Decades before blockbuster Extended Cuts were common, Superman proved a true "Man of Tomorrow." Superman: The Movie received an ahead-of-its-time makeover for its television premiere - nearly 40 more minutes of story, creating a two-night television event. Audiences had already been swept off their feet by Christopher Reeve's Last Son of Krypton, and now there was more to enjoy. Unseen in decades, this version is paired here with Richard Donner's definitive vision of his film, the Special Edition Director's Cut (2000), to create a supersized celebration of Metropolis' favorite son that preserves the director's intent while feeding superfan demands.
"This is no fantasy. No careless product of wild imagination."
A true classic in modern cinema, the original Superman is a grandly epic adaptation of the most popular superhero in the world. It was released in 1978 with top-notch talent in front of and behind the camera, the combined efforts of which convinced audiences that a myth can take life and that a man can fly. Critically acclaimed and popularly received, the movie spawned a franchise and fan following similar to (though not as prominent as) Star Wars, and continues to be regarded with esteem and affection. Director Richard Donner, hot off his success with The Omen, commanded a troubled production where the making of the film is nearly as fascinating as the final results. Even though Donner was relieved of completing Superman II (much of which was shot simultaneously with part one), his legacy was significant enough to warrant an assembly and release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, which restored long locked-away scenes as well as once legally-embroiled footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El.
Now, the good people at Warner Bros. have given hardcore fans yet another surprise with Superman The Movie: Extended Cut. (For the purposes of this review, each edition of the movie will be primarily referred to by their descriptive secondary title.) This "3 Hour Long TV Version" is a 188-minute re-edit, with rarely seen footage excised from the theatrical release but shown occasionally on broadcast television, all cleaned up and remastered in high definition. I truly thought I would never see the day. This is nearly akin to Disney providing an official release of The Star Wars Holiday Special, but without the notoriety. I admit, however, that in all likelihood, general audiences are probably satisfied enough with their copy of the 151 minute Special Edition (also referred to as the Expanded Edition on The Superman Motion Picture Anthology 1978-2006 but not otherwise retitled on the single disc Blu-ray) or the 143 minute Original 1978 Theatrical Release, and won't be looking for an even longer version. But for those of us who have held onto our VHS copies of the decades-old TV edits (in all its pan-and-scan, mono sound and low-resolution and deteriorated glory), this Blu-ray is a remarkable offering and is as wish-fulfilling as Donner's Superman II.
"For this reason, above all, their capacity for good. I have sent them you. My only son..."
The Special Edition is also included in this collection, but that edit has been around for the last twelve years, with plenty of critiques and analyses published in print and on the net. So instead, this review will provide a general look at the contents of this new release and its attraction to fans and to mainstream viewers. As for the film itself (edited in whatever incarnation), I will refrain from going into detail regarding the significance of the character, or the cinematic and cultural impact of Richard Donner's accomplishments, other than to point out that Superman continues to have its influence even 40 years later when it comes to comic book adaptations. Recent blockbuster successes like Spider-Man ("Wait! Who are you?" asks Mary Jane after being rescued from a fall following Web-head's public debut), Wonder Woman (Diana Prince and Steve Trevor are "mugged" in an alley), and Superman Returns (Bryan Singer both remakes and continues the Donner-verse) all pay some degree of homage to what is still known as the gold standard for superhero films. As a certain Marvel Comics co-creator would conclude, "Nuff said."
Superman (also titled as Superman The Movie, though the opening credits omit "The Movie") premiered theatrically during Christmas of 1978, and later made its television debut in 1982 on the ABC network as a two-part event spread over two prime time evenings. It received huge ratings, but even more importantly, it uncovered and integrated additional scenes never before seen by the public. For hardcore fans, it was a pure delight to hear much more of John Williams's original music which made its way back into the film after being dialed out in the theatrical cut. While Superman had repeated broadcasts on network and independent stations after the ABC premiere, rarely was the "3 Hour Long TV Version" shown in its entirety. However, in 1994 an even longer TV edit was broadcast by KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, which included a couple more scenes not appearing in the ABC debut, but later incorporated in the Special Edition! (Most notably, the scene where Superman confers with Jor-El after his public reveal.). For this Extended Cut release, a disclaimer appears explaining that this version is the work of the producers, and not that of the director. It has been reported that Producer Ilya Salkind had formulated this version for the purpose of maximizing profits based on its televised length, where the rights were paid by the minute. So unsurprisingly, the Extended Cut was originally created to serve the needs of business rather than art, and which is why its overall audience appeal may be limited.
"It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history."
Allow me to indulge a bit of what has taken place before the digital revolution. Home video was in its infancy during the early 1980s. Yet, video adaptations of Superman have undergone a myriad of change and controversy, some of which were directly related to the science of the times. Back in the early days of VCRs, technology was not sufficiently advanced to accommodate a movie greater than two hours on a single cassette. Therefore, early VHS and Beta releases of Superman were edited somewhat dramatically, with end credits crudely shorn and certain scenes sped up by one or two seconds per minute so that the movie would fit on one cassette. Eventually, its unabridged form would make its debut on nearly all home video formats including laserdisc and CED, with occasional upgraded releases adding Dolby Surround and widescreen reformatting.
When it comes to television debuts, most theatrical films are usually edited in one form or another. Sometimes colorful language, nudity, as well as sex and violence are toned down to keep the film at a family-friendly level. Even for foreign markets, there may be different cuts for one reason or another (Supergirl opened in Japan as a longer edit and months earlier before its release in the States) Some changes may include different takes or camera angles of certain scenes or different exchanges of dialogue. There are dozens of websites analyzing such differences which are far more detailed than I could ever provide. (But for those interested in the history of the Superman movies, I direct you to www.CapedWonder.com first and foremost.) It is worth noting that Superman, in both video and broadcast incarnations, has seen almost as many edits as The Godfather films. When Francis Ford Coppola's epic was broadcast for the first time, the movie was re-edited extensively, with young Vito Corleone flashbacks from Part II being integrated as an entire "prologue" to both films as The Godfather: A Novel for Television also known as The Godfather Saga). The director would later revise the collection as The Godfather 1902-1958: The Complete Epic, and finally as The Godfather Trilogy following the release of the third film. Superman did not undergo nearly as many releases, but with the availability of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, I'm sure fans out there have imagined their own consolidation of the first two films into one epic picture. But I digress, and will do so again.
"You are revealed to the world. Very well, so be it."
In 2001, Superman made its digital debut as a Special Edition DVD, adding approximately eight minutes of footage and creating an updated soundtrack mix including new Foley effects which added more directionality and dynamic range, along with cleaning up John Williams's masterful score. It was a mixed blessing to devoted fans: there is no doubt Superman has never looked or sounded so good, and the added scenes were a nice touch. I enjoyed learning more details about Krypton (for example, references to the Phantom Zone by name and the dispatch of an Executioner to investigate Jor-El) and watching more of our hero in action (Superman being tested by bullets, fire and ice was a definite highlight). I was further awed by clean, enveloping soundtrack especially the opening credits "whooshing" from front to rear on my surround system, followed by the Superman emblem hitting the screen with a thunderous bass.
However, some of those extended moments in the Special Edition seemed incomplete, and therefore not fully satisfying (we see the Executioner embarking on his mission, but he is never referred to again). Even more disappointing, errors were made on the soundtrack despite all the careful revisions, including slightly miscued music (baby Kal-El's rocketship crashing through the glass dome), noticeable drop-outs and missing audio tracks (Marlon Brando's stern warning as Superman breaks through the time barrier), leaving some viewers pining for the original movie without all the incongruent updates. The original theatrical cut eventually finally made its way back to home video in 2011 with the release of the boxed set Anthology, and presumably, that was it when it came to customers getting their fair share of The Metropolis Marvel.
"At last it's official!"
And now, we have the Extended Cut, which gives us more Superman than one could ever imagine. (Even more Donner footage is found in Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, which occasionally makes use of alternate camera angles and different cuts for the opening recap.) I have not had an opportunity to determine whether every frame of footage shown on the TV broadcasts have made their way to this Blu-ray, nor did I have the time to make side-by-side comparisons with my old tape recordings. I did not notice anything significant missing during my review, although my recollection could use a little refreshing. In the meantime, even those who have committed the Special Edition to heart will be quite fascinated by all the new stuff which makes its way into this release, where details and information spread out from beginning to end. I was surprised to discover that even the restored Krypton scenes for both discs differ a bit, most noticeably when the camera cuts away to different Council members before Jor-El exclaims "It's suicide! No, it's worse...it's genocide!" It was also nice to view clips which follow-up on the Executioner, revealing his final fate when falling debris comes crashing towards him and we get a close up of his horror. Additional scenes with Lex Luthor add even more humor to the proceedings, and include the "Otis, feed the babies!" segment which was placed as a deleted scene on the Special Edition release. For fans of the broadcast version, these moments are great fun and pure nostalgia.
Naturally, the best scenes are those which add to the story, enhance characters (there is more chemistry among the Lex Luthor, Eve Teschmacher and Otis) or show-off the film's creativity. For instance, in the original movie, Otis is introduced in a separate far shot right after the scene where Lois and Clark thwart a mugger. In this cut, there is a continuing shot of Lois and Clark getting into a taxi and driving off, just as Otis (Ned Beatty) enters the scene while they exit. The transition smoothly introduces new characters and then establishes the main plot. It's touches like these which help us appreciate Donner's skilful direction as we turn our attention from hero to villain.
Other scenes also take on a lighter tone as some off-handed dialogue adds campy humor to dramatic circumstances. As the XK-101 missies fly off uncontrollably, a military controller (John Ratzenberger before his role as Cliff Clavin from Cheers!) mentions that one of the rockets is heading closer to New Jersey than to Metropolis. An Admiral asks, "Jersey? What the hell's in New Jersey?" and the others shrug in confusion. (Whether or not these bit of comedy relief ruin the tension and the drama depends on how seriously you take your superhero movies.) One simple but memorable moment occurs in the very next shot, where Superman positions himself to take the New Jersey-bound rocket head-on, only to have it detour around him thanks to the "low level avoidance systems." Christopher Reeve's grimace of intensity, followed by his look of surprise (a true "WTF?" moment in modern terms), are memories I've always missed when viewing any official version. And finally, the Extended Cut resolves a question I've always had about the closing cast credits: "Why is a "Golf Course" and an "Agent" even mentioned when there is no such scene?" As it turns out, there is a segment where a faceless President (too bad it wasn't E.G. Marshall from Superman II) is swinging away in a sand trap just as a Secret Service agent alerts him of the sutiation. Childhood mysteries such as this one demand resolution, and I finally had mine.
"I'll admit there were a few problems..."
Certainly, the Extended Cut may be seen as a cinematic indulgence which will not please all viewers. Some will find the longer running time to be superfluous and repetitive, negatively affecting overall artistic merit of the movie. In short, more does not mean better, especially when the prolonged scenes slow down the pacing and add a minimum of substance. The first part of Superman is largely episodic, setting up his origin and establishing the cast of characters. The actual storyline doesn't really kick in until the introduction of Lex Luthor and his plans to sink California, so all the initial set-up may feel needlessly dragged out. Young Clark Kent's hike to the North Pole is displayed at every conceivable angle, and while we understand that his journey is a distant one, minutes of him walking through snow, when a few seconds will do, is the very definition of overkill. Similarly, repeated shots of a moody Lana Lang and her party-loving friends riding in a car while teenage Clark catches up on foot, brings no more depth to their relationship not does it add to her character, who would later figure prominently in Superman III.
Other excesses include showing a group of girls scouts marching nearby LA's "Hollywood" sign as the earthquake hits, though we never see them being directly rescued by the Man of Steel (a slight pun there). There are also unnecessary crowd reaction shots and simple lines stating the obvious: when Superman shuts down a power plant, a worker giddily exclaims, "Gee, that's Superman! He must be the one that saved us!" and then we are treated to close-ups of brightly shining faces in utter awe. Moreover, there are shots of houses swaying wildly back and forth during the earthquake as residents escape through windows, all of which are a bit unconvincing and seem more chaotic than dramatic. Finally, Superman prevents a neighborhood from being washed out by the Hoover Dam flood (the miniatures and models are of questionable quality since they were filmed during the last minutes of production), and the excess water is diverted to a drought-stricken Indian reservation, followed by its citizens rejoicing in their good fortune (which of course - spoiler alert! - is destined to be short-lived after Superman changes history to revive Lois Lane). As we have seen with the Star Wars prequels, seemingly endless scenes may induce audiences into tedium and boredom.
Still, it is also clear this release wasn't meant for mainstream consumption in the first place. The Extended Cut is mainly for Superman's devoted following, as well as those who may be curious about a Superman edit they've never seen before. It's also understandable that Warner Bros would include the Special Edition in this package so that newer audiences will have a choice in watching something more palatable to their time and tastes.
"On the whole, I'd say it's been swell!"
If there is one personal wish fulfillment which this "3 Hour Long TV Version" brings to me, it's the re-introduction of John Williams's classic score. The original edit of Superman dialed out a good portion of the music found on the original soundtrack which appeared commercially on vinyl, CD and tape. Fans have long noticed that a lot of the musical phrases written and performed to accompany the Krypton scenes, the introduction of Otis and Lex Luthor, as well as many of the "Superfeats" in California were omitted for whatever reason. Now, nearly the entire score is reunited with the film, and to me, improves the viewing experience immensely. Some scenes required segments of the music to be re-looped to keep up with the additional footage, but unless you are as intimately familiar with Williams' work (as I am), such editing will go unnoticed.
In the end, there is a probably a happy medium among the all three "official" cuts of the movie. Scenes which do not advance or provide pertinent detail to the story are indeed better off relegated to supplemental materials. However, shots which add new elements or heighten the drama and action are welcome additions. Different people will have different points of view as to what should be included or left off. Fortunately, modern technology allows us to skip or fast-forward through those moments which may not fit our tastes and preferences. As for this crazed and unabashed Superman fan, I am able to sit back, hit "play" and set-aside the remote control until the end credits have rolled, and the final notes of "Love Theme from Superman" ebbs into silence.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Superman The Movie: Extended Cut is paired with Superman The Movie: Special Edition as part of a "2-Film Collection" from the Warner Bros Archive Collection. The combination pack houses both discs in a standard Blu-ray keepcase, with no booklets or other inserts. The slipcover art is adorned with familiar publicity stills from the movie, and provides a brief background on the Extended Cut and a description of features on the Special Edition. Each disc is a BD 50 and contains content exclusive to their cut, including imprinted artwork which is the same as the front cover. While the Warner Bros. website describes the discs as "MOD" (Manufactured On Demand), the quality seemed no different from that of standard consumer Blu-rays.
Superman The Movie: Extended Cut is presented in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, preserving Director of Photography Geoffrey Unsworth's visuals in all their epic glory. It is almost shocking to see the restored segments in high definition widescreen, compared to the recomposed shots (medium shots turning into close-ups and so forth) and panning and scanning which made up the television broadcasts.
Overall, the picture quality of the Extended Cut compares favorably to the other high definition versions of Superman, including the Original Theatrical Cut and the Special Edition although there are differences in color timing, framing, and detail based on side-by-side comparisons. It's clear that this version was taken from a different master source, although I am not fully aware of all the details which went into the production. Overall, it's difficult to say which is the "better" version, but I found the Extended Cut to look slightly softer and less consistent than the Blu-ray cuts which came before it.
Still, the visuals for this "3-Hour-Long TV Version" are truly remarkable when one considers age and assembly. Certain scenes suffer a wee bit more than others, perhaps due incomplete post-production work (Superman was on such a tight schedule, that work on the simultaneously filmed Superman II was put on hold) or due to the condition of the original source material, but that is to be expected. There may be slight inconsistencies when it comes to grain structure, color and detail in back to back segments, but one would have to look carefully to find the distinctions. In all honesty, I expected all the edit points to stick out distractingly, especially when under the uncompromising reveal of high definition. However, this final product integrates all the bits and pieces of random footage cohesively and consistently. Had I not memorized the difference between the theatrical cut and the broadcast version, I would have had a difficult time distinguishing the additions and transitions. Visually speaking, the Extended Cut should exceed all reasonable expectations.
The audio for the Extended Cut is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio for two-channels. It is clear that the technicians have done their best in providing a soundtrack worthy of the picture quality, and overall the results are surprisingly good. The lack of an LFE channel (Low Frequency Effects, which is basically the .1 of any standard surround set-up) doesn't deprive listeners of a decent amount of bass, especially during the action scenes. Additional dialogue is balanced well with the original mix, and tonal differences are smoothed out so that the viewer isn't jarred by inconsistent looping or dubs. (Jeff East as teenage Clark Kent was overdubbed by Christopher Reeve, but a few dialogue exchanges use East's actual voice, which may still go unnoticed.) The re-tracking of Williams's score is seamless, and whoever was in charge of reincorporating the missing cues has done an exceptional job. I particularly enjoyed hearing all the Krypton music put back in its place, from the somber strings introducing Lara as she carries baby Kal-El, to the chaotic horns which accompanying the massive destruction, and ending with a dramatic drumroll before the planet explodes.
However, when held to the standards of the audio remastering performed on the Special Edition, this Extended Cut simply cannot compare. Despite the DTS mix, dynamic range, channel separation, and overall fidelity are limited. The original television broadcast was in mono, and with the exception of the beginning and ending credits, the remastered audio is only a bit less primitive. While sound effects, voices and music are all well-integrated, the overall tone is flat and constricted, sounding only slightly better than a clean and hiss free FM radio broadcast.
Now, I would have loved to hear a discrete 5.1 sound mix, or even one in true stereo similar to what was produced for the Original 1978 Theatrical Release found on the Anthology, but I understand the practical limitations of such an undertaking. It's still a bit disappointing to have picture quality this good, but without a technically comparable soundtrack to match. On the other hand, there has been enough prior controversy with the altered audio on the Special Edition, where sound effects were recreated and re-edited so as to sound too different from the original, that perhaps it is best to leave well enough alone.
I also want to point out that for the first time ever, the "Main Title March" has not been changed in pitch - that is, sped-up - to match the timing of the opening credits. This has always been a sore subject with me, as I could not understand why John Williams's recording was deliberately [or accidentally?] distorted instead of edited to accommodate the visuals. What is presented here is a version of the Superman theme which does not sound like some odd mistake, and was specifically edited for this new cut from a different music source. Both opening and ending credits are in true stereo, and sound dynamic, clean and lively. However, all is not perfect. The opening credits have a few audible glitches here and there, and some of musical phrases do not precisely match the original credits due to a few editorial changes. Some may regard this as being unduly nitpicking, but such errors are surprisingly careless and should have been corrected.
After listening to the audio in direct stereo, I engaged my Dolby Pro-logic decoder to see if I could extract sufficient surround information which may still be inherent in the two-channel mix. Dialogue was prominent in the center channel, but the front and rear speakers were still monophonic, and sound directionality and channel separation remained nearly unnoticeable. Audiophiles will want to try different set-ups to see what best suits their golden ears. Surprisingly, I found that activating my receiver's "five channel stereo" mode (I'm sure all brands have their own version of this digital sound processing) where all speakers produced the same two-channel signal yielded the most pleasing results, though obviously a far cry from what's available on the Special Edition. Even the most spoiled movie buffs among us can't have it all.
Regrettably, the Extended Cut contains no supplements or enhancements (such as an updated technical documentary, or running commentary) to the main feature. I assume that the added footage is its own supplement, but it would have been nice to have had a "Making of" featurette so that we might appreciate the work involved in this unique project.
The Special Edition provides the following as its bonus features (which are also available on the prior Blu-ray releases):
Commentary from Director Richard Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz
- Taking Flight: The Development of Superman
- Making Superman: Filming the Legend
- The Magic Behind the Cape
Additional Music Cues
(Please note that the star rating reflects the contents found in the Special Edition.)
"What more could anyone ask?"
Upon hearing that Warner Bros. would be releasing the "3 Hour Long TV Version" of this classic movie, I was ecstatic. I had believed that all that additional footage would forever be relegated to old VHS (and maybe Beta) recordings, shared only by an "underground" of super-fans who would make their own digital restorations using pan-and-scanned material. Now, with the release of Superman The Movie: Extended Cut, it appears we finally have it all.
I understand casual viewers may find the longer edit to be overkill and only appealing to a specialized audience who would dare demand more of a movie which had earned an Oscar nomination for "Best Editing." In fact, back when I was a kid, I do recall family members watching the ABC broadcast and voicing exasperation about the excessive carnage during Krypton's destruction ("Okay, that's enough!" my mom insisted), but I loved nearly every minute of it and relished the novelty of seeing new images from an "old" favorite.
So what is next on my Christmas wish list? Well, based on this release, I am clamoring for a new announcement from Warner Bros: "Next Year Superman II Extended Cut" or whatever they want to call it (perhaps "The Richard Donner and Richard Lester Special Edition Extended Cut" or some variation thereof?). Not all movie-enthusiasts will feel this way, but when it comes to Christopher Reeve's Superman, I'll take as much of the originals as I can get. Needless to say, this Blu-ray release is highly recommended.
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.