/5)
Also remastered and cleaned up some, 'Superman II' arrives with a nice AVC-encoded transfer, but it's not likely to make a large impact on most viewers. The movie comes with lots of optical effects made clearer by the higher resolution video, so there's a good deal of softness to be expected here, some a tad noisier than others. But on the bright side, the picture shows great detailing in the finer objects and small background info with strong shadow delineation. Contrast and brightness are very well balanced with several scenes of excellent blacks and a healthy depth of field. Colors are bold and cleanly rendered, especially the primaries adding to the movie's campiness. In the end, the movie looks good. (Video Rating: 3.5/5)
Richard Donner's vision of the Superman sequel flies in with the same 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.40:1) as the 2006 release, which is not bad, but not excellent either. Contrast is consistent and stable with clean, sharp whites throughout. Black levels are surprisingly strong, often rich with plenty of visibility in the darker portions. Primaries received a healthy boost with the rest of the palette looking healthy and accurate. On the other hand, the timing has succumbed to the teal and orange craze. Clarity and definition are great for a print pieced together from different sources. Unfortunately, the transfer also shows a fair amount of noise reduction, so there's very little grain present. It doesn't completely ruin the picture, but it's noticeable nonetheless. (Video Rating: 3/5)
The third movie in the franchise looks excellent for its age in HD, showing a splendid array of color variation and richly saturated primaries. Intended to carry a more comic book feel, the AVC-encoded transfer displays a more animated palette than the previous films. Contrast is comfortably bright with crisp, sharply rendered whites, and blacks are often intense and profound, providing the image with appreciable dimension and clarity. Fine object and textural details are far better than could be expected. Whether in Ross Webster's art deco office or outside overlooking Glen Canyon, the picture is very well-defined and distinct. (Video Rating: 4/5)
The fourth picture also receives an AVC MPEG-4 encode from a new remaster, and for the most part, it looks great. It's most troubled aspects are, of course, the visual effects, which have not only aged horribly and show serious softness but also lose much of their color and vibrancy. At its best, the transfer shows good contrast balance, though highlights are inclined to clipping, with accurate black levels. The image is decently well-detailed, but not always consistent with very minor instances of noise creeping. While colors appear clean and bright with healthy flesh tones, reds tend to bleed in several scenes and overall timing seems to lean towards the teal & orange palette. Although much can be excused to the condition of the print used, 'Superman IV' is not likely to impress as do its brethren. (Video Rating: 3.5/5)
As with disc four, 'Superman Returns' comes with the same 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.40:1) seen in previous Blu-ray releases. Shot on HD cameras, the transfer shows many of the drawbacks often associated with the technology. Contrast and brightness levels are dreadfully inconsistent, ruining dimensionality and completely flattening the image. Blacks are rarely accurate or true and when decently rendered, expose a great deal of crush. The picture seldom displays genuine moments of high-def clarity and resolution, looking more digital and plasticized — almost as if DNR'ed to death — than sharply detailed. The warm amber palette of the cinematography benefits most with strong, vibrant primaries and brightly rich secondary hues. But almost all underwater scenes suffer from serious case of banding. All in all, the fifth and final film installment comes with a disappointing and frustrating experience on Blu-ray. (Video Rating: 2/5)
The first disc also comes with an entertaining DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The original design has been nicely upgraded with a subtle rear soundscape which enhances the soundstage agreeably well. Once in a while, discrete effects are easily localized, but it's nothing too distracting. The mix is generally a front-heavy affair with satisfying separation between the channels and well-prioritized vocals. Dynamic range exhibits good balance and appreciable clarity while the low bass is surprisingly forcible, adding a bit of depth the movie. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
Similarly to the video, this DTS-HD MA track of the expanded edition is ultimately no different than the theatrical cut on disc one. It is a satisfying upgrade from previous legacy Dolby presentations to be sure, coming in with a bit more expanse and warmth in the imaging, but once again, ambient effects, like the sounds of the city streets, are easily localized. However, what does impress most is John Williams's terrific score, extending into the background persuasively and enjoyably immersing viewers. The front soundstage is where most the action takes place, with excellent dialogue reproduction, sharply-rendered dynamics and a potent low end that brings the action to life. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
Another enjoyable DTS-HD MA soundtrack is offered with a satisfyingly wide soundstage. Dialogue is intelligible throughout, even Non's comical grunts are perfectly audible, revealing unique variations in his expressions. The mid-range is clean though not very extensive, yet provides imaging with a welcoming presence. Bass plays a low-key role, but it's effective at delivering some nice depth during scenes requiring it. Rear activity is mostly quiet with very minor effects, but nothing to write home about. (Audio Rating: 3.5/5)
Though the video may be the same as before, the audio is not. The Richard Donner cut has been upgraded to a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, and the difference is not too shockingly minor. The musical score does fill the soundscape with a wider imaging and a cleaner presence. The back surrounds are used for many discrete effects and extending the soundfield, but they're also easily localized and often feel out of place. The fronts display some great clarity and detail in the mid-range with a healthy low-end. Dialogue reproduction is pitch-perfect and plainly delivered in the center of the screen. There's some fun to be had in this lossless mix, but the faux surround sound can seem rather distracting. (Audio Rating: 3/5)
The audio for 'Superman III' is a great upgrade from past legacy Dolby tracks, but it's not quite something that will impress most listeners. Although the lossless mix comes with excellently intelligible dialogue and exhibits a well-balanced mid-range, the soundstage often feels narrow and very center-focused. There are moments of movement across the front speakers, giving the movie a slightly more spacious feel, but it's not a consistent aspect of the design. Low bass can provide a bit of weight to certain scenes, but doesn't feel full or convincing. Once in a while, discrete effects can be heard in the background, yet it does little to really open up the soundfield. In the end, it's a good, clean mix, but nothing exciting. (Audio Rating: 3.5/5)
Unlike the other movies in the set, 'Superman IV' hits Blu-ray with a stereo DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Amazingly, it's not half bad, providing the soundstage with a wide, welcoming soundscape. Dialogue reproduction is the real shocker here, displaying a wonderful, intelligible presence in the center of the screen. Channel separation is terrifically well-balanced with strong movement and convincing off-screen effects. Dynamic range is expansive and delivers rich, clarity detail with the smallest, trivial sounds perfectly heard in any given scene. Bass plays a minimal role, but there's enough low-frequency to give the mix a bit of depth. The back speakers may be non-existent, but this is an attractive lossless stereo presentation nonetheless. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
Being the latest entry in the franchise, 'Superman Returns' takes full advantage of modern sound systems with a highly entertaining DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Imaging feels welcoming and expansive with excellent pans between the channels and wonderfully engaging the listener. Dialogue is crystal-clear with terrific acoustics and spaciousness, making conversations appear as if right in the room. Dynamics penetrate with sharp clarity and detail so that every piece of debris and rock formation can be perfectly heard. Low-frequency effects are powerfully effective and beautifully responsive, providing the action with a hearty punch. Rears display plenty of audible activity to envelop viewers and generate a convincingly exciting soundfield, making this lossless mix a great deal of fun. (Audio Rating: 4.5/5)
This elegant collection of the 'Superman' films lands with mostly the same set of special features found on the Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD, but it also comes with some new material for fans to enjoy.
Since his inception during the Depression-era, Superman has played a unique cultural role in American history. The fictional comic book hero has conveniently occupied the collective consciousness and imagination of many generations. In 1978, the Man of Steel made audiences around the world believe a man could fly, thanks mostly to Christopher Reeve's believable performance, and director Richard Donner unwittingly set the building blocks for future superhero adaptations. The franchise sadly ended on a very weak note, revealing the importance of Donner's guidance. In 2006, Bryan Singer tried to reignite interest in the Superman mythos, but didn't quite achieve his aspirations.
Warner Home Video releases the entire film series, minus 1984's 'Supergirl,' for the first time on Blu-ray. Picture quality varies between each film, but for the most part, the set looks very good. As a set, the audio presentation is excellent, and the bonus material is a phenomenal collection of documentaries, cartoons, and much more, making this a highly recommended package for collectors and a must-own for 'Superman' lovers everywhere.