Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman Review
As Look, Up in the Sky! will tell you, in equally as descriptive words as mine, Superman is a national treasure, an iconic figure that represents everything that the world needs and desires: strength, loyalty and hope. He’s a hero in every sense of the word. He’s America’s baby, big boy blue, who has represented one of the world’s most powerful countries for almost seventy years. The man of steel, born from the minds of two pioneering comic book creators captured the hearts of millions, in turn leading them through the nation’s darkest times: the depression, world war, civil rights movements and so forth. Yes, Look, Up in the Sky! is a very jingoistic piece of work; although it goes on to make a point that anyone in the world knows who Superman is it’s firmly rooted in American philosophy and pop culture, certainly doing enough to produce an almost sickly sweet and sentimental tribute to the man who once sat on Jerry Seinfeld’s shelf for nine seasons. But hey, that’s not really a big deal, after all they deserve to big up the man. What is clear however is that anything that anyone says in this documentary seems genuinly sincere. Even in recent years, with the tragedy of September 11th, Superman has been by the side of every American. It sounds corny, sure, he’s just a comic book hero. What good could he possibly do in the real world? Well that’s what we’re about to find out.
Having finally got the chance to direct his dream film, Bryan Singer pushed ahead for this candid look at Supes in the run up to one of the most highly anticipated movies of the last ten years - Superman Returns.
Directed by Kevin Burns, who was previously responsible for the rather good Empire of Dreams and narrated by Kevin Spacey, Look, Up in the Sky! charts the birth, rise, death and resurrection of DC’s legendary hero. As with his previous doc Burns maintains a good rhythm, chronicling Superman’s timeline from 1932 to present. Naturally it begins with the meeting between artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel, whose original Superman was far from how we envisage him today, merely being able to jump higher than washing lines, but we learn of how over the years the character continued to be refined until the creators reached a point where they could realistically market him. And it was a tough road; ol’ Supes really didn’t fare too well to begin with, not until one successful comic book company known as Detective Comics, Inc took him under their wing in 1938. After covering quite some ground the documentary moves on from Superman’s huge success in “Action Comics #1” to his usage in propaganda material and extensive merchandising ploys, all the while lifting spirits throughout the nation, even during turbulent times of civil unrest.
As it moves on to the late 30s throughout the 40s the documentary then heads toward media entertainment, with Supes appearing in a hugely popular radio serial, before going onto animated TV shows and soon after feature films and a successful TV series starring George Reeves in the 50s. When it hits the Reeves period it focuses largely on the development of the show and the man who played Superman, right up to his tragic death, which today is still highly debated and remains one of Hollywood’s greatest mysteries. It stays with this period for quite some time before the decline of Superman takes over and the franchise heads toward self parody, mirroring the 60s Batman series. Here we see brief and rare snippets of attempted revivals, including a Broadway stint, a television musical comedy in 1975 starring David Wilson and Lesley Ann Warren - which I just have to see in future - and an absolutely awful show that was never aired called The Adventures of Super Pup, involving midgets wearing animal costumes. Of course it isn’t long before it reaches the late 70s and Richard Donner’s acclaimed motion picture Superman: The Movie is discussed. From here we learn a fair amount, with a large focus on Christopher Reeve and his sad passing; after which the reports on its sequels diminish, although the troubled shooting of the films is briefly touched upon. It then moves on to the Superboy, Lois and Clark and Smallville shows, before culminating with a look at Superman Returns, obviously, although to be fair it doesn’t milk it, which is actually nice to see. Some of the more interesting aspects here, but also one of the most underused, is when the documentary briefly gets into the attempted 90s Superman revival movie prior to the Superman Returns segment. It pretty much covers basic ground, informing us what we already know about Tim Burton and Nic Cage’s proposed effort, along with some very ugly Burton artwork of a decrepit looking Superman. It’s a shame not more was made of this segment; I’d have liked to seen something about Kevin Smith’s treatment but he gets no mention. Superman Returns screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris have a good say in the matter when looking back at some of Superman’s hideous incarnations for the proposed 90s film, which had seen him abandon his classic colours for bizarre fetishist costumes that featured an S shield which turned into blades. It becomes clear that too many artists with big egos have ended up entirely missing the point of Superman over the years.
In-between the doc also provides a look at Superman through the ages via his comic book appearances, including spin-offs featuring Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. It’s certainly curious to see Superman’s re-imaging over the years, up until his death and since, especially when after all the shit he’s gone through comic artists have simply ended up going back to his original form, proving the point that you should never fix something that’s not broken. Personally speaking I’m only familiar with the classic Superman; seeing some of the creations for the first time on this doc does generate an odd response. But nonetheless it’s a nice addition that’s been carefully inserted, so that the evolution of the comic books is timed nicely and fits in with the discussion of each passing decade. In addition the comic book segments fuel further debate over Superman’s heritage and they even get a little heavy into providing parallels between his family and his own individual being with mentions of particular gods and religious figures. I’m not going to argue these comparisons as they make good points, but I’ll still leave it entirely up to philosophising fans who may find such notions far more compelling than I.
Helping us get through the documentary are several famous faces. Not only do we have contributions from Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, Bryan Singer, Jackie Cooper, Margot Kidder Richard Donner and Kevin Spacey, but Singer and co have managed to get surviving members of the original George Reeves series, Jack Larson and Noel Neill. It’s a shame that they couldn’t get any input from Gene Hackman, Terrence Stamp, Tom Welling or even Terri Hatcher and other prominent actors who have appeared in Superman productions, but I’ll hope that the upcoming box set features plenty of great stuff for us. Fans, including Mark Hamill and Gene Simmons, along with several comic writers and artists also provide their opinions on Superman’s legacy, which in all proves to be highly complimentary.
I imagine at some point all of us have seen at least one Superman movie, or an episode of any of the television series, but to many Superman is just a comic book character and our knowledge perhaps doesn’t extend any further than what we’ve seen on TV, and to a great degree the casual viewer probably doesn’t even care about the man’s rich history. To the bigger fans out there, there is so much more to talk about, and as we learn on this brand new documentary the creation of Superman and his ongoing story is actually very fascinating, giving those of us who know very little a chance to catch up on some important history. There is a lot more here that I’ve failed to elaborate on, as this review is merely an enticer and far be it from me to spoil too much. Oh, but be sure to stick through the end credits for some nice outtakes.
Look, Up in the Sky! is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced aspect ratio; this means that obviously a lot of the film clips we see throughout have either been stretched or cropped, which isn’t a significant problem given that this is simply a documentary. The image displays plenty of clarity, as it should for a digitally shot production, exhibiting no major problems aside from some unsightly ghosting and a little judder during panning shots of comic panels.
The only audio track available is English 5.1, but to my ears it sounded like an upgraded 2.0 track, with all channels outputting the same thing – that might explain no “Surround” tag. Then again this doesn’t require any more the 2.0 output and as it stands it’s functional with clear dialogue and no drop outs.
p.s. I’m wagging my finger and saying “tut tut” at Warner Bros for failing to provide English subtitles. A CC track is available as well as French and Spanish subs, but there’s not much excuse for a release such as this not to include English subtitles, especially considering how many Superman fans there must be out there.
The problem with Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman isn’t just that it has quite a long name, but it’s actually too short for what it covers. I feel that having sat down and taken in all it has to offer that there must surely be more. It starts off with a steady build up, but as it approaches the sixty minute mark it begins to hurry along. While the early stages of his life is nicely detailed as it looks at his inception and beyond, his post seventies appearances get less and less focus; it feels like we could realistically be looking at hours and hours worth of material, but given the constraints I shouldn’t complain too much. Still, for a condensed primer it’s excellent value for money and it does provide plenty of surprising facts and pleasant interviews from past and present actors. For the fans it’s a must, and for those uninitiated with the bigger picture, well, you may just find a lot to enjoy here. Now is as good a time as any to get caught up in the hype and see how it all began.
“Up, up and away!”